A longtime member of the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission removed himself from the discussion of a proposed wind-power project at the start of a three-day hearing on Wednesday.
Commissioner Stephen Wight of Bethel said he was stepping down “in the interest of preserving the integrity of the process.”
“I have made the painful decision to bow out due to the tactics I have been confronted by,” he told fellow commissioners and about 50 people in the audience.
Wight said a complaint to the commission filed by William Plouffe, an attorney representing opponents to the wind farm, was a false account of supposed behind-the-scenes conversations commissioners and staff held about the project.
Plouffe’s claims were “unsubstantiated,” Wight said.
“He proceeded to create a fictional account of what might have happened,” Wight said.
Plouffe represents Maine Audubon, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, all opponents of the proposed project.
The 18-turbine Black Nubble Wind Farm proposed by Maine Mountain Power on land west of Carrabassett Valley is a scaled- down version of a 30-turbine project that originally encompassed nearby Redington Pond Range. LURC commissioners rejected that preliminary plan in January.
Plouffe, through the Maine Freedom of Access Act, obtained e- mails and records of conversations and unpublicized meetings between commissioners and state officials that opponents believe indicate bias in favor of the plan.
State law and the commission’s policies ban private talks between commission members and anyone advocating a position on a pending application.
The hearing is being held in the conference room at Sugarloaf/ USA.
The commissioners were asked by the state attorney general’s office at the outset of the hearing to declare, on the record, whether they could remain impartial after the controversy. The rest affirmed they could.
One of Plouffe’s complaints was that Commissioner Ed Laverty was contacted by Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan a day after the Jan. 24 LURC hearing to discuss the proposal. McGowan has since acknowledged that the call was a mistake.
Laverty said that on the positive side, the outcome of the controversy “will enhance the legitimacy and credibility of the regulatory process.”
Plouffe told the commissioners that he acted out of a desire to get at the truth after learning in August of the behind-the- scenes activities.
“It was extremely disturbing,” he said. “I didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle … but I wanted to get out into the public what has been going on outside of the public’s hearing and sight.”
“As you move forward into some very, very difficult proceedings, with Plum Creek (Timber Co.’s development plans at Moosehead Lake) and other wind-power projects coming up, it is important that everyone knows that everything is done in public.”
Maine Mountain Power attorney Jeff Thaler characterized Plouffe’s letter as full of “suppositions and guesses” based on “selective portions of the record.”
He said the recent discussions have been “painful” and that in 30 years of practice, “I have never seen these types of accusations.”
“We are very troubled and disturbed about the accusations and efforts that appear aimed at pressuring any commissioners and LURC staff who said anything positive about the project over the past year, publicly or privately,” Thaler said.
The rest of the hearing was devoted to the developers’ presentation of the proposed $110 million, 54-megawatt facility.
Testimony was presented on the need for renewable energy and a reduction in the use of fossil fuels; the project’s minimal impact on the environment; and on soils, visibility, wildlife and the economic effects on the state and the local tax base.
The hearings continue today at 8:30 a.m., with a public hearing at 6 p.m.
By Betty Jespersen
Blethen Maine Newspapers
20 September 2007
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