Anti-wind turbine activists suspected that their protest signs around Moosehead Lake were removed by state government and allied energy companies, but there appears to be a less conspiratorial explanation.
The region’s largest landowner, Plum Creek Timber Co., didn’t want a sign posted next to its office.
Maine’s Department of Transportation workers pulled roughly 40 protest signs from state rights of way in the Greenville area late last month. Groups opposing the possible development of two large wind farms cried foul, generating media coverage and prompting a statewide anti-wind group to file a legal request to find out who complained to the transportation department.
On Monday, a Plum Creek spokesman told the Portland Press Herald that the company likely was responsible, but its inquiry with the Department of Transportation may have had a wider impact than intended.
“We were only asking about our sign,” spokesman Mark Doty said.
The dust-up also has prompted the transportation department to seek a legal opinion on whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court free-speech ruling has a bearing on the Maine law that governs the placement of political and other issue-related signs.
Tension has been building for months on the shores of Moosehead Lake over the potential for wind farms on ridgelines in the region.
Renewable energy giant SunEdison has begun testing wind conditions in the Misery Ridge area west of Maine’s largest lake, with plans to possibly build a 26-turbine commercial wind farm there. The test sites are on land owned by Plum Creek, which is why anti-wind activists suspected the forest products company might have been involved in removing the signs.
Also measuring the wind is EverPower Wind Holdings, a Pittsburgh-based company that has leased land for a test tower on Black Nubble, a ridge southwest of the lake near Indian Pond.
No permits have been filed, but some residents and seasonal property owners, banding together in the Moosehead Region Futures Committee group, have begun erecting signs along roads in the region that read: “Save Moosehead. Say no to wind.”
Their campaign received statewide news coverage this month after Department of Transportation crews removed dozens of signs that the agency said were within state road rights of way. Bloggers on the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power, which opposes wind farms, denounced the move under the heading: “Maine DOT becomes the Gestapo.”
The department defended the removal, saying that if signs aren’t tied to an election, they need to be 33 feet from the highway centerline.
Doty said Plum Creek staff noticed a sign in front of the company’s Greenville office on Oct. 17 and took it down. A few days later, the company began to question whether it had legal authority to remove the sign, if it was located in the state right of way and not on private property. At Plum Creek’s request, an attorney at the Eaton Peabody law firm contacted the MDOT for clarification on Oct. 26.
Doty and Ted Talbot, the transportation department’s spokesman, said the request led to a series of emails between Jonathan Pottle, the lawyer, and Chip Kelley, an MDOT traffic engineer who handles sign issues. On Oct. 29, the department sent someone from its regional office to Greenville.
“We don’t have sign enforcement people covering the state,” Talbot said. “When Chip (Kelley) is made aware of a sign problem, he will go out or ask someone to investigate.”
Wind project opponents had set out roughly 200 signs. The MDOT determined roughly 40 were illegally placed. Crews removed those signs and took them to the nearest maintenance lot, in Shirley. It then contacted the group to collect their signs.
The MDOT’s action led Richard McDonald, a board member of the Moosehead group and president of the Saving Maine anti-wind power organization, to file a Freedom of Access Act request for all communications on the sign issue and the identity of the caller who complained. That request is being processed, according to Talbot.
The agency, meanwhile, has asked the Maine Attorney General to examine whether the placement of road signs on public ways regulated by the Maine Traveler Information Act is affected by a June ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision in Reed v City of Gilbert, Arizona involved limits on the size of signs announcing church services.
Told on Monday of Doty’s explanation, McDonald said he will continue to pursue the information request because it raises a larger constitutional question around free speech. He is taking Plum Creek at its word, but said the company should have contacted his group, rather than the MDOT, about the sign near its office. He characterized that placement as a mistake.
“We just wanted to know where the removal order came from,” he said. “It’s a small community and if there was a complaint, we wanted to know about it and the nature of their concerns.”
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