In a surprise move Wednesday, state land use regulators dealt a major blow to Maine Mountain Power’s plan to build 30 wind-power turbines in Maine’s western mountains.
The Land Use Regulation Commission voted 6-1 to order its staff to submit a document calling for denial of the Redington Township project after members expressed concerns about its visual impact, a big step toward rejection. The staff had recommended approval.
“We’re very disappointed,” Maine Mountain attorney Jeffrey Thaler said after the vote. “This is a mistaken decision. This is a sad day in Maine.”
Thaler and the Conservation Law Foundation’s Steve Hinchman agreed that the state through the LURC vote missed an opportunity to do something to combat global warming.
But Maine Audubon, which joined hiking groups in opposing the windmill plan, applauded the LURC board’s action. The commissioners “upheld the laws that protect unique, spectacular areas in Maine,” said Jennifer Burns, staff attorney for Maine Audubon.
The vote came after nearly a full day of deliberations at the University of Maine at Farmington, where protesters showed up with signs that said “Leave Our Mountains Alone” and “LURC’s job is to protect our mountains.”
Thaler said he would meet with the project’s backers to discuss their options. At least, he said, he could appear once again before LURC and try to persuade the commissioners to change course. If they deny the project, a court appeal is possible.
“I have nothing to recommend at this point,” said Thaler. Hinchman called the vote “a significant loss” for the project and said he doubts it will resurface in the same scale.
The LURC staff reviewed a 3-foot stack of documents on the $130 million project before recommending approval of the plan to rezone about 1,000 acres to build the 90-megawatt project on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain.
On Wednesday, Thaler told commissioners that the location represents the “best reasonable site” for a wind power project because it’s near transmission lines and logging roads in a working forest.
“This is not a remote, pristine part of the state,” Thaler said, prompting hushed moans from opponents who were among at least 150 people in the meeting room.
Developers said the turbines would generate the equivalent energy needs for 40,000 homes, with enough clean power to avoid the need to spew out 800,000 pounds of air pollution per day from existing power plants.
But Maine Mountain’s project drew opposition from some residents of the western Maine area as well as outdoors and environmental groups, who said the windmills would spoil scenic views from the Sugarloaf USA ski resort and the Appalachian Trail and pose a threat to rare species of plants and animals.
Opponents, including Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club, even claimed earlier last week that the LURC staff’s recommendation was illegal because it set standards that were too low for development in a remote area, and set a bad precedent for future projects.
The National Park Service opposed the project because of its proximity to the Appalachian Trail.
Maine Mountain’s project was put together by a subsidiary of California-based Edison International and Endless Energy in Yarmouth.
A separate application by the Alberta-based TransCanada, proposing 44 wind turbines on 2,900 acres on Kibby Mountain and Kibby Range, has recently been submitted to LURC. The $270 million project near western Maine’s border with Canada would provide 132 megawatts of power.
In northern Maine, a 28-windmill, $85 million project on Mars Hill Mountain has been completed. The 42-megawatt wind farm is producing some power and is expected to be completely online by the end of the month.
On the Net:
Land Use Regulation Commission: http://www.maine.gov/doc/lurc/projects/redington.html
By Glenn Adams