[4 February 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“A couple of guys from Airtricity knocked on my door,” recalls Ron Bailey. “We signed a lease to have a turbine up on our hill. At least one turbine.” His wife Sue adds, “I thought this would be a good idea, we’d be doing our part to end the country’s oil dependency.”
As they speak, the camera in Windfall cuts from their faces to long panning shots of the hills of Meredith, in the Catskill region of New York, the fall grasses golden, rippled by breezes. The location is idyllic. Or, it was. Laura Israel’s documentary looks back on the transformation of Meredith from a “pretty cohesive town” to community in turmoil. When the Baileys arrived in 1971, they remember, “The house had no doors or windows or heating or plumbing or electricity,” but they looked at the land and “knew this was it.” Beautiful, open, and so very natural, the place is sparsely populated, by people who used to get along with each other. The turbines changed all that. “It’s really divided our community,” recalls Frank Bachler, onetime town supervisor, “And I didn’t see it coming. I guess I should have.”
What he didn’t see coming was the fight over wind turbines. Before 2004, Meredith was best known as a home to dairy farmers. When the wind turbine developers approached the citizens with offers to pay for use of their land, reactions varied, from pleasant surprise to skepticism. Ron remembers a flurry of salesmen, “out there prospecting, that’s what they call it, prospecting.” Though the salesmen pushed landowners like Sue Bailey to sign contracts quickly (when she asked for copies of his maps, he told her he’d send them “if you sign this piece of paper”), some resisted. “I started reading about what wind turbines were, and I had some concerns about it,” recalls Ken Jaffe. “They have this aura of greenness,” he goes on, but “there’s going to be some problems with noise and oil leaks and sediment runoffs. This is just the way it is.”
Some of his neighbors feel differently. Windfall offers a series of conflicting opinions, some interviews shot outside to remind you of the horizons at stake. “The noise and construction,” says John Hamilton, “seemed like a small price to pay for what we thought was the public good” He’s less sanguine about the other cost, which is the disruption of their community. “A little time goes by and all of a sudden, we’re the bad people,” he says. While the sides are thus drawn, the film shows what’s at issue, as long shots of wind turbines, their blades rhythmic and maybe a little romantic, give way to closer shots, looking up at gigantic industrial structures. These are typically about 400 feet high and weigh up to 400 tons, with each blade some 35 tons or more. As they turn, the blades create distressing “shadow flickers.” They also make noise.
This noise is indicated variously, in recordings and in recollections. Sue says, “I had sort of a feeling of foreboding when I first saw them from about three miles away.” She drove close to them, “turned off the car’s engine and rolled down the windows, and I was horrified.” The sound, she says, wasn’t so much loud as it was constant. “Just a ch, ch, ch, ch,” she says, “But it was the idea that it was forever, that it would be that way for the next 25 years. It would that way for the rest of my life.”
Sue’s very personal reservations are only the beginning. It turns out that the corporations involved are hedging bets, building increasing numbers of turbines (even beyond initial contracts) in order to ensure profits, as turbines are not reliable enough as a technology to replace coal or gas. Further, turbine developers make their money on tax credits and other manipulations of contracts, which means that owners—and those responsible for servicing turbines—shift quickly.
But all these issues, galling as they may be, are not Windfall‘s focus. Instead, it turns to how these concerns affect the townspeople. Just so, when the Baileys decided to get out of their lease, they in effect took a side against those neighbors who maintained their contracts. These sides took official shapes too, as the Town Board (then headed by Bachler) faced off against the Planning Board, chaired by Keitha Capouya. She recalls the tensions rising when she and her board suggested the contracts be scaled back, not for 40 turbines, but for a smaller amount, and at least a mile away from residences. The restrictions conflict with the developers’ plans, some conflicts of interest were perceived, and so, debates escalated.
“What I’ve seen corporations do over the years is the split, observes finance expert Steve McCarthy. “You split the town, you get so many people for you, you’re gonna get so may people against you. And people who have been friends for years, who have gone over to people’s houses for picnics and had dinners with each other out, now people don’t talk to each other, people hate each other, people saying vile things to each other, and it’s only gonna get worse.” With that, the film cuts to a shot of a fox in a cage, snarling, then cars ramming each other in a demolition derby. And indeed, it does get worse. The dispute carries over into local elections.