by Paul Schliesmann The Whig-Standard
A potentially precedent-setting tax assessment hearing began on Wolfe Island on Wednesday for a couple claiming that noise and lights from nearby wind turbines have lowered their property value.
Lawyers from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation and the Township of Frontenac Islands are opposing the claim made by islanders Ed and Gail Kenney.
The hearing, crammed into the tiny municipal township building, attracted opponents of wind farms that are being planned for Amherst Island and Cape Vincent, N.Y.
They believe the Kenneys’ case could change the course of future wind farm developments on both sides of the border.
“MPAC and the township have spent an awful lot of money on this for it not to be a precedent-setting case,” said Janet Grace a real estate agent who leads the Association for the Protection of Amherst Island.
“It’s not so much how much your house is de-valued. It’s that you can’t sell it.”
The Kenneys’ single-family island home, on 237 feet of waterfront property facing Kingston, was assessed at $357,000 in 2008, the same year construction began on the 86 turbines now owned and operated by Alberta-based energy company TransAlta.
Representing themselves at the hearing, the Kenneys will make their case today that the project has devalued their home.
In her opening submission, MPAC lawyer Shawn Douglas acknowledged that while “wind turbines to some extent are controversial,” the hearings scheduled for two days “must focus on (property) value.”
“This is not a test case for properties throughout Ontario,” said Douglas. “It is not a test case in our mind.”
The tribunal heard from four MPAC witnesses yesterday, the first being assessor Emily Hubert.
Hubert testified that she conducted a reassessment of the Kenney property after receiving their appeal in December 2009.
She said she used a variety of properties from across Wolfe Island to determine if the assessment was fair, based on the selling prices of other houses of similar value.
Normally, in urban residential areas, it’s easier to find like properties that have sold nearby to determine market value.
“When you get into rural areas, you have to expand your search further,” said Hubert.
“Most of the (Kenney property) value comes from the water frontage. That’s what most people are looking for.”
Grace said she undertook her own appraisal of the Kenneys’ home and came up with a much lower value, taking into account the presence of the turbines, of between $283,000 and $295,000.
She said people on Amherst Island are already having benchmark assessments done on their properties — in case turbines are ever built there.
“If this sets a precedent ,we will know whether we can contest our assessments and be prepared for that,” she said. “We have a number of people getting formal appraisals done.”
Residents on the U.S. side of the St. Lawrence River are claiming that the Wolfe Island turbines have already lowered the value of their properties.
“This is a big deal, despite what they say,” said observer Cliff Schneider of Clayton, N.Y. “This sure as hell looks, tastes and smells like a test case to me.
“You could establish properties are devalued because of wind projects. This is crucial. It’s something we would consider on our side.”
Richard Macsherry, also of Cape Vincent, said esthetics are important to land value on both sides of the river.
“You do factor in that beauty and viewscape. That’s a recognized part of the value of your property,” he said.
Afternoon testimony was presented by the district supervisor from the Ministry of the Environment in Kingston.
Also appearing was an MPAC valuation manager who has studied the effects of wind turbine facilities on neighbouring properties.
While the tribunal agreed to allow Jason Moore to be questioned, review board co-chairs Susan Mather and Jacques Laflamme disallowed Moore as an expert witness.
They ruled that his 2008 work for MPAC “has not been put to a test” and that there is still “no recognized standard” for assessing property abutting or in proximity to wind farms.
Moore went on to cite information from a report conducted in Dufferin County where 133 turbines have been installed in two phases.
His study could only find 17 examples of property sales through February 2009.
Moore was still able to conclude that sales were not related to the number of megawatts of nearby turbines.
Yet, he said, “there’s not enough evidence to warrant a negative adjustment.”
He also noted that four of the properties had been resold “for more than their initial sale price.”
The final witness of the day was Wolfe Island Wind Project operations manager Mike Jablonicky.
Jablonicky said he has files on 15 individuals who have complained about noise from the turbines, a couple of whom have called more than once.
He said most complaints have been resolved, sometimes involving a shut down of a turbine in order to make repairs.
Only one remains in dispute. A Wolfe Island resident called last week to say that they were being bothered by ongoing turbine noise.
Jablonicky said “it may be a problem getting it resolved. It’s a blanket complaint for two years of operation.”
He also responded to a noise complaint from the Kenneys in August 2009. After meeting at their house, he determined everything was in order.
“There was nothing visibly wrong or audibly wrong,” he told the hearing. “The turbines were all working within parameters.”
Provincial regulations require that turbines not exceed a sound level of 40 decibels under specified conditions.
The nearest turbine from the Kenneys’ house has been calculated by TransAlta as being 1.02 km away.