ORLAND – The Planning Board held a meeting Monday evening that was, according to board Chairman Jack MacBrayne, originally scheduled as a work session. Board members planned to start reviewing the town’s controversial wind power ordinance, looking for possible areas of improvement.
But the first half-hour of Monday’s session was devoted to a different question: whether the board could even begin that review.
In attendance was Selectman Ed Rankin, who said his board had consulted with the Maine Municipal Association and didn’t support any “revision[s]” to the ordinance.
Orland voters originally approved the ordinance at an open meeting in 2011. Adopted over 18 months from a model ordinance created by the state, the rules have generated much strife in the last year. A New Hampshire wind developer, Eolian Renewable Energy, is readying an application to build a 9-megawatt, three-turbine project on the mountains in North Orland.
At a special town meeting Jan. 22, Orland voters narrowly struck down a proposed 180-day moratorium on any wind power development. They voted 282-277 against the moratorium, which would have prevented the Planning Board from accepting any formal wind applications.
Supporters argued the moratorium would allow the town to enact stricter regulations on wind development ahead of Eolian’s proposal, which still hasn’t been submitted.
Opponents, including the selectmen, said the moratorium would simply put off needed economic development. Eolian has said the project will create a community benefit fund and contribute $150,000 annually to town tax rolls.
On Monday, Rankin argued that changing the ordinance “at this point is unwarranted and in direct opposition to what the majority of voters have voted.” He also said revising the ordinance “could become a legal liability.”
Several Planning Board members sought clarification from Rankin about the selectmen’s intent. If the Planning Board proposed changes to the wind ordinance, MacBrayne asked, would the selectmen officially advise against it but still let it go to the voters, or would they “decline to take it to the voters.”
In response, Rankin said the selectmen would “review” any proposed changes to the wind ordinance, but reminded the board that a wind project proposal now would “go under the existing ordinance as it stands, and your revision does not affect that.” Later on, Rankin said he couldn’t promise the selectmen would take any new ordinance to the voters.
One member of the Planning Board, which in Orland is appointed by the selectmen, expressed trust in the selectmen.
“I think if we reviewed this thing and found some changes, reasonable things, and presented to them, I think they’re reasonable guys; they’re going to look at it and hopefully be non-biased about it,” said Charles Giosia.
But at least two board members, Dexter Johnson and William Orcutt, were not pleased with the selectmen’s last-minute warning.
Describing Rankin’s communication as “uncalled for,” Johnson said, briefly raising his voice, “I don’t think he’s got a thing to say to this board except apologizing for disrespecting us the way you have. We are seven mature, responsible adults that sat here and decided we would review the ordinance, not revise it.”
Later, Johnson, who formerly served as town manager in Orrington, said he’d been comparing the Orland wind ordinance to those in other Maine communities and found rules that could improve Orland’s, such as a clause that would legally bind wind developers to pay the property tax represented in any preliminary descriptions of their project.
A review would be an important first step for the Planning Board to familiarize itself with the ordinance, Johnson said, emphasizing that he was only voicing his opinion.
As a resident of North Orland, he added “I’m almost sorry I live there now, because I can’t sort of divorce myself… I swear that if we get an application tomorrow, that application is going to get a fair and unbiased and thorough review… but I don’t think we’re prepared as a board to do that without expertise on our side, because none of us really know what’s in the ordinance.”
The topic of bias is likely to recur. At one point Monday, Orcutt, who also lives in North Orland, said he and his immediate neighbors would see Eolian’s proposed project “as long as I live,” and that some residents of neighboring towns also would be affected.
“We have a right to review the ordinance, and you can’t sit there and tell us not to,” Orcutt told Rankin. “That’s the feeling I get from you and the selectmen… You’re being very biased about it. You’ve already told us that, just by your actions.”
But another Planning Board member, Brenda Leavitt, flipped the tables. She suggested a review of the ordinance now, so soon after the moratorium failed to gain the necessary votes, “makes it look like there’s a bias and we’re enacting a behind-the-scenes moratorium.”
Travis Bullard, Eolian’s Orland project manager, was sitting in the audience Monday. Just before the session ended, he announced he would raise his own “question of bias” during the public comment portion of the next Planning Board meeting April 6.
After the meeting, Bullard declined a request for further comment.
The board will continue its review of the wind ordinance at the April 6 meeting.