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There are no winners in the Cape Vincent battle

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As the final vote count nears in the hotly contested Cape Vincent town election, it looks more and more like the wind has gone out of the sails, if you will, of the political faction that has staunchly opposed the development of commercial wind power. It isn’t so much that those against the plans by BP Wind Energy to put a wind farm in the town have changed their minds. It’s more likely that the fight has been long and arduous and bitter, and it’s hard to keep that kind of effort up over time.

For the past eight years, varying elements in Cape Vincent have battled over commercial wind farm plans. Companies have come and gone (remember Greenlight Energy? remember Acciona?) and groups for and against have come and gone (remember Concerned Riverview Citizens?) but the constant has been those in favor of wind farms versus those against them.

The dispute has rent friendships, split alliances and further exacerbated the division between full-time residents, the townies, and vacation home owners, the nicknames for which mostly aren’t printable in a newspaper. The battle has been seen as between the survival of the family farm against the aesthetic concerns of part-time residents, and whether or not that is accurate, it has set the tone of the conflict.

Standing back, able to see it from a dispassionate distance, it involves more than that simplistic dispute. At issue are many more complex matters: who should be allowed to vote in any given municipality, how much a town must give to regional needs, even whether wind power is indeed a desirable green energy source — all these questions arise in the extended Cape Vincent debate. To answer all the questions posed would require a discourse far longer than this column can be.

What strikes me about the battle, outside of the many serious questions it has raised and left unanswered, is that its impact on Cape Vincent has been far more disruptive and acrimonious than anyone, back in 1993 when the first test tower was proposed to be erected in the town, could have foreseen.

And for what? At this point, the greater issue of wind power in general will probably rule the future. Unless something changes on a number of fronts, there is a high likelihood that the proposed wind project in Cape Vincent will die a slow and quiet death, starved by a doomed federal subsidy, a steep increase in the availability of natural gas and a regional electrical distribution system that is not prepared to accept generation from far-flung places like Galloo Island and Cape Vincent.

While the antiwind forces will cheer a victory, and the prowind forces will blame them for the loss of opportunity, at no point in this battle has either side been much more than irritants in the larger war. The antiwind forces have had no impact on the demise of the federal subsidies that have to this point allowed development of new wind-energy sources. The prowind side has had no impact on improving the sorry state of the Northeast’s electrical distribution network. And nether side has any ability to affect the problems plaguing wind energy in general — its intermittent nature, its high cost of production, its by necessity remote locations, often far from an adequate distribution system.

Cape Vincent has, meanwhile, undergone social turmoil as this battle has played out. The already present though previously low key “us versus them” relationship between full-time and part-time residents has escalated far beyond where it was, or where it should be. The years and years of tax contributions by the vacation homeowners has been lost in the roar of conflict, and the legitimate economic needs of inland farm and property owners have been dismissed by those same vacationers who spend, in total, so little time in Cape Vincent.

Many of the full-time residents, whether for, against or unconcerned with wind power, resent the “hijacking” of the political process that the incursion of absentee voting from vacation homeowners has brought on. And it isn’t possible to ignore that impact; for the 2009 and 2011 elections, that group of voters has had political clout far beyond its actual connection to town government. Thus, the battle over wind has spilled into this year’s vote counting, with prowind candidates aggressively challenging absentee ballots. This will go to the courts, and the mess that is the Cape Vincent town election could drag on for weeks, if not months.

There should be a real concern that the divisions that have turned Cape Vincent into a battleground will linger long after the wind power issue is decided. At this point, it’s hard to see how there can be any winners; whether or not a wind farm comes to the Cape, the wounds this conflict has opened up will linger for years. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t going to get pretty for a very long time.

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. He can be reached at pwhite@wdt.net.

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