AUGUSTA – The Maine Board of Environmental Protection took a preliminary vote Thursday toward rejecting a proposed $100 million wind farm in the Downeast Lakes region.
The board’s action on the Bowers Wind project, proposed by a subsidiary of Boston-based First Wind, sets the stage for a vote next month in which the state of Maine, for the first time, would formally reject plans for a major wind energy project.
At issue are controversial findings about how visible the project would be from several scenic water bodies, and the impact that seeing distant towers and blades would have on camp owners, sportsmen and other visitors to a remote area where recreation and forestry now co-exist.
The citizen board voted 4-1 to clarify wording in an order last August by the Department of Environmental Protection. That order would deny a permit to erect 16 turbine towers east of Lincoln on Bowers Mountain and Dill Hill, in the Washington County township of Kossuth and Carroll Plantation in Penobscot County.
The BEP will meet again on June 5, for a final vote on the amended order.
The plan is a modified version of an earlier one that called for 27 smaller turbines scattered on lower towers. That application was denied in 2012 by the now-defunct Land Use Regulation Commission.
The decision was a blow to First Wind, the state’s largest wind energy developer. The company said afterward that it was disappointed and would consider an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
“The DEP created a standard that doesn’t exist in the law,” said John Lamontagne, a company spokesman. “The Bowers project met every criterion, and a third party consultant to the state agreed that this project met the state standards. If there is a precedent, it is that there is now a lack of clarity around wind siting and development.”
Camp owners who had fought the project said they were encouraged by the board’s action, but realized the fight was likely headed to court.
“We can’t get to that now until we finish with this process,” said Kate Campbell, who owns a camp on Bottle Lake Stream with her husband and is secretary of the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed.
The DEP basically gave its blessing to 29 of 30 benchmarks that First Wind had to hit to win a permit, such as impact to wetlands and birds. But the agency balked at a standard that is very specific but also subjective – scenic impact.
Objections to the project centered not so much on its footprint – other wind farms in Maine have more turbine towers over larger areas – but its visibility from special locations.
Bowers Mountain is in a region that includes the fabled fishing mecca of Grand Lake Stream, and the chain of lakes that attract sportsmen from around the country. Guides, some camp owners and other people who value the remote, forested setting and the dark night sky bristled at the idea of turbine towers with flashing lights, visible from far off ridges. In its latest configuration, each turbine tower would stand 450 feet tall from the ground to the blade tip.
This opposition was countered, however, by local residents eager for the jobs and tax payments that would come with the project. First Wind asserted that the state’s Wind Energy Act requires the DEP to balance economic benefits against scenic impacts.
Bowers also gained support from prominent environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation and the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club. They argued that the wind farm would lessen air pollution and the emissions that contribute to climate change.
To sort through the claims, the DEP evaluated reams of evidence and testimony. Officials also hired visual and scenic-impact consultants, and toured the lakes by motorboat. First Wind hired a visual consultant and conducted surveys to gather impressions from people using the land. At the hearing, First Wind, opponents and the DEP staff used maps, photos and charts to make conflicting interpretations of the data.
“It’s widely recognized that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Juliet Browne, First Wind’s lawyer, remarked at one point.
While visual impacts can be subjective, the standards for permitting wind farms in Maine are specific and complicated. In sum, a wind farm can’t significantly compromise views from a “scenic resource of state or national significance” within eight miles or have an “unreasonable adverse effect” on scenic character and existing uses.
Bowers Wind would be located within eight miles of 14 lakes that meet the state or national significance definition. They include Junior, Duck, Bottle and Sysladobsis lakes. The DEP found that eight of these lakes would have an overall scenic impact rated at “Medium.” But Browne noted that no single lake was judged as having a high impact, and that the DEP wrongly rejected the permit based on cumulative impacts to many lakes.
Dean Beaupain, lawyer for the site’s land owner, Douglas E. Humphrey and Bowers Mountain LLC, argued that the Downeast Lakes isn’t a wilderness, but a working forest. Distant wind turbines will no more ruin the experience for visitors than existing camps, roads and power lines, he said.
After hours of presentations, the board’s chair, Robert Foley, floated the idea of sending the order back to the DEP in search of compromise between the parties. That prompted Patricia Aho, the DEP’s commissioner, to interrupt the proceedings and seek a private discussion with Peggy Bensinger, the assistant attorney general assigned to the board. Afterward, the board made minor changes and corrected wording in the draft order. Then the members voted.
Foley, Tom Eastler and James Parker voted for the order. Alvin Ahlers voted against it. Two other members, Susan Lessard and Richard Gould, were absent.
Bowers Mountain is rated at 48 megawatts. When running at its maximum capacity, the wind farm could generate the electricity used by 22,000 average New England homes, First Wind calculates. First Wind has a contract to sell the power to a Rhode Island utility.