AUGUSTA – First, Steve Bennett passed out pictures, which showed the wind turbine tower looming over his house in Freedom.
Then, he told the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee about the incessant noise, and the flickering light from rotating blades that enters his window and makes the room appear to be moving.
Anyone who says the intrusions from the Beaver Ridge wind farm don’t lower the value of his home “is delusional,” he said.
Bennett made his comments while testifying Monday on one of 13 bills meant to modify recent state policies that encourage wind power. Drafted by opponents of commercial wind energy, they represent a concerted effort to dilute the substance of a sweeping law passed three years ago to expedite wind energy development in Maine.
Monday was the first of two days of public hearings on the bills, which include a proposed moratorium on new wind power projects, a call to collect information on health effects, and an effort to amend the Maine Wind Energy Act, which was passed without opposition in the Legislature in 2008.
The crowd of people who waited to testify spilled out of the committee room, with both supporters and opponents lining up for the day-long session.
Bennett testified on a bill that would make developers compensate property owners within three miles of turbines for any loss in property value.
Opponents of the bills, largely representing the wind power industry, told the committee that various studies have failed to show that wind energy lowers property values.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, pointed to language in the bill requiring a developer to pay the asking price for a home that hasn’t sold within six months. Homes routinely sit on the market longer than that for reasons that have nothing to do with wind power, he noted.
The two sides’ failure to agree even on wind farms’ effect on property values highlights the gulf between those who see wind as an economic opportunity and energy imperative and those who see it destroying Maine’s forested highlands for little good.
In the weeks ahead, lawmakers must decide whether to begin tinkering with parts of the Wind Energy Act or defer to a process in the law that requires a comprehensive review in 2013. One option, suggested by environmental groups, is to do that review sooner.
The law has frustrated residents, many of them in rural communities in northern Maine and the western mountains, who don’t want scenic ridges lined with 300-foot-tall towers and swirling blades. They have been largely unsuccessful in court challenges, and hope that the new, Republican-controlled Legislature will be more sympathetic to local control and property rights.
Wind opponents have found an ally in Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-North Anson, a paper mill supervisor who serves on the energy committee. He is sponsoring or co-sponsoring eight of the 13 bills.
A first-time legislator, Dunphy said he didn’t have a strong feeling about wind power until he started hearing from residents in his district who felt threatened by various project proposals in western Maine. He slowly came to the view that the industry provides relatively few jobs and threatens the region’s long-term potential for tourism.
“Once we build those roads and transmission lines and change the face of the mountains, it’s done,” he said.
On Monday, wind power supporters testified that the projects built to date in Maine take up only a tiny land area, analogous to a playing card on a football field. And they zeroed in on a top priority of Republicans including Gov. Paul LePage: the economy.
LePage’s position was represented in testimony by Ken Fletcher, a former Republican lawmaker who served on the committee and was recently appointed director of the state’s energy office. Fletcher will testify over the next two days that the governor opposes all 13 bills.
Payne, citing a recent study, said the wind power industry has invested nearly $1 billion since 2004, of which $378 million has been spent in-state to erect 195 turbines. More than 600 jobs were created in 2008 and 2009, during the peak of the recession.
Most of the turbines were put up by Reed & Reed Inc. of Woolwich. The company’s president, Jack Parker, told the committee that wind power has transformed his business. Any changes to the state law will send a signal to the industry that Maine doesn’t want the capital or the jobs, he said.
“Uncertainty is the enemy of investment,” Parker said.
Parker was accompanied in the committee room by construction workers wearing fluorescent yellow vests. They and other workers provided a show of support for the industry.
Their presence was offset by scores of residents, including sporting camp owners and those who now enjoy pristine mountain views, who feel they are victims of Maine’s aggressive wind energy policies.
Sally and David Wiley, who have a home near the Fox Islands Wind Project on Vinalhaven, said they reluctantly have decided to sell their coveside house, because of noise from two nearby turbines.
The compensation law would allow residents who are afflicted by wind energy to move and recover the lost value of their properties, David Wiley said. “It’s simply the right thing to do.”
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