A 46-page commercial development review ordinance, adopted nine months ago, was meant to give Freedom the authority to adequately review projects that could have substantial impact on the town.
Motivated in large part by a $12 million proposal to build three 400-foot-tall windmills on Beaver Ridge, the ordinance also spells out development standards for cell towers, landfills, water extraction, adult businesses and other commercial enterprises.
“It was a tool for the town to guide development,” Glen Bridges told about 40 people at a public hearing Tuesday, May 15. “The tool broke down when it was put to the test. It was never intended to kill the [windmill] project.”
The Beaver Ridge development won the approval of the Freedom Planning Board, but failed to pass muster with the Board of Appeals when neighboring landowners demanded a review of the decision. Among other things, the appeals board found that it could not meet the noise requirement in the ordinance.
That decision prompted Bridges, a strong supporter of the wind project, to submit a petition to town officials seeking repeal of the ordinance. The question will be on the ballot Tuesday, June 12.
“The ordinance authorized town officials to be pro-wind power,” said Bridges, who contended Freedom voters passed the measure because they thought it would help the project move forward. “As it stands, in reality, this ordinance is a legal liability,” she said.
Not so, said Steve Bennett, who has led a group of project opponents that includes family members, neighbors and others concerned about the impact of the project on the town’s rural character.
“I look around town and I can’t think of one [existing] business that would be affected by this ordinance,” said Bennett.
But the measure ensures large new projects that could have substantial impact on the town will be given a thorough review, he said.
Bennett said residents who are concerned about some parts of the ordinance should work to amend it. “To just throw it out and leave this town with nothing – it that going to do what we want?” he asked.
But Bridges told her neighbors that the measure was fatally flawed. “There are simply too many problems to amend,” she said.
If the ordinance is repealed, developers of the wind project – Competitive Energy Services LLC of Portland – will need only a building permit from code enforcement officer Jay Guber to begin construction.
To bolster her case that the town has nothing to fear from CES, Bridges circulated a letter from the company. In it, CES committed to “building the very same project that was proposed” to the planning board, including the use of turbines with the same or lower maximum sound output; the same setbacks to residences and property lines; and compliance with all of the conditions for approval spelled out in the wind energy section of the ordinance.
In addition, the company proposed to install equipment that would slow rotation of the windmill blades and reduce sound emissions if the turbines are louder than expected due to high winds.
CES also said it would appoint a Freedom resident to act as “community liaison” to hear complaints, visit residents who are concerned and meet regularly with company officials to address concerns. In addition, CES said it would set up a 24-hour hotline for residents to call if they have complaints.
Bridges said Freedom does not need the kind of protection that the commercial development review ordinance provides. “We were protected for a year, and the most promising project in the town’s history was killed,” she said.
Other beneficial projects could face the same fate, she said. Noise standards are so strict that virtually any business that creates noise – a car repair shop, a convenience store – could not meet the requirements, she said.
And, according to Bridges, a provision that requires business owners to post bonds to cover the cost of removing their facilities when no longer in operation would make any small business owner look elsewhere to locate.
The commercial development review ordinance was meant to mitigate potential nuisances associated with commercial developments, and to address a range of environmental and planning issues, including “noise, odors, storm water, erosion, phosphorus, water body protection, traffic, parking, light and glare, scenic resources, groundwater, historic and archaeological resources, significant wildlife and aquatic resources and other natural resources.”
It was also intended to reduce the potential for development to negatively affect municipal services and infrastructure.
Those considerations are too important to just scrap, according to Steve Bennett.
The former selectman gave three examples of developments that would fall under the ordinance. The first is a proposal by David Pottle, who owns 100 acres on Beaver Ridge. Pottle has drilled a number of wells on the site and seeks to eventually sell water commercially.
“That is a significant business,” said Bennett. “He has a significant ability to pump down the aquifer. I’m sure he wouldn’t do it, but he could sell [the property to another water producer].”
The second is Skidgel’s Warehouse, where leaking solvents and other substances have contaminated the site, according to Bennett. “That could have been prevented, I think, with a proper ordinance.”
Bennett also cited a situation more than two decades ago, when AAA Toilets of Albion needed extra capacity to dispose of sewage from numerous portable toilets on a paper mill construction site in Hinckley. Bennett said the company reached an agreement to lease a field for that purpose from an elderly Freedom woman. Town officials got wind of the plan, and it ultimately did not go forward, he said.
“But if you want to leave the town unprotected from proposals like that, I think you are playing a dangerous game,” said Bennett.
A number of other speakers debated the merits of the ordinance, or of the wind power project. Dave Bridges, Glen’s husband, spoke about the opportunity for wind power to provide renewable energy for the nation and cleaner air for the next generation, and a larger tax base.
Kevin Malady, a newly appointed member of the planning board, said he was concerned about rescinding the ordinance. “I have no windmill phobia,” he said. “I want the town to be protected … If you want a different ordinance, direct the planning board to write one.”
Mary Ann Bennett said companies such as CES are in business to make money. “While that can be a good thing for the town, it is up to our town to look out for the rights of the townspeople,” she said, advocating for the ordinance to be preserved. “If we want wind power to grow, projects have to be properly sited. I don’t think this is a good site.”
But Bruce Munger of Sullivan said the wind project should be approved because it would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
“What will the price of oil be next year? Next week?” he asked. “What will the price of wind be? It will still be free.”
Munger was also been a staunch proponent of the Redington wind project in Western Maine, which was originally planned to produce about 20 times as much electricity as Beaver Ridge.
“I’d love to have one in my backyard,” he said. “I’m a BIMBY – Build in My Backyard.”
By Andy Kekacs
VillageSoup/Waldo County Citizen Copy Editor
21 May 2007