BANGOR – The Land Use Regulation Commission approved an expansion to the Kibby Wind Power Project Wednesday evening, which will place a series of turbines along the Sisk Mountain ridge in northern Franklin County.
The LURC committee voted 5 to 1 to order the LURC staff to draft a document approving the 11-turbine expansion, which was submitted by developer TransCanada Maine Wind Development, Inc. The expansion is a smaller version of a 15-turbine project originally announced in October 2009 by TransCanada, which had been unanimously panned by the LURC committee in deliberations earlier this year.
The LURC committee heard closing remarks from consolidated parties in opposition to the development and from representatives of TransCanada, then went over the staff’s recommendation for the expansion, which had been to approve the project.
The $320 million, 44-turbine project located on Kibby Mountain and Kibby Range was approved by LURC in 2008. TransCanada’s original, $100 million proposal would have added another 15 Vestas V90 turbines on the 3,300-foot Sisk Mountain ridge line, located to the west and immediately adjacent to the Kibby project. The 15 turbines would have produced another 45 megawatts, utilize a new substation and 325 feet of transmission line to run the power through the Kibby project’s infrastructure.
On July 8, following roughly seven months of proposals, hearings and public comment, the LURC committee voted in a non-binding straw poll to not approve the project. Several commissioners, at that time, stated they had no problem with the eight turbines proposed along the northern half of the project, but the seven turbines along the southern portion end caused enough of an impact to nix the entire project. A final vote on the project was anticipated in August.
On Aug. 5, the LURC committee tabled the issue, to allow the company time to downsize and resubmit its expansion plans. LURC did so, dropping four turbines and associated access roads located on the more-controversial southern portion of the ridge. These turbines were singled out for their high visibility from the nearby Chain of Ponds, as well as effectively bisecting the sub-alpine habitat of the Bicknell’s Thrush, a threatened species of bird.
The concessions did not garner support for the expansion from several organizations in opposition. A number of these, including Maine Audubon, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, formed a consolidated party which made its case before LURC. Also in opposition was the Friends of the Boundary Mountains organization, which has opposed similar developments in northern Franklin County in the past.
Generally, those in opposition said the expansion’s impact needed to be considered alongside the existing, 44-turbine, installation, creating what FBM spokesman Bob Weingarten identified as an “industrial cluster.” Specifically, much of the commentary was directed toward the visual impact of the 11 turbines, and the associated impact on nature-based tourism in the area, and the environmental impact on the Bicknell’s Thrush habitat. Weingarten drew the committee’s attention to the delicate nature of high-altitude areas, for which special protections exist within LURC’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, or CULP.
“We have great disappointment in the evidence and conclusions reached by the [LURC] staff,” Weingarten said.
Speaking in support of the project was Juliet Browne, of Dana Verrill LLP, who represents TransCanada. Browne pointed to the company’s willingness to eliminate four turbines, as well as move another, as evidence of its desire to mitigate environmental impact. She also pointed to the fact that the 11 turbines were located within the so-called “expedited wind permitting area” laid out in the 2009 Wind Energy Act, which indicated areas where wind power development could make sense. TransCanada Environmental Manager Christine Cinnamon, said the successful development of the Kibby project should be held in their favor.
“We didn’t screw up on Kibby,” Cinnamon told the committee, “and we won’t screw up here.”
Discussion among the committee members revolved around the impact on the viewshed and the thrush habitat. Regarding the former issue, committee members expressed concern when a computerized image of a particular view from the Chain of Ponds, featuring the expansion turbines, was revealed to not include an access road which would need to be cleared to reach the site location. Despite this, all six committee members said they did not feel the visual impact of the project rose to the level of “unduly adverse impact” for them to disqualify it.
The debate over the thrush habitat was more extensive. Several committee members, while saying they were concerned about any impact to the sub-alpine habitat, said they did not believe the adverse impact rose to the level of “undue.”
Commissioner Edward Laverty, saying the decision was one of the more difficult ones he believed the LURC board had encountered, said that he didn’t believe the adverse impact was significant enough to disqualify the project. He recommended that a series of impact reduction steps suggested by the Maine Natural Areas Program be included in the final document drafted by the LURC staff.
Commissioner Rebecca Kurtz said that she could not support the project because of the impact to the sub-alpine zone.
“If we can’t protect this,” she said, “let’s just throw away the CRUP. This is the sensitive of the sensitive.”
Other commissioners stated they felt the new expansion fit within LURC’s requirements.
“I believe that the project in its revised form, because I absolutely didn’t support the original, is acceptable,” Commissioner Sally Farrand said.
Commissioners effectively approved the project by a vote of 5 in favor and one opposed. The completion date for the expansion, pushed back from last year’s initial proposal, is 2012.
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