Some people view imminent wind power development in Somerset County as a way to boost the economic stability of the region. Others decry its perceived adverse health effects and detriment to the landscape.
Either way, change is looming.
Between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of wind energy projects may be developed in Somerset County within the next three years, according to Jim Batey, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation.
“That’s a significant amount of investment, no matter how you look at it, for a poor rural county,” he said.
The influx would represent an estimated tax revenue increase of about $9 million per year in the unorganized territories alone, he said, which would likely go toward economic development projects, tax relief and the developers.
“I just hope we don’t miss this opportunity,” he said.
Though still in the planning stages, the potential wind energy projects within a 1,000-square-mile area in central Somerset County, spilling over into Piscataquis County, would place as many as 300 turbines over the next three years in at least 10 towns, townships and plantations.
Driving from one corner of the area, in Lexington Township, to the other, in Blanchard Township, would take an hour and a half. One of the biggest wind farms in the world in Roscoe, Texas, covers 100,000 square miles and has about 630 turbines.
Some residents, however, say no amount of money is worth what they believe will devalue Maine’s quality of life.
“Our level of concern and alarm goes up exponentially when we see that great number of developers making proposals for our area because it makes us aware, if this proceeds unchecked, the character of our home will change drastically,” said Alan Michka, chairman of the nonprofit organization Friends of the Highland Mountains, which formed to oppose the proposed wind development project in that plantation.
“If this is no longer a desirable place to live, are we really accomplishing anything good?” he said.
Four projects proposed
The latest potential wind project for the area is backed by Iberdrola Renewables, a Spainish company that owns Central Maine Power Co. and says it’s the world’s top producer of wind power.
Atlantic Wind LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iberdrola, was granted a permit on Oct. 19 to build two temporary meteorological towers in Concord Township and another in Lexington Township to measure the wind, said Marcia Spencer-Famous, senior planner at the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Although it will take at least a year for the company to gather enough wind data, building a testing tower is one of the first steps toward developing a wind farm.
Under a separate proposal by Bingham Wind Power LLC – backed by developer First Wind, based in Boston – about 52 turbines would be placed in the eastern corner of Bingham, including on Johnson Mountain, and then stretched northeast through Mayfield and Blanchard townships. The company intends to submit its permit applications in the spring.
In the third project, a joint proposal by Maine-based Cianbro Corporation and Maine Windpower LLC, turbines would be placed in northern Moscow, near the former radar station, and would stretch over the town line into Caratunk. That project is still in the planning stages, with testing poles currently measuring the amount of wind.
The fourth proposed project, by Highland Wind LLC, would have Brunswick-based developer Independence Wind – of which former Independent Maine Gov. Angus King is a principal – erect 48 turbines on mountains and ridges in Highland and Pleasant Ridge plantations. Review of the company’s permit was suspended in April until the developer can demonstrate ownership of all the property, according to the land use commission’s files.
Local control questioned
Before and during the permitting process, developers’ representatives hold hearings to provide the public with information about plans and explain how residents can capture future increases in property value for economic development projects.
“We want to make sure we’re good neighbors during the development and operation of the project,” said Alec Jarvis of First Wind at a recent informational meeting in Skowhegan.
But how much control do residents have over whether a wind project goes in their backyard? Not much, according to David Corrigan, a registered Maine guide who runs Fletcher Mountain Outfitters in Concord Township and believes his business will suffer if wind power comes to his community.
“When it really comes down to it, the people of Maine have no say,” Corrigan said.
Towns that adopt wind energy facility ordinances have some control, he said, but if they don’t have an ordinance, regulations are handled by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. If the project is in an unorganized territory, the Land Use Regulation Commission is the reviewing agency.
Batey, economic development director, agreed there are few recourses for residents. “I guess if you don’t like the law you have to try to overturn it, or you testify at public hearings,” he said.
State law supports wind development
At issue for those opposing wind power development is The Wind Energy Act of 2008, L.D. 2283, a law designed to fast-forward the permitting process for developers.
Prior to the law’s passage, a developer had to petition to change an area’s zoning before it could continue with the wind power development process, said Catherine Carroll, land use commission director. The wind energy act eliminated this first step.
The act also lowered the bar for standards surrounding turbines’ affect on scenic landscapes.
“The law acknowledges that these (turbines) are visible, and it will have an adverse impact, but is it unreasonable?” Carroll said. Before, the developer had to meet the stricter qualification of not causing “undue adverse impact.”
The regulating commission is sensitive to potential impacts on important natural resources, such as national and state parks, historic areas and preserves, lakes and trails. Deciding how a project harms the scenery is, however, difficult.
“It really comes down to a judgment. There’s not a science behind it,” Carroll said.
The commission’s board members, who have issued permits for three wind energy projects and anticipate issuing a fourth soon, also are challenged with measuring the perceived effects of turbine noise and shadow flicker.
“They’re not doctors, so they don’t know,” Carroll said. Decibel levels are regulated, “but whether or not that’s still intolerable, the jury’s still out.”
One goal of the wind energy act, which was generated from a report created by a task force appointed by Gov. John Baldacci, is to generate 3,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity in Maine by 2020. That would take more than 1,000 turbines.
Reaching the goal, proponents of wind energy say, will help the state become energy independent and will create jobs.
According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, 1,000 megawatts of wind development creates as many as 3,896 new direct and indirect jobs during the construction phase and 540 new direct and indirect jobs during the operation of the turbines. For comparison, the Highland project would be eight times smaller, at 129 megawatts.
Speaking for the council, Dylan Voorhees, clean energy and global warming project director, said, “We don’t want wind at all costs. We don’t want wind everywhere, but we have a framework, and that says we really want to push development toward a certain part of the state.”
Somerset County appears to be one of those parts of the state.
It’s a prime area for developers to build turbines, Carrigan said. First, it’s in an expedited permitting zone. Second, since the ridgelines are owned by just a few private woodlot companies, such as Plum
Creek, it’s easier for developers to do business with them than with many small landowners. Three, it’s rural and sparsely populated.
“I believe they’ve targeted Somerset County because it’s an easy place to get their permits with the least amount of fight,” Carrigan said.
Karen Pease, a board member of Friends of the Highland Mountains, summed up her resistance: “The tax base isn’t going to always be there. If we keep our mountains, our tourism will be.”
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