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Proposal for large wind farm divides Maine residents

About a hundred people turned out for a public meeting on plans to build what could be the largest wind farm in Maine, stretching across parts of Somerset and Piscataquis counties. Proposed by a subsidiary of First Wind, the 191-megawatt project would include 62 turbines in Bingham, Mayfield Township and Kingsbury Plantation, where residents are divided about its merits. Susan Sharon has more.

The communities have a few things in common. They’re scenic, rural and very small. Bingham, which bills itself as “The Gateway to the Maine Woods” has fewer than 1,000 residents, according to the 2010 census. Kingsbury Plantation has just 27 registered residents, according to the town’s assessor, making it one of the smallest in Maine.

“If this project is approved we’ll have to change our Web site header, which now shows a stunning view of the Barren Mountains to the north,” said Nancy Sidell.

Sidell owns the 310-acre Perseverance Wild Blueberry Farm in Kingsbury Plantation, where she says the panoramic views of several mountains in the distance make for spectacular sunsets, and where there is only one man-made structure visible on the horizon: a single log cabin.

“According to the first four visual impact maps, from 57 to all 62 of the proposed turbines will be directly visible from our scenic farm,” Sidell said.

For Sidell, this is especially distressing because she says Kingsbury is a unique area of the state where the night sky is still dark. Under First Wind’s plan, Kingsbury would have 22 turbines, Mayfield would have 29 and Bingham would have 11, all at a height of as much as nearly 500 feet tall.

First Wind is proposing to compensate each community $4,000 per turbine per year. Kingsbury has negotiated double that amount. And Bingham resident Jay Strickland says the merits of wind development should not be overlooked.

“We need to do something to get off of oil and we need to do something here in this community to get it back,” Strickland said. “What else is there?”

Bingham residents say the town is struggling to come up with new tax revenue and to avoid closing area schools. Some think the First Wind compensation could help make ends meet.

Others says it’s a mistake. Mike Bond of Winthrop describes himself as an energy consultant and former CEO of an international energy company. He views solar as a better option, in part because he says wind energy is too expensive and contributes less than one percent of the nation’s electricity.

“Based on that experience, this project, in my opinion, will ruin this entire area,” Bond said, “because what these turbines are going to do to your community and to your wildlands is so tragic and devastating that you’re going to hate – the two sides are going to hate each other for the rest of time.”

Bond says noise and so-called “blade flicker” associated with wind turbines create health problems for people, and the turbines themselves are deadly for birds and bats, and other wildlife.

But one woman said she was more concerned about a Lac Megantic-style disaster involving crude oil than damage caused by wind turbines. And Jack Lord of Bingham views the project as the next step into the 21st century.

“In the last seven weeks, I’ve traveled from the Pacific Ocean to here three times. There’s windmills all over out there,” Lord said. “They’re the 21st century. We’re not getting there if we’re going to want to go back to the covered wagons.”

Nor, says Lord, are young people going to want to stay in Maine if the state doesn’t move forward. Other opponents urged the Department of Environmental Protection to consider the cost of decommissioning wind turbines as part of the permit process. A second public meeting is expected to be scheduled sometime this fall.

[audio available]