Opponents of a proposed wind farm near Sugarloaf Mountain are calling on at least one member of the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission to step down from discussions of the project because of what they say is a paper trail revealing bias and improper behind-the-scenes lobbying in favor of the plan.
The complaint cites a call made by Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan to one member of the land use board after the board’s preliminary vote last January against an earlier version of the plan. McGowan is supposed to stay out of decisions by the commission, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor to oversee land use in Maine’s unorganized territories.
The complaint also points to a series of e-mails and telephone conversations between members of the land use board and people advocating for the wind farm developer. Further, it accuses three board members of attending an undisclosed meeting about the plan last May in violation of the state’s right- to-know law.
The complaints of bias and political influence could muddy an already contentious debate on the Black Nubble Wind Farm and leave the land board’s decision more vulnerable to a legal challenge. It will at least sidetrack a multi-day public hearing when it gets under way at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Sugarloaf/USA ski resort in Carrabassett Valley.
“I received a copy of the letter and I am advising the commission about how to properly respond,” Assistant Attorney General Jerry Reid said Monday. “I expect that the commission will address these issues as its first order of business on Wednesday.”
Reid would not say whether any members will recuse themselves because of bias or privately advocating positions, or what other actions the land board may take.
The complaint was sent to the land board Thursday by William Plouffe, a Portland lawyer who represents the wind farm’s opponents – Maine Audubon, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The groups used requests under the Freedom of Access Act to obtain e-mails, appointment calendars and conversation notes. Their review began last month when land board members first disclosed McGowan’s telephone call.
A spokesman for the developer of the Black Nubble Wind Farm said the accusations don’t add up to very much.
“The commissioners themselves have said they weren’t prejudiced in any way,” said Dennis Bailey, who represents Endless Energy Corp. “They’ve already said they didn’t think any of the (side conversations) were that significant.”
The commission’s director, Catherine Carroll, referred questions on the complaint to the Attorney General’s Office. Commission Chairman Bart Harvey could not be reached Monday.
The eight-page complaint cites conversations that began immediately after the land board’s surprise 6-1 preliminary vote against the wind farm on Jan. 24. The following day, McGowan called board member Ed Laverty to see what it would take to win approval of the project, according to the complaint. Laverty refused to make any calls to fellow members, it says. The complaint does not call for Laverty to recuse himself.
“It is obvious that LURC staff and Pat McGowan’s office wanted the project approved and were shocked that it was not,” the complaint says.
McGowan could not be reached Monday. He and Gov. John Baldacci acknowleged publicly last month that McGowan’s contact with a land board member was inappropriate. McGowan said then, however, that he was not trying to influence the decision, but called out of concern about the commission’s workload.
The complaint says commission member Stephen Wight, the only member to vote for the original proposal, was contacted by project supporters in the days after the vote. Wight then contacted several other board members to talk about the vote and proposal, it says.
At least two fellow members called Carroll, the commission director, to complain about calls from Wight, it says.
According to Carroll’s notes, member Rebecca Kurtz said, “Not supposed to be calling each other. Ripe for scandal,” the complaint says.
The complaint calls on Wight to recuse himself from participation in the review and decision because “he is an advocate for the project.” Wight could not be reached Monday.
It also calls for a second member, Steve Schaeffer, either to pledge publicly that he will be impartial or to recuse himself from the discussions. The complaint says Schaeffer told Wight he wished there was a way he could help the applicant. Schaeffer also could not be reached.
The complaint says an undisclosed meeting last May that included three land board members and a staff member violated state law because it “should have been held in public and noticed.”
Based on that meeting and other conversations, the commission’s staff also has shown itself to be an advocate for the project, according to the complaint. The opponents are calling for the appointed commission members to make their decision without a staff recommendation, which is expected later this year.
The commission’s staff recommended approval of the initial plan, which called for 34 turbines on Redington and Black Nubble mountains, before it was rejected 6-1. The plan that will be the subject of the public hearing starting Wednesday is a scaled-down version that includes 30 turbines on Black Nubble.
By JOHN RICHARDSON Staff Writer
September 18, 2007
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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