December 2, 2010

LURC grants initial approval to Kibby wind expansion

Reported By: Susan Sharon, The Maine Public Broadcating Network, 1 December 2010

Members of the Land Use Regulation Commission have followed the recommendation of their staff and given initial approval to a controversial expansion of the Kibby Wind Power Project in northern Franklin County. LURC’s five-to-one, non-binding vote reverses an earlier decision to deny TransCanada’s proposed 15-turbine, $100 million expansion. The project has since been scaled back to 11 turbines but still raises plenty of concerns–some from LURC members themselves.

Commissioner Ed Laverty says directing staff to write an order granting the Kibby expansion is the most difficult decision he’s ever had to make about a windpower project. “It really gave me heartburn. I mean it really, really–this is almost esophageal reflux, or whatever it is–this is really, really difficult for me.”

The difficulty for Laverty, other commissioners and several environmental groups is that the proposed site in the Sisk Mountain ridge line is an ecologically sensitive area; home to a rare subalpine forest and a bird species designated at the highest level of conservation priority–the Bicknell’s Thrush.

Dave Publicover is with the Appalachian Mountain Club, but his testimony came on behalf of Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which also oppose the project because they say it will destroy important natural resources and permanently alter the view from the nearby Chain of Ponds, where outdoor enthusiasts go to camp, hike and swim.

“The applicant has stated that our position is inconsistent with existing commission precedent, however, since the development of the state’s downhill ski areas, we are aware of no LURC decision that has permitted this level of impact to a natural community–certainly no wind power project has been approved with this level of impact,” Publicover said.

Bob Weingarten of the group Friends of the Boundary Mountains says LURC staff ignored many of the issues raised by environmental groups when they recommended approval of the project, specifically that an expansion of 11 turbines near the 44 already at Kibby will result in an “industrial cluster” that is not consistent with a mountain protected zone.

“The industrial development of Sisk Mountain to expand the Kibby project to 11 more turbines will tip the balance too far by creating an industrial cluster who cumulative undue impacts cannot meet the applicable standards and will become the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Weingarten said.

While commissioners said they agreed that the project would create an adverse impact, and while they acknowledged that they struggled with the conflicting testimony of experts hired by both sides, they said their concerns were not enough to justify denial of the windpower project in a place where it is allowed and for which the benefits of clean energy and economic development are also a consideration.

Transcanada expects construction of the project to create several hundred jobs and contribute more than $23 million in state and local taxes over the next 25 years. Only one commissioner, Rebecca Kurtz, said she could not sign off on a draft order recommending approval.

Several commissioners said they did not want their directive to be viewed as a precedent or carte blanche in the eyes of future windpower developers that come before them. A final vote on the Kibby expansion is expected in January.

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