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Wind shelter wanted: Concerned Somerset County residents look to legislators for help against energy developers

BINGHAM – Residents of central Somerset County are becoming familiar with developers wanting to install wind turbines on the area’s hilltops.

While some people see the pending development as a way to increase tax revenue and bring jobs, others want to keep their landscape wild – and retain control over how their communities change.

So, at an open house held recently by the fourth wind energy company in the last several years to eye the area’s high ground, the largest group of people didn’t flock to the bright informational placards situated in Quimby Middle School’s gymnasium.

They gathered around a state representative.

Fearful of no longer living in the shadow of mountains but the revolving blades of turbines, and frustrated by what they say is a lack of local control, people from rural communities are driving proposed legislation to toughen rules surrounding how developers receive permits and do business.

More than 10 bills are currently proposed by legislators to make permitting standards stricter, provide recourse for those whose property values might be diminished by nearby turbines and create a code of ethics for developers.

Several of the proposed bills are sponsored by Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, who attended the open house Wednesday about Iberdrola Renewables’ possible wind farm in Concord and Lexington townships. He unintentionally drew a group of about a dozen people who wanted to share their concerns.

Three test towers – one north of Spruce Pond in Lexington and two in Concord, on Fletcher Mountain and west of Little Houston Brook – have been gathering wind data since December. The nearest test tower is more than 5,000 feet from a home, said Paul Copleman, communications manager for Iberdrola Renewables.

It will be about a year before the company concludes whether to submit a permit application for a wind farm, Copleman said, and it takes a total of three to five years to complete a project. He emphasized, “We want the process open – open to questions and open to concerns.”

One other developer is also measuring the amount of wind: A partnership involving Pittsfield’s Cianbro Corporation has test towers in Moscow and Caratunk.

Boston-based First Wind plans to submit its permit applications this spring for an approximate 50-wind turbine project in Mayfield and Blanchard townships and Bingham.

Brunswick-based Independence Wind’s permit for a 39-turbine project in Highland Plantation is currently under review by the state Land Use Regulation Commission.

The potential projects, however, may be altered if legislation is passed. One bill sponsored by Dunphy, who is on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, would place a six-month moratorium on wind energy applications, to allow time to review related policies. The proposed bill – L.D. 502 – would not affect permits already submitted to the state.

“We need to get some data, don’t we?” Dunphy said to residents. “We need to get some conclusive data for Maine.”

Wind energy developers, however, will be paying close attention to the legislative process.

“Iberdrola Renewables is interested in helping the state achieve its renewable energy goals, and our experience and commitment to responsible development can help the state make use of its abundant resource,” Copleman said in an e-mail. “Without commenting on any of the bills specifically, bills that effectively discourage responsible, well-designed wind development have the potential to stifle economic development in Maine both near and long term.”

People opposed to wind energy development, though, say changing the law is the only way for them to regain authority over their landscape and environment. It’s especially the case for those living in unorganized territories, said Maine guide and Concord resident David Corrigan, since they can’t institute wind energy ordinances. The state land use commission has regulating jurisdiction.

In order to have a say, therefore, “we’ve got to change the law at the state level,” Corrigan said.

“There are very few places in the world where people can live and make a living the way I do,” he said, adding he is simultaneously worried about what development will do to his business and the moose, deer, bobcat and golden bald eagle populations.

“I’ve got clients that have already said, ‘If these things go up, I’m not coming back,'” he said.

Susan Belanger, of Moscow, would see Iberdrola’s turbines from her house and said the thought “makes me sick.”

“We like it because it’s untouched,” she said. A wind farm is “not something that’s right for this area.”

Here are some of the bills pending:

* L.D. 1035, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, would create a task force that would develop a database of scientific studies that document the health impacts of commercial wind energy developments. The group would provide recommendations by Oct. 30, 2012 regarding how to incorporate the information into current wind energy regulations.

* L.D. 1042, sponsored by Dunphy, would ensure that landowners within three miles of a wind turbine would be compensated for any reduction in property value associated with being near the wind tower, if they participate in a property-value guarantee program.

* L.D. 1170, sponsored by Dunphy, would direct the attorney general to establish a code of ethics to prohibit conflicts of interest between town, county or state officials and wind energy developers. Developers would not be allowed to give gifts to or employ government officials or their relatives. Officials who violate the code would be fined up to $1,000 for each offense; a wind energy developer would be fined up to $10,000 for each offense.

* L.D. 1146, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, would direct the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to adopt rules regulating sound level limits for industrial wind turbines.

* L.D. 855, sponsored by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, would allow plantations to enter into tax increment financing districts with wind farms, the same way towns are able to.