Opponents of commercial wind farms are gathering signatures to remove their townships and plantations from the vast areas of Maine where proposals receive speedier reviews, setting the stage for more contentious debates over the growing industry.
The first petitions may be filed next week by Moosehead Lake region residents who want to withdraw from the state’s “wind power expedited permitting areas.” They think the 400- to 500-foot-tall wind turbines with blinking lights are incompatible with the beauty of an area dependent on nature-based tourism. The filings are being made under a law that passed the Legislature in June and took effect Friday.
“There are plenty of other places” for wind power development, said John Willard, owner of The Birches Resort in Rockwood and president of the Moose- head Region Futures Committee, a citizens group hoping to block wind power development near Maine’s largest lake. “We’re just saying Moosehead should be off-limits. It is one of the last, pristine areas left in Maine.”
The Legislature embraced wind power development in 2008 with a law that streamlined the permitting process for projects in much of rural Maine and gave less weight to the turbines’ impacts on scenic views. Supporters say the law provided the regulatory predictability that has made Maine the largest source of wind energy in New England, with more than $1 billion invested in the industry here.
But critics maintain that the law has robbed property owners affected by the projects – and especially those in the Unorganized Territory – of a strong voice in the regulatory review. They believe the opt-out petitioning process is a long-overdue but still-inadequate attempt to address concerns about how most of the major wind projects in Maine have received regulatory approval.
The new law creates a six-month window for residents to petition the Land Use Planning Commission to remove a municipality, township or plantation from the expedited permitting area. To qualify for consideration, a petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the voters in that jurisdiction who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election.
The commission will weigh how the request will affect the state’s ability to meet its wind power goals, among other factors. Interested parties can request that the commission conduct a more substantive review of the petition, including public hearings.
Moosehead region residents are expected to submit petitions Monday to remove 14 townships and plantations from the streamlined permitting area. The list includes Rockwood Strip Township, Moosehead Junction, Moxie Gore, The Forks and West Forks townships.
The robust response from the Moosehead region reflects concerns among some residents about as-yet-unofficial proposals to erect up to 50 turbines in two wind farms in the area. SunEdison has begun testing wind conditions in the Misery Ridge area west of Moosehead, and EverPower Wind Holdings is testing wind conditions on a ridge near Indian Pond.
Chris O’Neil, an attorney and lobbyist for the anti-wind group Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said he heard from state employees three weeks ago that at least 25 petition applications were requested, and he expects even more have been taken out since then. To “maximize the opportunity” presented by the six-month review window, Friends of Maine’s Mountains sent a mailer to the roughly 6,000 registered voters living in the Unorganized Territory to alert them of the new law.
POTENTIAL TO SCARE OFF INVESTMENT
“I know there are going to be a lot,” said O’Neil. “In the next week or so, they are going to start landing on (commission staff). It will be interesting to see how many of them are out there.”
While removal from the special permitting area does not prevent a wind power project from receiving approval, it would require developers to go through the additional step of requesting a rezoning of the land to accommodate wind power. The developer would then submit an application to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which would conduct its normal review.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, a trade group that includes wind power developers, said he is concerned the opt-out process will scare off companies considering building in Maine.
“It has at least caused some people to put the brakes on investment in Maine,” Payne said.
Wind power advocates, as well as those hoping to remove lands from the expedited permitting system, will be closely monitoring the Land Use Planning Commission’s review of the petitions. Payne said he expects the first few petitions to reach the commission will go through the full public hearing process because of the scrutiny on them.
‘THE PUBLIC WILL HAVE A SAY’
“I think this will be a learning process for LUPC, for landowners, for people opposed to wind power and for the industry itself,” Payne said.
Back in the Moosehead region, opponents of potential wind power projects received a public relations boost last fall when the Maine Department of Transportation removed anti-wind signs because they were deemed to be in the state-owned right of way and were not tied to a political campaign. After the resulting media attention, members of the Moosehead Region Futures Committee said they were bombarded with requests from homeowners and businesses who wanted signs.
Willard said he realizes that projects can still move forward even if an area has been removed from the expedited permitting process, but added “at least the public will have a say.”
And then there is this complication: Misery Township, which is one area being investigated by SunEdison for potential suitability, does not have any registered voters at all. So there is no one to even ask to remove the area from the streamlined permitting process.
But group member Richard McDonald said the strength of the petition-drive process in the Moosehead region shows the deep concern about what commercial wind farms could do to the aesthetics of a region dependent on the outdoor economy.
“We’re not trying to pick a fight with the wind industry,” McDonald said. “We are just trying to save the economy of the Moosehead Lake region.”