May 21, 2013

Wind power’s grip on Augusta weakening

Rural Maine communities protest turbines, which they say deface 'God's country,' but wind developers say they've invested too much money to be shut out now.

By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

They came from the townships and plantations of Concord, Lexington, Highland, Carrying Place and Pleasant Ridge. They set out for the statehouse in Augusta from the five sparsely populated backcountry communities set between the Kennebec and Carrabassett rivers, from a wooded intervale etched by streams, dappled by lakes and cradled by the hills and mountains of western Maine.

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Blades rotate on a wind turbine on Maine's Stetson Mountain in this July 2009 file photo. The wind industry's grip on Augusta may be weakening. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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Map courtesy of Land Use Planning Commission

Wind act doesn’t treat all Mainers equally

The Wind Energy Act doesn’t treat every Maine citizen the same – some have more rights that others.

For example, the communities in the Unincorporated Territory that the Act put in the “expedited” permitting zone lost their right to weigh in on land use changes that would allow wind power to be built. Yet their neighbors just one community over who aren’t in the expedited zone still have the same rights they always had.

Norman Kalloch testified on L.D. 616 — even though his township, just north of Highland Plantation, isn’t in the expedited wind area.

“We, as residents of Carrying Place Town Township can participate in our township’s future through public hearings regarding zoning changes required for any high impact development including grid-scale wind development,” Kalloch told legislators. “By contrast, if the same wind project is proposed on the other side of the township line in Highland, our friends and neighbors there would have no opportunity or means to participate that is comparable to ours.”

And in the developed part of the state, residents of incorporated towns in the expedited zone there also have greater ability to act when wind power projects are proposed. They can pass their own restrictive ordinances to limit or ban wind power development. Finally, the Wind Energy Act of 2008 allowed state regulators to add areas to the expedited zone. But it included no provisions to take areas out, short of going back to the legislature and passing a bill.

Why are these communities treated differently? That’s not possible to determine because the members of the wind task force that made a map designating the expedited permitting area kept no minutes of the meetings discussing the map.

— By Naomi Schalit and John Christie

As they left, many of them passed a neatly lettered sign at the intersection of Long Falls Dam and Sandy Stream roads. The sign summed up what they were going to say to legislators later that day: “This is God’s Country. Don’t let wind towers come here and make it look like hell.”

The residents were headed to Augusta this past March 28 bearing petitions for redress. Their message had an urgency: there were two large wind power construction projects — Iberdrola Renewable’s Fletcher Mountain project and Independence Wind’s Highland Plantation project — that had been proposed for the mountains surrounding their communities.

Armed with the signatures of the majority of residents in their townships and plantations, they went to ask lawmakers to pass a bill to give them back the right to influence how the land in their communities was used.

That right, they said, had been taken away from them in 2008, when Maine adopted one of the nation’s most aggressive policies to promote wind power and put their communities in a fast-track wind development zone.

As Lexington Township’s Karen Bessey Pease said, “We weren’t asked when we were put in. We have the mandate of the people in these communities to not be in it — and we’re hoping the legislature will agree.”

The bill was one of dozens of attempts over the last five years to roll back provisions of the Wind Energy Act. Almost every one of those bills had been rejected by lawmakers. But this time, there were signs that the ironclad consensus in the statehouse about the virtues of wind power was eroding.

Baldacci began it

The story begins five years ago when Gov. John Baldacci, nearing the end of his second term and eager to make Maine a national leader in wind energy, instructed a task force to devise a regulatory scheme that would streamline and speed up wind project permitting.

Baldacci’s ambitions dovetailed with the expansion agenda of the wind power representatives, the climate change agenda of the environmentalists and the economic development agenda of lawmakers on his task force, all of whom supported wind power. Task force members produced a report declaring that “Maine can become a leader in wind power development, while protecting Maine’s quality of place and natural resources, and delivering meaningful benefits to our economy, environment, and Maine people.”

The report’s recommendations were soon turned into legislation to make building wind projects easier in the state. Swiftly, unanimously and with no debate, legislators passed the Wind Energy Act of 2008.

To supporters of wind power, the legislation was a triumph.

It established “one of the most robust wind siting regimes in the nation,” said Eric Thumma, a representative of wind developer Iberdrola Renewables, a sister company to Maine’s Central Maine Power.

The Wind Energy Act set ambitious goals that could result in 1,000 to 2,000 turbines being constructed along hundreds of miles of Maine’s landscape, including the highly prized mountains where wind blows hard and consistent. The act eliminated legal obstacles that had long made wind development difficult in Maine:

• It weakened longstanding rules that required wind turbines “to fit harmoniously into the landscape.

• It cut off a layer of appeal for those opposing state permits for wind power.

(Continued on page 2)

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