Several proposals aimed at Maine’s wind power industry were up for hearings today at the State House. One would restrict wind turbine development, with the stated purpose of protecting Maine’s scenic character. The other, say supporters, would restore the rights of those in unorganized territories to have a voice in proposed wind developments. As Patty Wight reports, business owners, and even some environmental groups, are split on how to balance developing renewable power with scenic interests.
Britain may have its crown jewels, but if you ask Chris O’Neil of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, Maine is home to equally precious jewels: Acadia National Park, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Baxter State Park, and the Appalachian Trail. And he says their natural beauty should be protected from the sight of wind turbines that stretch hundreds of feet into the sky.
“We now know that 360-foot-tall wind turbines – that are now around 500 feet – located on ridgetops in mountain environments, can be very prominent features of the landscape,” O’Neil said.
Right now, Maine has an eight-mile so-called “scenic impact zone” around wind turbine development. But O’Neil and others are supporting a bill that would expand that zone to 15 miles.
The national Appalachian Mountain Club is in favor as well, says David Publicover, who was part of a task force that created the eight-mile scenic buffer back in 2008.
“With time, I come to see that the task force and the wind siting law got some things right. I think there are some things need to be corrected,” Publicover said. “And one of the things I think is necessary to correct is the way we assess visual impacts.”
But another environmental group, the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club – opposes the bill. Director Glen Brand says that protection of the environment must include the development of renewable wind power.
“From ocean acidification, toxic air pollution, coastal erosion, extreme weather events, and alarming threats to our fisheries, such as the green crab invasion, Maine is already suffering from rising carbon pollution,” Brand said. Brand says the bills will impose unnecessary roadblocks to meaningful wind development.
Underscoring that point, Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association held up a map during his testimony that highlighted in red the areas in Maine that would be off limits to wind development. It cuts a swath that extends from Grafton Notch in western Maine and curves up Mount Katahdin, and includes large splotches along the coast.
“It’s not as though we’re talking about small areas,” Payne aid. “This is a huge huge change in what becomes an unreasonable adverse impact” – which, Payne says, will send developers scurrying to other states to develop wind power.
But just as environmental groups are divided on the issue, so too are some businesses. Robert Gerry of HarMac Rebar and Steel in Fryeburg says the wind power industry has brought much-needed work to the company’s 50 employees.
“We’re in a horribly depressed construction economy,” Gerry said. “The state needs these jobs. We need this work. All of our folks need this work. Please try to keep this thing rolling. Don’t slow it down.”
But Patrick Patterson, owner of Wheatons Lodge in Forest City Township, says it will have the opposite effect on his sporting camp business, which employs 20 people.
“If you bring the windmills in across the ridges or around the lakes and things, you will destroy my business. You’ll take it away from me,” he said. “People are not coming here to look at the windmills. They’re not.”
And because Patterson lives in an unorganized township, he lost his right to have a say in wind power development under the Maine Wind Energy Act in 2008, which established wind development as a permitted use. A bill before the committee would restore that right.
“What I’m asking for is the right, as a person who lives in an unorganized township, is the ability to have a say of where and what is considered a scenic value or historic value or a brand of Maine,” Patterson said.
Some members of the committee questioned whether using scenic character as a reason to impose restrictions on wind development will pave the way for future restrictions on other Maine industriesm such as logging.
But one Appalachian Trail hiker suggested that Maine lawmakers have the wrong focus all together, and instead of considering energy production, should promote energy conservation.
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