State development regulators voted 6-to-1 Wednesday to draft a denial of a permit to rezone 1,004 acres of mountaintops for a $130 million wind energy project in northern Franklin County.
The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission decision, which Commissioner Steve Wight of Newry opposed, went against the LURC staff’s recommendation to approve the application and a preliminary development plan with conditions.
Wight’s argument for the proposal was that Maine needs to lead and be part of the solution to change from the dependency on oil and other fossil fuels to renewable energy resources.
But commissioners directed staff to draft a document that reflects its reasons for denial of the permit to be voted on in the future.
“As a practical matter, this was a denial,” Commission Chairman E. Bart Harvey III of Millinocket said after the meeting. “We simply have to memorialize that in a document that explains the reasons for denial and vote on it to approve it. I think we concluded the impact on resources is in excess of what we would be allowed in LURC’s comprehensive plan, regulations and rules.”
Technically, Harvey said, the document could come back and some might change their vote.
LURC staff senior planner, Marcia Spencer-Famous said the proposed wind farm would have no undue adverse impact on the mountaintops, environment, wildlife habitat, scenic views and is consistent with the agency’s comprehensive plan and Maine energy polices. It strikes a balance between protection of the area and development, she said.
The majority of the commissioners disagreed saying it went against the agency’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, goals, policies, regulations and rules.
The commission is responsible for guiding land use in unorganized territory that stretches over half of the state and encompasses more than 10.4 million acres.
Intervenors spoke briefly on the staff’s recommendation prior to board deliberation with those opposed arguing that the protection of the resources at the Redington site outweighs the need, and those favoring it saying the benefits outweigh the impact.
Pam Underhill of the National Park Service asked the commission to not be responsible for desecration of the Appalachian Trail, a gift to the people, and the legacy it intended.
The park service objected to the proximity of the Redington project to the Appalachian Trail and the resulting scenic impact. The wind farm would be located 1.1 miles from the trail at the closest point.
The land would be rezoned from a protected mountain area subdistrict, which is land above 2,700 feet in elevation, to planned development.
Maine Mountain Power LLC planned to put 30 410-foot wind turbines with 18 on the ridges of Black Nubble Mountain (elevation 3,670 feet) and 12 on Redington Pond Range (elevation 4,010 feet) in Redington Township.
People had mixed reaction after the decision.
“We’re very disappointed,” Jeff Thaler, lawyer representing Maine Mountain Power LLC, said. “We feel we have a very well designed and well executed project. We feel it would be an extraordinary benefit for the state of Maine.”
They plan to go back and review their options, Thaler said.
“It’s a very disappointing decision,” said Alison Hagerstrom, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Corp. in Farmington. “We believed it was a viable project and it was going to employ people. And it was a renewable natural resource energy business.”
William Plouffe, a lawyer representing the Maine Appalachian Trail Club among others who opposed the project, said the commission took the issue very seriously and made the right decision.
One of the things the state should do is conduct a systematic review to decide where the wind energy projects could go with the least impact on the environment, Plouffe said.
“It’s a disappointment,” said Dave Wilby, executive director of Independent Energy Producers of Maine who represented several intervenors favoring the proposal. “It’s a little hard to digest and process at this point. It’s a lost opportunity on improving the cost and reliability of electricity in Maine.”
Steve Hinchman, staff lawyer for the Maine Conservation Law Foundation, said they were the only environmental group that intervened in support of the project.
“The reason why is simple: We’re at a decision point. We have to transition our society away from fossil fuels to renewables and zero emission electricity to beat global warming.”
Farmington resident, Donald Whittemore said, “I’m opposed to the project. I’m satisfied with the commission’s decision.” The commission needs to protect the few high mountains in Maine, he said; this project would have set precedent for future proposals.
“I feel really blown away,” Commissioner Wight said. “I was surprised I was the lone dissenting vote. I expected some of the commission to vote against it, but I didn’t expect 6-to-1.”
By Donna M. Perry
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