ORLAND – One doesn’t often pause to consider a town’s shape on the map. But that’s what a group of residents is asking of their fellow locals when they head to the polls for a special election on Jan. 20.
Up for vote is a 180-day moratorium on any wind projects in town. That measure would prevent the town from accepting any wind power proposals.
The ballot vote will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Orland Community Center Gym.
Ahead of that vote, residents from the northern part of town – as well as neighboring municipalities – have been spreading the word about a project they feel could disproportionately affect their day-to-day lives.
New Hampshire wind developer Eolian Renewable Energy hopes to build a three-turbine, nine-megawatt project in the north Orland mountains.
While voters approved that project in 2013 and the selectmen would still like it to happen, a citizens group calling itself the Friends of Dodge Hill has proposed the moratorium to give the Planning Board a chance to create a stricter wind ordinance.
In interviews this week, several north Orland residents pointed to the downsides of locating industrial-scale wind turbines on their mountains.
Many were drawn to the area by its wild scenery and sense of solitude, yet believe the project would lower property values, interrupt sleep and create a variety of health risks.
Dan Hughes, a Boston native, now runs a highland cattle farm on Bald Mountain Road, just below Dodge Hill. He opposes the siting in his neighborhood of a structure as tall as office buildings in his hometown. He also worries about the distress his cows might go through when light flickers off turbine blades.
“I’m opposed to it,” Hughes said. “These are my prize animals here. They’re pretty expensive.”
Just down the road are Molly and Shawn Mercer, as well as their daughters Maizey and Ella.
For 12 years, the Mercers cleared and built a homestead on a two-acre plot inherited from Shawn’s grandparents.
With an assortment of horses, pigs, chickens and cats, as well as easy access to Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust, they now host travelers interested in a quiet, eco-friendly place to stay.
“You can understand why we’re not in favor of an industrial-size electricity generating unit of any kind,” Shawn said.
“We say this being as green as you can be,” his wife added. “By anyone’s standards, we’re environmentalists, so we don’t say it lightly.” For her, the proposed project would create the greatest risks for children and those with disabilities in the area.
In public hearings about the Orland wind ordinance, opponents of the proposed moratorium have pointed to that kind of thinking as evidence of a “NIMBY,” or “not in my backyard,” mindset.
At a hearing last week, Jeremy Payne, Executive Director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association and a lobbyist for wind developers, said there’s “no evidence whatsoever of property value losses [and] no peer-reviewed medical evidence that wind development demonstrates health effects.”
But according to residents such as the Mercers, the fact that there’s not yet a large body of research around the impacts of wind power – a young industry – shouldn’t stop the town from enacting the controversial moratorium.
Molly Mercer pointed to one study by a doctor in Vinalhaven, where turbines have been built, that does suggest negative health effects.
“There may be a decrease in taxes,” Shawn Mercer said, but others around town should recognize it’s at the expense of a limited group of homeowners.
The primary goal of the Friends of Dodge Hill is to extend the town’s allowance of half-mile setbacks for wind turbines to one-mile setbacks.
An Eolian representative wasn’t available for comment at the time of publication. Last week, the company’s Orland project manager, Travis Bullard, said one-mile setbacks would amount to a “de facto ban on wind.”
The company has said their project will provide $150,000 in annual property taxes (and that they’ll also set up an annual $25,000 community benefit fund), but opponents have expressed suspicion about that number based on the tax benefit seen in other towns with turbines.
The selectmen and Planning Board have been reluctant to sign off on a moratorium vote.
Without evidence of any “immediate hazard or danger” from the Eolian’s proposed turbines, Selectman Ed Rankin, Sr. said, “You can’t just do an ordinance or moratorium.”
The current ordinance was drafted over several years from a model proposed by the state. Two wind moratoriums have already been called, and Rankin said he’d rather not see a third. They called for the moratorium vote after two rounds of petitioning by Nikki Fox, an organizer with the Friends of Dodge Hill.
According to Rankin, they “proposed letting voters make the call” before Fox could submit her second set of signatures in order to avoid the delays and legal fees that might result.
Residents initially approved Eolian’s project in 2013 by a 439-258 vote. Complicating the level of support, though, is the fact that residents in neighboring towns would be able to see and hear the proposed turbines.
“I built my home expressly for that view” said John Senesy, a Dedham resident who was pointing to Dodge Hill from a picture window in his living room. Senesy, like Hughes, said he worries about the potential health effects of light flicker, as well as the decreased property value. He’s lived there almost 10 years.
Asked about complaints from those outside Dedham, Rankin said the town hadn’t prevented any of them from coming to Orland’s hearings.