Judd Hirsch's wind turbine plans stall in Denning

Above: Members of the Denning Zoning Board of Appeals consider a wind turbine variance on February 25, 2014, before postponing the vote to March 25. From left: John Barnum, Mark Boncek, Frances Chewiwi, and Archie Ackerly, Jr. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

Actor Judd Hirsch's plans to install a 177-foot wind turbine on his land in the Ulster County town of Denning are stalled, perhaps for good.

On March 25, the Denning Zoning Board of Appeals voted 2 to 1 not to issue a variance for the project, which has been the center of controversy in Denning since the fall.

"It's a pretty clear death knell," said Sherret Chase Jr., the owner of Chase Wind, the engineering firm planning the project. "I was absolutely flabbergasted about the negative vote at the ZBA meeting."

Hirsch, a movie star and former regular on the TV show "Taxi" who has lived in Denning for 46 years, submitted plans last year to build a turbine on 96 acres he owns in Denning. A few miles away in the town of Neversink, Phil Coombe III has a similar private system that was installed without controversy in 2011. (See photos below.) 

But Hirsch's plan drew ire from his neighbors. Tiffany Wootten, who lives nearby, spearheaded a campaign to oppose the turbine, arguing that it would destroy the bucolic landscape, threaten birds and other wildlife, and create noise and flickering shadows. The controversy consumed the town for much of the fall and was covered by the New York Times in November. 

Below: A wind turbine that was installed in the town of Neversink in 2011. The turbine is similar in size and height to Judd Hirsch's proposed Denning turbine. Photo by James Hood for the Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development. Used with permission.   

After a series of contentious town meetings, the Ulster County Planning Board reviewed a request for a zoning variance for the Denning turbine in December. Denning's zoning law, which dates from the 1990s, has no language about wind turbines or other tall structures.

In a recommendation by the Ulster County Planning Board, principal planner Robert Leibowitz determined that the town could give the turbine several possible zoning variances. He advised Denning to "seek to provide specific standards for wind turbines in its zoning statute," using Neversink as a model. 

On March 25, the five-member Zoning Board of Appeals met to consider granting the turbine a variance. John Barnum, a former Denning town supervisor who was appointed to the ZBA in February to fill a seat that been left vacant in quick succession by two former occupants, was the only vote in favor of the project.

Two other ZBA members, Archie Ackerly Jr. and William Leudeman, abstained from voting, and then converted their abstentions into "no" votes when Boncek informed them that abstentions would count as "no" votes. As chairman, Boncek did not vote, because his vote was not necessary to break a tie. Frances Chewiwi, the fifth member of the board, was unable to attend the meeting because of the death of a family member.

The "no" vote is likely the end of the Denning turbine.

Mark Boncek, the chairman of Denning's ZBA, spoke with the Watershed Post after the vote.

"It means 'No go,'" Boncek said. "As I understand it, we're under home rule, so if it bounces back to Ulster County, we're still the final say."

But Boncek did not rule out a future for the turbine project entirely.

"It could come before us again in the future, but it's a hard sell," he said. One possible approach would be to petition the town board to edit the zoning law to include turbines. Such a process would involve a public hearing and a vote, Boncek said.

Environmentalists vs. environmentalists

This isn't the first time wind turbines have caused divisions in a Catskills town. Wind became a fierce issue in the Delaware County town of Meredith, where industrial wind turbines were banned in 2008. The drama was chronicled in the 2010 documentary Windfall.

In Denning, Hirsch's proposed turbine pitted neighbor against neighbor and environmentalist against environmentalist. Denning's comprehensive plan endorses protecting the beauty of the landscape and the development of alternative energy sources, making it difficult to choose between them.

Right: Denning's town seal depicts the town's "viewshed:" A bucolic landscape containing trees and a tall fire tower. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

"It's a very difficult place to walk in the middle," Boncek said. "Our comprehensive plan very clearly says we want to protect the beauty and the viewshed, and then two paragraphs later, it says we want to endorse and embrace technology."

There's no way to prevent wind turbines from having an impact on the landscape, Chase said.

"The issue is that they're tall," said the Denning turbine's engineer. "And they must be tall in order to be successful."

Catskills environmental groups are stuck in the middle on this issue. 

"It's a tough one for us," said Alan White, the executive director of the Catskills Center for Conservation and Development, a nonprofit organization that supports renewable energy in the Catskills -- it has solar panels mounted on its roof -- and the preservation of the Catskills as a "forever wild" forest preserve.

The CCCD deliberately remained silent on the controversy in Denning, because several of its board members are related to Chase, the Denning turbine's engineer.

But next time, it's unclear whether the CCCD will support wind power over the viewshed.

"I could see both sides of it so clearly," White said. "We are still in conversation about this issue. Because frankly, for us, being really supportive of sustainable energy but being really supportive of retaining the visual integrity of the forest preserve, we are trying to come up with an internal policy of what we will do next time, assuming that we do not have a perceived conflict of interest."

Hirsch himself would not be trying to install a wind turbine if he weren't a fervent environmentalist.

In a letter addressed to his opponents and neighbors sent to the Denning Town Board and Zoning Board of Appeals in March, Hirsch wrote:

I came up to this area, and this town in particular, because I wanted the same things you did: the beauty of untouched forests, the majesty of the quiet mountains and the ultimate determination to keep it that way …

Your great desire to protect the wild life and forests of this immediate vicinity of ours has always been the absolute most important principal of my existence here. I live here! This has been my home, probably longer than most of you in this town.

Don't you all realize that the real enemy to all we love about this natural habitat is climate change produced by the burning of fossil fuels to power and heat our homes? And it's true, I don't look forward to the ever escalating price of oil and electricity. So, I converted most of my oil heating necessity to geothermal where I could. (If I was richer I would do even more.)

Hirsch did not return a call for comment.

Wootten, one of Hirsch's most vociferous opponents, also is dedicated to protecting the landscape of the Catskills, where she moved 11 years ago. For her the turbine is a threat to wildlife, to noise levels, and to the view from her cabin. In a statement emailed to the Watershed Post, she wrote:

I am pleased with the ZBA's decision and that their decision reflects a dedication to the concerns of all of the citizens residing in Denning. I hope that as individuals in our area, and others implement the green technologies that are increasingly important, also be respectful of the unique landscapes in which they reside, the environment, wildlife and their neighbors. I am also grateful for the time and energy that town officials have spent considering the variance request.

Chase, the engineer on the Denning turbine project, is himself a lifelong proponent of small-scale, clean energy. Based in Shokan, his one-man shop has installed turbines across New York State, including a small installation in North Blenheim in the northern Catskills.

Opponents of wind turbine projects often say that it's industrial development that they are opposed to, not small-scale alternative energy. But Chase said that zoning controversies over small-scale projects like the one in Denning may drive the entire wind industry towards large-scale, industrial projects -- which have much more impact on the environment than small ones.

"It's very difficult to be in business," he said. "The zoning issue is so extreme that it's virtually killed the small wind industry in New York State. Nobody can afford to fight these battles. You've got about $5,000 to $10,000 invested in each time to build a small turbine."

Chase estimates that he has spent 100 uncompensated hours planning the Denning project.