Sunday, June 23, 2019

Angry is Just Sad's Bodyguard

I spent this morning hanging laundry on the line to dry and then beginning some overdue repairs on the wooden kitchen storm door. The chance to add a little of myself to this house's long history has always brought me pleasure. It's nice to look down as I type and see window glazing under my fingernails.

The memories recorded in the entries on this blog are probably the best tool I have to convey what this home means to me and my family; the relationships and memories that I treasure about this place, and the hopes I have for a future here. I have started this post multiple times in the past 15 months, but have never yet found words to convey what I want to say. Even if I do share the words I write today they will inevitably fall short.

We found out in late March of 2018 that the Einsel House is in the footprint of the proposed Seneca Wind Project, an industrial wind project covering 25,000 acres that intends to build up to nineteen 600 (+/-) foot industrial wind turbines within two miles of our home. If that happens we will try to sell the Einsel House and move. It hurts to be in this position.

We bought this property ten years ago not only because I love this house but because we love the whole package – the tree lined creek, the open fields, the sunsets and the wildlife, the landmarks on the Google Earth map of today unchanged from the landmarks of the county atlas of over 120 years past. The history in this house drew me from the start, but there are plenty of old houses in town that we never even considered buying. The Einsel House was the perfect house in the perfect setting; it was a wonderfully intact historic home in a rural and agricultural setting. It was exactly what I wanted. (And Charles, bless him, was willing to come along for the ride.) There's no pizza delivery to our house, cell phone service can be spotty and high speed internet options limited, certain times of the year we expect to be stuck behind slow-moving farm machinery, and some days we can smell the new livestock barn built south of our home. We expected all of those inconveniences when we moved here. But we never expected our home could be in the middle of an industrial energy complex that would change the light, the sound, and the view. In short, industrial wind would take away many of the reasons we chose to live here in the first place.

Home is supposed to be your sanctuary. It's hard to explain what it does to you when the place that has been your respite is suddenly the constant source and reminder of your stress.

Coming home from work and immediately noticing that the kids turned off the TV when they were done playing video games but once again forgot to turn off the old Xbox 360. The sound of the disk still spinning has always annoyed me. Charles measured that sound last summer at 37 decibels. The company planning the Seneca Wind Project estimates wind turbine noise at our house will be 41-44 decibels. And I won't be able to turn it off.

Appreciating a beautiful sunset and turning to Charles to say, “Look at that beautiful sun - ” but stopping mid-sentence with the realization that this is the exact time of day we will have shadow flicker once the turbines are built.

Setting outside in the early evening to enjoy watching the Einsel bats fly out into the night. But this summer I always have paper and pen in hand, recording not only the number of bats but also the temperature, cloud cover, and visibility of the moon. Knowing that the data I collect will become part of the baseline for a mortality study on bats if the Seneca Wind Project is built. (Prior to learning my home could be in a wind project I had no idea that simply flying too close to a wind turbine is fatal for bats. The change in air pressure near moving turbine blades causes the fragile blood vessels in bat lungs to explode, thus the bat drowns in its own blood.) And thus wondering if I sit outside in future evenings, how many fewer bats will I count?

Avoiding a familiar route so you don't have to see the painfully slow process of removing a scenic tree line. Wondering every time you do pass how much more destruction will follow as narrow rural roads are widened to accommodate massive industrial machinery.

Sitting immediately beside Ohio's most pro-wind State Senator, Matt Dolan, during a meeting in Tiffin last fall and being shocked when he openly acknowledged that the wind industry would be a “burden” on this community. Then feeling much less shocked when he wondered aloud if an adjustment to PILOT payments and resultant increase in local tax revenue would make Seneca County more accepting of this “burden”. (The Dolan family are majority owners of the Cleveland Indians, and I have not watched or listened to a game yet this season that I haven't been reminded of Senator Dolan's willingness to sacrifice my community.)

Coming home late one night, getting out of the car and looking up at a stunning, starry night sky. Then remembering that those intensely dark night skies may soon be dotted with hundreds of blinking red lights in all directions.

Getting a call from the architect you contacted a year ago, meeting with him and getting his plans for the addition we have anticipated ever since buying this home a decade ago. But feeling pain whenever you glance at his rolled up plans, because you know it makes no sense to invest the money you have been working so hard to save on a house you might soon choose to leave.

My dad has asked me, “Where would you go?” and sadly, it's a good question. Seneca Wind is the project our current house is in, but there are now multiple other additional wind projects in various stages of development surrounding this area. Republic Wind to the north and Emerson Creek Wind to the east are already progressing through the Ohio Power Siting Board process. And it appears that the communities where I was raised and married are about to find out they are the proposed site of another project called Honey Creek Wind.

Over a year into this fight I am as angry as ever at the wind industry's unwillingness to recognize any sanctity in setting. As time passes though I have grown increasingly saddened by the realization that this industry not only undermines and damages long-standing expectations of place that residents have typically (and understandably) taken for granted, it also undermines and damages individuals, relationships, and the fundamental social fabric of communities. It does this intentionally and unapologetically.

Those who speak up in opposition to wind energy are lambasted as backwards, unintelligent, 'flat-earthers' who are against clean energy and have no concern for the environment. They are accused of being selfish and of wanting to control their neighbor's property. They are labeled as puppets of dirty energy, and any organized anti-wind effort is assumed to be funded by coal or oil. I cannot hope to address each of these accusations here, but I assure you that none apply to the anti-wind movement as I have seen and participated in it here in Seneca County.

But there is another group that I suspect feels equally attacked when the wind industry enters a community – those who own land leased to a wind company. These are accused of being gullible, greedy and money-hungry; willing to sell out their neighbors for their own financial gain. Here I cannot claim personal experience, nor will I try. Neither will I paint with a broad brush, nor imply that all leaseholders acquired that title through the same process or prompted by the same motives. What I will do is state that I have seen just as much pain and torment among some leaseholders as I have among the most fervent of anti-wind non-leaseholders.

Consider the following:
-Leaseholders who had concerns but signed the lease because they were asked to so by other family members.

Part of a public comment on the Seneca Wind Project filed with the OPSB

-Leaseholders who did not sign any lease, but purchased or inherited land with a lease already in place.  Some in this group did not even realize until much later that the land they had purchased/inherited was subject to a wind agreement.  Among those who were aware, many assumed that because the leases were years old the wind company had abandoned the project and the lease would simply expire and be forgotten.  

Situations like these were in the back of my mind some months ago as I watched the documentary Windfall a second time. When I first watched Windfall in the spring of 2018 I identified with the residents opposed to turbines being built in their community. But when I watched the documentary again this spring it was several statements made by pro-wind residents that stood out to me.

I never thought it would be so contentious an issue. It's really divided our community and I didn't see it coming. I guess I should have....It's been difficult for my family. My wife has taken the divisiveness and the rancor and the anger...she's taken that to heart. It's hurt. And I think we'll both be glad when it's over.” - Frank Bachler, Town Supervisor

It isn't all gravy for the landowner. But it seemed like a small price to pay for what we thought was the public good. And then time goes by and all of a sudden we are the bad people. We are the bad people! Oh my word! The neighbors are having meetings at their house; what to do about the Hamiltons....they are the bad people. We've got to stop 'em somehow.” - John Hamilton, Leaseholder

These words were still rattling around in my head, bouncing around with my own experiences from the past year, as the end credits began to scroll on the screen in front of me. And I saw that Windfall was released in 2010. Almost a decade ago. That really caught my attention.

One of the many nights that we've been up too late talking about this issue Charles made the following statement, “Whoever controls the narrative wins.” He is absolutely right, and I'm convinced the wind industry knows this as well. This industry knows what it does to the social fabric of a community; it knows the division it sows within families, within churches and community organizations. And yet I believe when wind companies approach potential leaseholders they  emphasize how beneficial and welcome these projects are. The division that communities suffer in the wake of industrial wind is minimized (or completely omitted).  Because when courting potential leaseholders it is the wind company that controls the narrative.

In the beginning I just thought our community will embrace this. I was very naive.” - Frank Bachler

I have talked to numerous leaseholders here in Seneca County and all of them have expressed surprise at how quickly this issue divided the community following the public announcement of these projects. None expected this issue to be so divisive.

This community division may have taken my neighbors by surprise, but I'm convinced it was no surprise to the wind companies targeting this county. Windfall was released in 2010, yet in so many ways it is the same story unfolding nearly a decade later here. A decade later and the industry continues to follow the same community-wrenching script. The more I reflect on this the angrier it makes me. Any individual who is offered a wind lease has the right to know the consequences of signing the dotted line. They have a right to as much information as possible – and that should include knowledge of how their neighbors feel about the project. Yet not only does the wind industry not provide this information, it has perpetuated a system that intentionally obscures this information.

I don't believe the companies behind Seneca Wind, Republic Wind, Emerson Creek Wind, Honey Creek Wind, or any other project lurking behind the scenes really care about the people of Seneca County. Instead, I believe the wind industry sees people as obstacles to be overcome. Those who do not own enough land to matter to these companies are left in the dark until the 11th hour. Those who do own enough land are wooed with a carefully selected narrative long before the 11th hour. Thus the division is set before that critical time.  As a result, land owners are encouraged to sign a lease believing it will benefit their community only to later and suddenly realize that many in their community do not see wind energy as beneficial.

Here in Seneca County we are now fifteen months past that 11th hour. Our rural landscape remains intact for now, but the social fabric of this community has already suffered too many tears. Perhaps the cruelest torment inflicted by the wind industry is suffered by those who unexpectedly feel villainized by their neighbors and friends. This is sadder still because if you ask those neighbors and friends to identify the villain in this saga I guarantee you will hear in reply the name of a wind company and not the name of a leaseholder. Anti-wind does not mean anti-neighbor.

I wrote somewhere back at the beginning of this post that even if choose to make this post public I would inevitably fall short of everything I wanted to say. I was right.

(As a postscript - Thank you for the many kind responses to this post.  Although for this post I have chosen not to publicly share comments please know that your words are appreciated.)