AUGUSTA – Residents in Maine’s unorganized territories may soon have more say in the location of large wind projects following a vote in the House on Thursday. But they won’t have the final say in projects in their area.
The bill would allow citizens in unorganized territories to petition the state to be removed from the expedited wind permit area established in 2007. But the measure was amended before it passed on a 75-74 vote to put the final decision in the hands of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, the state board that oversees planning in the unorganized territories.
The heavily lobbied bill has pitted wind power advocates against landowners in Maine’s unorganized territories, who want more of a voice in the siting of large projects. They contend that voice was taken from them when the Legislature enacted the 2007 Wind Energy Act, which designated areas where state permit processing would be expedited.
Under the 2007 law, organized municipalities can pass ordinances to control wind project, but the law did not grant the same voice to residents in townships with no organized government.
Residents in the unorganized territories have urged lawmakers to change the law, but they’ve never been successful.
Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, the sponsor of the original bill, L.D. 828, said the proposal wasn’t about wind power, but about correcting a law that effectively silenced residents in unorganized territories by denying them to a basic right to a public hearing on wind projects. His bill would have allowed residents to ask to withdraw from the expedited permitting area if 50 percent or more of the area’s registered voters signed a petition.
“That’s what this bill is about, rights and fairness, not wind power or policy,” he said, adding that a public hearing process would also make the permitting of wind projects more transparent.
Dunphy’s proposal drew written testimony from nearly 90 people, as well as oral testimony at a March 24 public hearing, with nearly 60 of those who submitted testimony living in affected townships and plantations.
Thirteen Democrats supported Dunphy’s call to defeat the industry-supported amendment giving final say to the state land commission. Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, was one of them, arguing that the wind power industry had too much influence in the debate and the crafting of the amendment.
But supporters of the amended bill argued that Dunphy’s bill gave a handful of residents veto power over wind projects. In some cases, they argued, townships with a dozen registered voters would only need six people to block projects.
Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, said the original bill would make the act of signing the petition the final arbiter of a project.
“I don’t think the act of signing a petition should be the decision,” he said.
Dunphy and others countered that the bill was simply a citizens’ rights initiative that would restore rights taken away by the 2007 law.
Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, described the original bill as giving rural residents the ability to counter the wind power industry.
“This will allow them to swing a big stick for Washington County,” he said.
The LePage administration, which views wind power as a costly form of energy, testified in support of Dunphy’s original bill. But environmental groups and the wind industry backed the amendment giving final say to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission. They argued that the original bill would reverse the intent of the 2007 law and make it harder for wind development in areas that were deemed more environmentally appropriate. They also contended that the bill would impede development and discourage investment by the industry.
The amended proposal now faces additional votes in the Senate and House before advancing to Gov. Paul LePage.
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