John Yancey leans against his truck in a field outside his home, his face contorted in anger and pain.
“Listen,” he says.
The rhythmic whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of wind turbines echoes through the air. Sleek and white, their long propeller blades rotate in formation, like some otherworldly dance of spindly-armed aliens swaying across the land.
Mr. Yancey knows the towers are pumping clean electricity into the grid, knows they largely have been embraced by his community.
Yet he hates them.
He hates the sight, and he hates the sound. He can’t stand the gigantic flickering shadows the blades cast at certain points in the day.
However, what this brawny 48-year-old farmer’s son hates most about the windmills is that his father signed a deal with the wind company to allow seven turbines on the family’s land.
Mr. Yancey lives with his wife and children on Yancey Road, on the edge of the Tug Hill plateau, half a mile from the old white farmhouse in which he and his seven siblings were raised.
Horses graze in a lower field. Amish buggies clatter down a nearby road. From the back porch, sweeping views of the distant Adirondacks can be enjoyed.
The view, however, changed dramatically in 2006. Now Yancey Road is surrounded by windmills.
Mr. Yancey and some of his brothers begged their father, Ed Yancey, to leave the family land untouched, but the elder Mr. Yancey pointed to the money - a minimum of $6,600 a year for every turbine. This is your legacy, he told them.
John Yancey doesn’t care.
“I just want to be able to get a good night’s sleep and to live in my home without these monstrosities hovering over me,” he says.
He didn’t speak to his father for a long time. He thought about leaving Yancey Road for good.
The Tug Hill plateau sits high above this village of about 4,000, a remote wilderness where steady winds whip down from Lake Ontario and winter snowfalls are the heaviest in the state.
For decades, dairy farmers have wrested a living from the Tug - accepting lives of wind-swept hardship with little prospect of change.
Then, a few years ago, change roared onto Tug Hill. Overnight, it seemed, caravans of trucks trundled onto the plateau and the village was ablaze with activity for a couple of years.
Today, 195 turbines soar above Tug Hill, 400 feet high, their 130-foot-long blades spinning at 14 revolutions per minute.
The $400 million Maple Ridge Wind Farm, the largest in New York state, brought money and jobs and a wondrous sense of prosperity. However, the windmills also came with a price - and not just the visual impact.
“Is it worth destroying families, pitting neighbor against neighbor, father against son?” asks John Yancey, whose family has farmed Tug Hill for generations. “Is it worth destroying a whole way of life?”
Similar questions are being asked across the country as more small towns grapple with big money and big wind. For many, the changes are worth it. With rising oil and gas prices and growing concerns about global warming, wind is becoming an attractive alternative.
The Maple Ridge Wind Farm produces enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes. Other wind projects are going up all over the state. T. Boone Pickens is talking about building a $10 billion wind project in the Texas panhandle. Everyone, it seems, is talking about wind.
John Yancey understands its seduction. An electrician, he knows as much about the turbines as anyone. He helped build and install the ones on Tug Hill.
Turbines have their place, he says, just not where people live.
He accuses the wind company of preying on vulnerable old-timers like his father.
In the front room of the little house where he moved after retiring from farming, Ed Yancey, 92, says he doesn’t feel preyed upon. He feels lucky.
“It’s better than a nuclear plant,” he says, “and it brings in good money.”
Ben Byer, a 75-year-old retired dairy farmer, feels the same way.
“It sure beats milking cows,” he says of the seven turbines on his land.
Still, Mr. Byer, who is John Yancey’s uncle, understands the lingering resentments the windmills fuel between those who profit and those who don’t. The wind company signed lease agreements with just 74 landowners and “good neighbor” agreements with several dozen more, offering $500 to $1,000 for the inconvenience of living close to the turbines.
Mr. Byer‘s 47-year-old son, Rick, lives higher up on the plateau in a small white house with a two-seat glider parked in a shed. The glider is Rick Byer’s passion. He flies on weekends when he’s not working at the pallet-making company.
In order to launch, the glider has to be towed by truck down a long rolling meadow across the road. When the wind company began negotiating with his father to put turbines on his “runway,” Rick Byer delivered a furious ultimatum.
“I told him if he allowed turbines in that field, he would lose a son.”
The son’s rage won out, but Rick Byer still seethes at the forest of turbines that sprouted across from his home. Now he speaks out in other area towns where windmills are proposed.
Like most of their neighbors, the Yanceys and Byers had a hard time believing the wind salesman when he first rolled into town in 1999.
“No one thought it would happen,” John Yancey says.
At first, local officials were skeptical too. However, they listened, and learned, and they started hammering out agreements with the wind company, Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp., and its partner, Zilkha Renewable Energy. The companies have changed names and ownership several times, and the Maple Ridge wind project is now jointly owned by PPM Energy Inc. of Portland, Ore., which is part of the Spanish company Iberdrola SA, and Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy LLC, which is owned by the Portuguese conglomerate Energias de Portugal.
Officials from Lowville, Martinsburg and Harrisburg, along with Lewis County legislators, eventually negotiated a 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement that gave the three jurisdictions $8.1 million in the first year.
Martinsburg, with a population of 1,249, got the biggest municipal cut because it hosts the largest number of windmills, a total of 102. Martinsburg Supervisor Terry Thiesse, who has a windmill on his land, says the municipal budget went from a little less than $400,000 to more than $1.2 million with the first wind payment in 2006.
The school district, which serves all jurisdictions, received $2.8 million in 2006 and $3.5 million in 2007.
Wind finances are a source of great confusion for many locals, who assumed they would get free electricity once the turbines were installed. In fact, the energy is sold to utility companies and piped into the grid.
Though the wind itself is free, companies have enormous start-up costs: A single industrial wind turbine costs about $3 million. In New York, companies benefit from the fact that the state requires 25 percent of all electricity to be supplied from renewable sources by 2013. They also get federal production tax credits in addition to “green” renewable energy credits, which can be sold in the energy market.
In this context, the annual payments of about $6,600 per turbine are relatively small. However, for some cash-strapped farmers, they’re a big help.
“It’s the best cash cow we ever had,” booms retired dairy farmer Bill Burke, who has six turbines on his land. Mr. Burke, 60, is a school board member and county legislator who also works part time for the wind company.
Mr. Burke sold the last of his herd in 2004. Without the income from the turbines, he says, he might have had to sell his 100-year-old farm, too. He has no regrets about grabbing his “once-in-a-lifetime chance at prosperity.”
Not everyone agrees.
For many, the realities of living with windmills are more complicated than clean energy and easy money. People have mixed feelings about the enormous scale of the project. They ask what will happen when the 15-year agreements expire. There are concerns about the impact of turbines on bird and bat populations. Some accuse lawmakers of getting too cozy with wind developers - claims that prompted New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to launch an investigation into two wind companies and their dealings with upstate municipalities. (The investigation does not involve Maple Ridge.)
Such concerns have prompted some towns to pass moratoriums on industrial turbines in order to learn more. Malone and Brandon recently banned them completely.
“It seemed like the cost, in terms of how it changed the community, was too high,” Malone Supervisor Howard Maneely said after visiting Lowville.
On Nefsey Road, which runs parallel to Yancey Road, Dawn Swenedoski, a sixth-grade teacher, finds a certain beauty in the windmills.
She is sympathetic to her neighbors’ concerns, however. The Amish farmer across the road hates how the towers have disrupted the sense of tranquillity that lured his family from Maryland in the first place. Also, Miss Swenedoski, who sees the windmills only in the distance, understands John Yancey’s annoyance at living with them up close.
“It’s hard when change is for the common good but some people suffer more than others,” she says.
No one understands that better than the Yanceys, struggling to patch fractured family relationships even as they struggle to come to terms with the turbines.
High on Tug Hill sits the Flat Rock Inn, a popular gathering point for snowmobilers and all-terrain vehicle riders. Twenty years ago, Gordon Yancey carved out this chunk of land with the help of his father, creating miles of forest trails and camping areas set around a 6-acre pond and a small rustic inn and bar.
All around stretch windmills, miles and miles of them. Mr. Yancey chokes up just looking at them.
“Dad taught us such respect for the land. For my father to be part of this …” His voice trails off, and he shakes his head and walks away.
This particular weekend is a busy one for Mr. Yancey’s inn, which is hosting a huge water-cross event - in which snowmobiles roar across the pond, their speed keeping them from sinking. People come from all over to race their machines across the pond. Campers roll in to watch. There are campfires and barbecues, screaming engines and squealing children.
In the distance, Rick Byer’s glider floats above the turbines. On the ground, Gordon Yancey bellows race results through a loudspeaker. Patriarch Ed Yancey talks about the old days - before snowmobiles and turbines. John Yancey works an enormous gas grill turning 50 sizzling chickens on spits.
All around the windmills spin. John Yancey looks up occasionally from the grill and grimaces. Right now, no one else seems to care.