FOCUS: WIND POWER IN THE FALLS

Protecting beauty of falls may become a tall order as debate begins over adding windmills

Talk of windmills near attraction stimulates debate

By Denise Jewell Gee - NEWS NIAGARA BUREAU
Updated: 05/31/08 8:24 AM

NIAGARA FALLS —— Tourists have long treked to the region to see the Niagara River plunge as far as 188 feet over the Horseshoe and American falls.

But what if windmills taller than the falls is deep soared above the city’’s skyline?

A company founded by Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano has approached city leaders about building wind turbines on old industrial sites in the city.

While the company sees economic opportunity, the prospect exists for millions of tourists to see windmills on the horizon of Niagara Falls.

""The issue for us is one more of aesthetics than anything else,"" said Thomas J. DeSantis, senior planner for the city. ""Is it OK to put a 600-foot wind generating station at Falls and First streets? Probably not.

""I think because we’’re Niagara Falls, and because we have certain scenic and national resources that are important to us, that we’’ll want to try to protect them in some small way, we’’ll want to look at those issues.""

Empire State Wind Energy representatives have had discussions about the potential for a public-private partnership to construct power- generating wind turbines in the Falls, and have told city leaders that spots like the former Love Canal property or long-vacant factory sites hold potential.

Niagara Falls does not look like many other communities where windmills have been constructed. It is urban, nearly built out and almost entirely flat. Wind maps show much more potential along communities that line Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

But Niagara Falls has something else that is attractive to those trying to produce more electricity.

""Anywhere you go, there are those massive power lines all over,"" Councilman Sam Fruscione said. ""They see Niagara Falls as a good potential because of all the power lines that they can hook into.""

Still, height will become an important issue in any windmill proposal.

Fruscione said Empire State Wind Energy representatives have discussed two options for windmills: large turbines like those in Lackawanna that would generate more power, or smaller turbines.

Windmills built in Lackawanna are 410 feet tall from base to blade tip —— more than twice the height of Niagara Falls —— and are visible for miles along the Buffalo shoreline.

If similar windmills were built in the Falls —— even on industrial sites a mile, or a few miles, from the natural attraction —— they could be visible to tourists peering at the American and Horseshoe falls from Canada, as well as from parts of the U. S. side.

The height of structures in the city —— even smaller windmills —— could raise questions that have long created a debate in the Falls about how tall structures should be built.

A new zoning plan that would allow high-rises near the 26-story Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel but would limit building heights near Niagara Falls State Park alongside the falls themselves, has languished as city leaders debate whether tall buildings should be restricted to certain areas.

Fruscione said he doesn’’t see a problem with tall windmills as long as they are not located close to Niagara Falls State Park.

""I definitely don’’t want to prevent businesses from coming in,"" Fruscione said. ""I don’’t want them close to the falls. There are plenty of brownfields that are not close to the falls. . . . I assume people believe that we would use common sense.""

Keith Pitman, chief executive of Empire State Wind Energy, met with members of the City Council last October to discuss preliminary plans to study whether windmills would be feasible in the Falls. He will return next month with more specific spots that could include portions of the former Love Canal waste site or brownfields that line Buffalo Avenue, Fruscione said.

The factory sites sit near the Niagara River —— and within a couple of miles of the falls.

Pitman told Council members last fall that any power-generating plan would need ""at least a handful"" of windmills to be economically feasible.

The Falls is one of more than two dozen communities near Buffalo and Rochester where the company has pitched proposals. Negotiations are under way between Empire State Wind Energy and the Town of Somerset in northeastern Niagara County. Several towns outside Rochester have signed host community agreements with the private firm.

Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said city leaders have been approached by a ""couple of different groups"" about potential wind power projects, including owners of working industrial sites that are considering building ""small-scale generation for their own use.""

Dyster —— who built his campaign last fall on a message of building a ""cleaner, greener, more prosperous"" future for the Falls —— wants the city to be prepared for any specific wind turbine proposals.

""The wind is a public asset. We would like to make certain that the public benefits and that the public’’s interest is protected in any development,"" Dyster said. ""Would people view them as a nuisance or would they view them as something positive?""

Dyster has asked DeSantis to begin drafting an ordinance that would set up regulations for any windmills built in the city.

Other Western New York communities are a step ahead in preparing for windmills.

Hamburg town leaders passed a commercial wind energy ordinance last June. Newfane officials have implemented a temporary moratorium on windmills until they can get residential and commercial codes in place. Newfane Town Board member Marcus Hall said he expects the new codes to be completed by August.

But DeSantis said Niagara Falls faces different challenges than rural communities.

djgee@buffnews.com