By D.J. Hart
Original Irregular Staff
AUGUSTA – The Web site and literature says, “Western Maine’s first wind farm, being developed by Maine Mountain Power, will produce clean, renewable electric power from 30 modern wind turbines.
“It will generate about 250 million kilowatt hours a year, enough to power 40,000 Maine homes.
“The wind turbines are placed on 260 foot tall tubular towers. Three 150 foot long blades on each turbine will rotate at a leisurely 9 to 19 rotations per minute–about once every four seconds.
“The Redington project will prevent more than 800,000 pounds of pollution per day from existing power plants in New England– equivalent to taking 26,000 cars off the road.
“The project will be constructed on the Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble mountains, approximately four miles west of Sugarloaf Mountain ski area and eight miles south of Stratton, Maine.”
These are some of the claims made by the developers that were highly contested during the Land Use Regulation Commission public hearings held at Sugarloaf base lodge earlier in the month.
LURC hosted a marathon hearing that lasted three days and left the commissioners swirling with drastic differences of opinion in testimony and great disparity in the facts as presented by both side.
“I think from an organizational standpoint the hearings were highly successful,” Land Use Regulation Commissions Staff Director Catherine Carroll said after the meeting. “Logistically everything went well.”
“We had 30 hours of public hearing, a marathon, but the participants did a great job adhering to a very strict schedule”¦ Everyone who offered testimony was helpful for the commissioners to make their decision.
“We have not had a hearing that was that long and with so many people that I can remember,” Carroll said.
The director reflected back 10 years ago to perhaps a similar highly attended and deeply heated public hearing where a wind power project called Kennetec was on the table. That project was approved by the commission, but never came to fruition due to the applicant’s bankruptcy.
The next step for the commission is to have the staff make a formal recommendation to the commissioners which should take place sometime at a meeting in the fall. “This is a very tough and difficult for the commissioner because of the strong views that have been presented by both the opponents and the proponents. No matter what the commissioners decide it’s going to upset many people,” Carroll added.
The Irregular was able to catch up with some of the applicants and intervenors after the hearing by sending an email with questions out to most all listed intervenors on LURC’s Web site. Many were happy to respond.
“The hearings went well,” Dave Wilby of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine said. “They were very thorough and the commission was very attentive and engaged. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of passion on both sides of the debate. A strong case was made for the Redington wind project, and I don’t feel that the points made by opponents were able to stop the project’s momentum.
“The primary point made by my organization, is that Maine needs more power generation, and especially renewable power such as wind. I’m confident that the hearings left the Commission with the sense that there is no question that Maine needs wind power. (This is important because, to satisfy the criteria for approval of this project, LURC must find that there is a “˜demonstrated need’ for it.)”
“I feel we did get our points across,” said JT Horn, New England Director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “We showed that the Appalachian Trail would be devastated by the wind farm. The essential value of the A.T. is a place to escape the day-to-day and walk in a place where nature dominates. This 33 mile section of trail from Route 4 to Route 27 is amongst the most remote, primitive and scenic along the entire 2,175 mile route,” Horn stated.
He explained that the wind farm would change the setting from being a place of undeveloped peaks to industrial scale development. “Many of the people who spoke out against the project, both from Franklin County, and from across Maine cited the Appalachian Trail and the Western Mountains as being a very special place, worthy of protection, not development,” Horn added.
Harley Lee, president of Endless Energy, and partner of Maine Mountain Power thought the hearings went well overall. “There was a tremendous amount of information discussed over a relatively short period of time. We hit the highlights. I think LURC will make an informed decision,” Lee said.
The developer said that he recognized that the Commissioners were disappointed in some of the disparity between testimonies. “There is still a lot of disagreement,” Lee added.
“We think it’s the right project at the right place at the right time. We did a survey in the spring and Mainers are 9-1 in favor of the Redington Wind Farm, Lee stated after the meeting.”
“The more we’ve learned about the project, the less we like it,” Horn added. “Maine Audubon offered very compelling testimony that these mountains contain some of the rarest wildlife habitat in the state of Maine. The most important species is the Bicknell’s Thrush and the Northern Bog Lemming. Blasting roads and power lines to the top will not only harm the scenery, but many rare species as well. We also learned that the road engineer hired by the developer has never walked all of the ground where he proposes to build the roads,” Horn said. He claimed the work was done back in the office on a computer and there was no field verification of slopes, wetlands or other resources.
“Anyone who has spent a lot of time walking in the woods knows that building a road to a 4,000 foot mountain in the middle of winter (yes, they want to build the roads at high elevation in January) is a recipe for massive erosion once the spring melt comes and all of the exposed soil on the steep slopes washes away. Hopefully, the LURC Commissioners have enough common sense to see how ill advised this plan is,” Horn explained.
“Another thing we learned from the hearing is that much of the time, the energy that will be offset will not be coal or oil, it will be either the cleanest of the fossil sources (natural gas which does not emit mercury) or more likely biomass at the Boralex Plant in Stratton or the Hydro stations on the Dead and Kennebec Rivers. The developer has led people to believe that his wind farm will stop mountaintop removal mining and mercury pollution. These benefits are oversold,” Horn claimed.
“We think the hearings went well,” said Marie Malin of Maine Audubon in an e-mail after the hearing. “Our witnesses did a good job making our key points and revealing holes in the application. The LURC commissioners treated our witnesses with respect and asked excellent questions.”
Malin said the majority of the public present spoke out against the project. “This public testimony was clearly from the heart and effective in describing the unique and special character of the area,” Malin added.
Maine Audubon recognizes that wind power is an integral part of Maine’s renewable energy future, and it supports all wind-power development that is sited, designed, constructed and operated to minimize harmful impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat.
In fact, Maine Audubon has been working with energy developers and representatives of state and federal agencies to develop a process that could speed approval of wind-power projects in Maine.
Lee explained that our energy system is not on a sustainable path for the future and it’s becoming more and more painfully evident now. “I think it’s time we get started. Redington will not save the world but certainly it’s an important first step,” Lee said. “I know LURC will consider the wind project, we are hopeful that they’ll agree with it,” Lee added.
Dain Trafton of Phillips and the founder of Friends of the Western Mountains thought the hearings went very well. “Lots of people had a chance to speak and be heard,” Trafton said.
“Friends of the Western Mountains argued that the proposed wind plant will harm our mountains, our natural environment and our local economy, which depends to significant degree on nature tourism and on real estate. Moreover, we made the case that the plant will do very little, if anything, to reduce the emissions that cause global warming. We believe the commissioners paid close attention to what we said,” Trafton explained after the meeting.
“Yes, we think the hearings went well,” said Donald Owen an Environmental Protection Specialist for the National Park Service. “The National Park Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and many others had an opportunity to describe the national, regional and local significance of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. We also had the opportunity to explain to the commissioners how the proposed Redington Wind Farm project would adversely affect the scenic, recreational, and natural resources of the 32-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that passes through the Western Maine Mountains, which is one of the absolute jewels of the entire Trail. Hopefully, the Commissioners were receptive to our message, Owen explained.
The specialist for the National Park Service said they remain very concerned about the potential impacts of the proposed project on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. “If it is built, the proposed project would have a significant and unmitigatable impact on the scenery of this remarkable section of the Appalachian Trail.”
Carroll noted that the decision was hard but what makes it easier is the statutory review criteria that the commissioners will follow to make their decision. “The statutory criterion that LURC follows has been around for 30 years. It works,” Carroll stated.
The director noted that the transcript itself from the Public Hearing itself was 800 to 900 pages and said that she is not at a point of making a statement toward her recommendation. “I’d like for the record to close and to have time to review all the material and then study the review criteria. “It’s a hefty record that’s about a foot-and-a-half tall and that’s not including the application itself.”
“Once the commissioners make their decision anyone can appeal to the Superior Court”¦ The judge has the final say and is the final step,” Carroll said.
The Land Use Regulation Commission consists of a paid staff of 24 who are run by volunteer commissioners who are appointed by the Governor.
Trafton explained his perception of the lengthy hearings. “If I may borrow an analogy from my very brief career as an amateur boxer, I would say that the hearings were like a fifteen round match in which both sides traded a lot of hard blows, and neither side scored a knock out. However, I think that at the end of the fight the opposition (Friends of the Western Mountains, the Appalachian Trail group, Maine Audubon, and the Appalachian Mountain Club) were clearly ahead on points, and even had the applicant on the ropes over the issue of avoided emissions. I think the commissioners will see it that way and vote not to rezone.”
“Right now” Wilby said, “It would be difficult to handicap how the commissioners will vote. Nonetheless, I’m cautiously optimistic that the commission will decide in the end that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and therefore approve the project. In the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if they pose additional questions to the parties and perhaps others, “Wilby added.
“I am very hopeful that the commissioners will see that this site is not suitable for industrial development,” Horn said. “We think the western mountains are a very special place and we did our best to convey this to them (as much as one can from inside the Sugarloaf Base Lodge). Also, it is very clear that according to LURC’s own policies that wind farms are not treated any differently than other forms of development. I believe that if LURC follows their own Comprehensive Land Use Plan then there is no way they should permit any kind of development on such remote and fragile mountaintops,” the New England Director for the ATC said.
“We don’t know what the commissioners will decide,” Malin said. “They have a big task ahead of them, to review all the evidence in light of the legal standards in order to make a decision,” said the Audubon spokesman.
Owen, an Environmental Protection Specialist for the Park Service, said, “The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission regulations were developed to ensure that lands in the unorganized townships are used and managed in a way that ensures protection of other public and private lands, with a special emphasis on protecting existing uses and important natural, cultural, and recreational resources.
“We hope that the commissioners recognize the importance of existing resources like the Appalachian Trail and the severity of the impacts associated with the proposed project and act in accordance with their regulations, which clearly state that projects that would have undue adverse impacts on other lands and resources should be denied.”
The hearing record to allow written statements closed on Monday Aug. 14, but remains open for rebuttals until Aug. 21. It is expected the LURC Staff will make their recommendation to the commissioners within 60 to 90 days.