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

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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

• It opened every acre of the state’s 400 municipalities to fast-track wind development, as well as one-third of the state’s Unorganized Territory.

Before the act was passed, three industrial-scale wind power projects had been built in the state; since then, seven have been approved and five of them built, with six more proposed projects under state review, according to state officials.

But to the residents of this quiet valley in western Maine, the law was no triumph. They say it took away their power to influence the future of their communities.

That’s because the law also knocked down one of the most significant obstacles to building wind towers in the rural areas of the state known as the Unorganized Territory, or UT. That obstacle was the restrictive zoning in the UT that did not allow wind turbines in the region. Under the old rules, a developer faced several steps in the Unorganized Territory to construct wind turbines.  The first big hurdle was to get a rezoning.

A wind developer asking for rezoning “had certain criteria, certain hurdles that had to be met that, if you interpreted them with a straight face, you could never allow it,” said David Publicover, an Appalachian Mountain Club scientist who served on the task force.

Rezoning included formal input from citizens in the surrounding areas and beyond and could be a long and difficult process.

So in order to promote wind power development, the new law made wind turbines a “permitted use” in the approximately one-third of the UT that was designated by the task force as an “expedited permitting area.”

“One of the things (the law) did in these UT locations was, in a single stroke, make grid-scale wind energy a form of industrial development that did not require specific and appropriate zoning,” Lexington Township’s Alan Michka told legislators at the hearing. “Prior to this change, wind energy development required specific rezoning in all of the unorganized areas.”

Residents like Michka had believed that the rural character protected by that zoning was an immutable fact of life.

“We invested in our properties confident in the fact that no large industrial development would ever happen in our communities without a public discussion and a chance to be heard,” testified Maine Guide David Corrigan of Concord Township.

How the boundaries of that expedited area were set will never be known — the task force’s deliberations on the area were confidential and they kept no minutes.

Time for a second look

Almost three dozen rural residents came to the committee hearing on L.D. 616 and a number of other wind bills, and many of them spoke.

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, the co-chairman of the committee, signaled that the committee’s near-unanimous support for wind power might be changing.

“You’re talking to a brand new committee, folks who are committed to looking at your testimony, I don’t think we come precast in judgment,” Cleveland told them. “We’ll try to give you a fair hearing.”

The wind industry and its supporters were there, too.

Jeremy Payne, head of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, told the committee that they should reject the bill because it “it specifically targets two known wind development project areas: Iberdrola Renewables’ Fletcher Mountain development and Independence Wind’s Highland Plantation development. The bill proposes to remove several townships and plantations from the Expedited Permitting Area, but, notably, offers no justification for doing so.”

Those two wind developers, Payne said, have invested “on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars” in response to the Legislature’s “policy signal that these areas were designated as appropriate for wind project development.”

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