By Tom Collins
LISTOWEL — Wind turbines tear apart communities and relationships, causing animosity that lingers for years, warn farmers who have lived through the ugly battles.
Don Winslow signed up in 2013 when a wind turbine company planned to build five turbines near Peterborough. Three months later, after immense public pressure and hostility, he couldn’t do it anymore.
“It relieved our stress tremendously (to cancel the contract),” the then-70-year-old Winslow told Farmers Forum. “We don’t have to sneak around the neighbours, hoping to not run into them. There is always an element of society that is going to go overboard but people I respected were just as upset as the real radicals.”
There are more than 2,100 turbines in the province with another 1,500 on the way. The province is expected to announce new projects this month that could include another 100 wind turbines in turbine-rich Western Ontario where the stories are shocking.
“There are people here that have absolute hatred for others. I have never seen anything so divisive in our community ever, in my entire life,” said Alma-area dairy farmer Tim Martin. “You try to say forgive and forget, but a lot of people say ‘we forgive them but we remember.’ They put their pocketbook ahead of our health and above the community’s well-being, and people don’t forget that.”
Martin’s community is unique in that it managed to stop 24 turbines from being constructed. At first, 13 farmers signed up for the project. But as tensions rose, no one else signed up for a wind turbine lease and nine of the 13 who did sign wanted out. The project was cancelled just before Christmas 2014.
Despite the fact there is no daily reminder of what could have been, the animosity is still there. Martin knows of farmers who were friends for years who still don’t talk to each other.
“My in-laws are Dutch and some of them are quite old,” Martin said. “They liken this to the war. They say through the war there were families that helped the (Nazis), and people never looked at them the same. Those people who supported the turbines are never going to be looked at the same.”
One farmer who signed on for a wind turbine is now unable to buy any land because none of his neighbours will sell to him, Martin said. “People are selling to other people for less money just so he doesn’t get it.”
Elsewhere, Huron County cash crop farmer Susan Muller, near Crediton, said some area farmers won’t rent farmland to those who have turbines.
Lucknow is home to the Goshen Wind Energy Project, which saw 63 turbines go online in February 2014 in South Huron and Bluewater. Tensions were high during the project development, with someone spray-painting “Stop Wind Power” on a business, signs and a car in nearby Grand Bend where turbine construction workers were staying. The car, which belonged to a wind company employee, had two of its tires slashed.
Relationships have improved over time but the wounds haven’t healed, Muller said.
“The civility has generally gotten better but people are still angry and resentful,” she said.
Martin, who spearheaded the anti-wind group and spent every spare minute fighting turbines for four years, wouldn’t even wave to his pro-wind neighbour for years as they passed on the road.
“It’s an awful thing and it’s petty, but I’ve just now started to lift my hand up to wave to him,” said Martin. “There are other farmers that I have trouble associating with. Farmers that signed up for these things, they have an open house for a new barn they’ve built and I don’t go.”
But not everyone blames wind turbines. Some lay the blame on anti-wind protestors for stoking fears and fuelling the fighting. Eastern Ontario farmer Ed Schouten near Kemptville signed up for turbines on his dairy farm years ago but the project never went ahead. Although he is a strong supporter, Schouten said he would have to think long and hard about signing up again if the opportunity arose.
“You’ve got to be careful today because people are jealous and they’ll get back at you,” he said. “We have a lot to lose here. They can easily sabotage something on you. There’s all kinds of crazy people out there today.”
Schouten credited anti-wind groups for doing a good job of fear-mongering and, while they are a minority, they get people riled up.
The anti-wind protestors “say (turbines) tear up the communities. They’re the people that tore up the communities, not the turbines. They say (wind turbines) pit neighbour against neighbour and all this stuff because they want another reason to get rid of them.”
Schouten added, however, that the people he speaks to in the Brinston area, near Winchester, say there are no community issues with the 10 turbines in that area anymore. But farmers with turbines avoid discussing it as they have signed confidentiality agreements with the wind power companies.
Many other farmers won’t talk publicly, worried it might re-open old wounds.
One Huron County farmer, who asked that her name not be used, said there is no middle ground: You’re either for wind turbines or you’re against them. She and her family were so divided it tore them apart.
“I’m trying to think about how to maybe fix some of that or make it less painful but I don’t know how to go about it,” she said. “I hate everything that’s happened around it and what it’s done to my community.”
It ended some friendships.
“Quite a few of the people who signed leases and have turbines just happened to be the same people we socialized with,” she said. “They were our friends. Then this all started, and they were very vocal and very determined, and you’re not seeing eye-to-eye. There were some harsh community council meetings where things were said. And you start to think, ‘well, I don’t recognize these people.’”
That animosity can linger for years. Eighty-six turbines were installed on Wolfe Island in 2009. A 2011 Farmers Forum survey of 200 residents (20 per cent of the population) found that 14 per cent thought community spirit had gotten worse since turbines were erected. A follow-up survey of 200 people in 2014 saw 65 per cent say they know someone who is still angry and the number of those who disapproved of turbines increased from 21 per cent to 24.5 per cent.
You try to avoid those you disagree with, said the Huron County farmer. “You keep your head down, you don’t make eye contact. It’s as awkward as hell. Because how do you fix it? It feels like they sold out, that the community wasn’t as important.”
Forty-five-year-old Bruce Albers moved south of Ottawa in 2008 and received a notice about 10 potential turbines two weeks after moving in. It got ugly.
“You can tell just by going to the arena who is on which side just by who they’re hanging out with and who they’re talking to,” said the sheep farmer. “It certainly becomes awkward when you walk into a room and people stop talking or people go somewhere else.”
So Albers put his house up for sale.
“These projects have a habit of expanding,” he said. “We know other landowners have leased their lands but don’t have turbines on them yet.”
Albers’ house sold for market value after three months and he moved away but he said there is still plenty of tension and bitterness about the 10 turbines.
“It was very polarizing,” he said. “There are still people that don’t talk to each other. It’s definitely changed the fabric of the community. With something so large and so physical there to remind you every day of the divide, I can’t see how it ever mends itself.”