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

(Continued from page 2)

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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

Ben Gilman, from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, warned legislators that any changes would discourage investment in the state by wind power companies, which had invested “more than one billion into the Maine economy” since the Wind Energy Act was passed in 2008.

“During our recent economic downturn this has been an important part of the Maine economy,” said Gilman. “Part of the reason for this increased investment was due to the expedited permitting process put into place by the legislature.”

Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said he now believes it is time to take a second look at the Act.

“It’s a healthy idea for a committee of jurisdiction to re-evaluate and take a sounding of where we are and where we need to be in a future,” said Hobbins, who voted in favor of the Wind Energy Act in 2008. He said the committee could take “a step back and looking at the whole thing,” especially, he said, because he was disinclined to take five communities out of the expedited wind area without looking at how other communities felt.

“Instead of picking and choosing, that whole issue should be re-evaluated,” said Hobbins.

An evaluation has already been done.

Lawmakers on the Energy and Utilities committee in the previous legislative session passed a bill requesting an assessment of the state’s progress in meeting the Wind Power Act’s goals and directing that legislation should be crafted from the assessment’s recommendations. The bill requested that the study “shall also consider whether places should be removed from the expedited permitting area.”

The assessment was delivered to legislators in 2012. In a section on wind project siting, the authors wrote, “The Governor, the Legislature, the Governor’s Energy Office, the Department of Environmental Protection and/or others should convene a panel to identify where in Maine expedited permitting would be allowed in a way that provides maximum energy, economic and environmental benefits and minimum harm to local residents and the environment.

“A public review process conducted by a broad cross section of individuals should be re-instituted to re-visit the topics covered by the 2008 Wind Energy Task Force that identified the expedited permitting areas and the process.”

No action has been taken by the legislature on the report’s recommendations. And the Energy and Utilities committee postponed the work session on LD 616, with no re-scheduled date announced.

Former Rep. Wright Pinkham, a Republican who lives in Lexington Township, testified in favor of LD 616 and told lawmakers he regretted his 2008 vote to pass the Wind Energy Act. Several weeks later, sitting in the dining room of Highland Plantation’s Claybrook Mountain Lodge, he reflected on legislators’ reactions the day he testified.

“Sitting there, talking with them, they absolutely agree what the ramifications are. Between shaking their heads, ‘I agree, I agree,’ and the lobbyists that are going to put huge pressure on them, I don’t know,” he said. “It depends on the pressure that’s put on them and they are going to get a lot of pressure put on them.”

And he had hope that lawmakers would see things his way.

“I don’t think anybody consciously voted to take away the rights of people in Lexington, Highland, Pleasant Ridge, Concord and all of the Unorganized Territory that’s in the expedited wind area,” he said. “They had not a clue, and that happens a lot of the time in the legislature.”

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.
 

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