Film leaves viewers winded

01/26/2012

A relentless, inescapable barrage of noise pollution. Shadows so conspicuous they lead to clinical sleep disorders. Whirling blades that fatally pierce passing birds and induce internal hemorrhaging in bats, a condition that could ultimately bring about the species’ extinction. 

Windfall, an award-winning documentary presented by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC) and the West Marin/Sonoma Coastal Advocates [WMSCA] last Friday at the Dance Palace, tells the story of Meredith, a rural upstate New York town torn asunder as it considers the potential consequences of accepting a large corporation’s proposal to implement a network of industrial-scale wind turbines.

As Meredith deliberates, director Laura Israel turns her camera to nearby residents in a harrowing preview of what may be in store for the picturesque Delaware County town: while some neighboring communities had already flatly refused the corporation’s cash, others had already accepted, consenting to the erection of the turbines seemingly at the expense of their souls.

The film’s emotional poignancy largely derives from the testimony of these disillusioned citizens—almost without exception folksy, Rockwellian types whose peaceful lifestyle was turned upside down by their proximity to the 400-foot “monstrosities.”

Somewhat predictably, the residents bemoan plummeted home values and the loss of their community’s bucolic agrarian character. Less foreseeable were other debilitating effects: constant havoc from maintenance teams; ailments stemming from the incessant whooshing of the turbines’ seven-ton blades; even possible injury or death from collapsed structures or blade-thrown debris. By far the ugliest dimension of Meredith’s story, however, had less to do with haywire machines or avian mutilation than the nefarious role of money in politics and the sinister underbelly of small-town life. After a well-meaning Meredith official initially welcomes the turbines as an eco-friendly way to supplement the incomes of struggling dairy farmers, other residents soon become convinced of the potential damage caused by the structures, setting the stage for a bitter, drawn-out town feud over the merits of the turbines, the appropriate distribution of communal resources, and the very heart of Meredith itself. The ensuing battle divides the town along the most caustic of political lines, indefinitely suspending brunch dates of lifelong neighbors and giving birth to a passionate campaign to oust town officials suspected of neglecting Meredith’s true best interests in favor of the dirty cash offered up by big wind.

It’s not hard to see parallels between Delaware County and West Marin, both agricultural areas renowned for their natural beauty. Nor has West Marin completely escaped the radar of corporate wind developers: In the fall of 2010
NextEra, the largest wind and solar power company in North America, proposed to erect two wind study towers on ridge tops on the east shore of Tomales Bay with the probable intention of eventually constructing turbines. That proposal was later sacked, although the current language of the Local Coastal Program draft still leaves room for potential wind development.

Amy Trainer, executive director of the EAC—part of the coalition that successfully appealed to deny NextEra’s proposal—said the groups’ stance against local industrial wind development should not be read as a rejection of sustainable energy, or even of all forms of wind power.

“It’s not because we don’t believe that renewable energy is a good thing,” Trainer said. “But we really think that we don’t want to just allow these corporations who have no vested interest in the community to waltz in here [and] throw up 200-foot study towers with guy-wires with absolutely no environmental review. That didn’t sit well with a lot of people.”

The EAC and WMSCA’s presentation of the film was timed to coincide with the eighth LCP amendment hearing, which took place on Monday. Considering the possibility of some local wind development, could West Marin really someday offer a repeat of the noxious succession of events that took place in Delaware County?

Absolutely, says former Fairfax mayor and longtime environmental advocate Frank Egger. “Meredith could be Point Reyes Station,” Egger said in his remarks following the presentation of the film. “If you just think a little bit about it, the similarities between Meredith and Point Reyes Station in West Marin are just uncanny.”

Beverly McIntosh, a member of WMSCA and a retired public agency environmental planner, believes there’s a simple explanation why West Marin hasn’t yet seen the kind of divisiveness that took hold in central New York.

“It hasn’t reached the point of Meredith yet because none of these towns—and [Meredith] was a residential community—none of these residential communities have been faced with an actual application for a turbine. That would be, I think, the dividing point,” McIntosh said.

“I think once an application for a turbine comes in then we’ll see what happens. Our position is that we don’t want them to even get that far because it’s unnecessary.”

McIntosh said that except for the protected area off the coast of the national seashore, there’s not nearly enough wind in West Marin to justify the large-scale turbines. Besides, she added, it would be the corporation—not the community—that would be on the receiving end of any potential economic boost.