More than 20 Maine communities have applied for exemption from fast-track wind development, but landowners, including timber companies, are challenging the petitions.
Forest products companies that own land in unorganized and deorganized parts of Maine are challenging petitions by residents of the communities who want to opt out of fast-track commercial wind development.
Since Jan.1 more than 20 communities have petitioned the state under a new law that allows residents of unorganized territories to ask for exemptions to the expedited wind permitting area created under Maine’s Wind Energy Act. Several of those petitions were filed Jan. 4, the first Monday after the law went into effect. Those challenging that first round of peititions had a midnight deadline Monday to file challenges.
Communities have until June 30 to submit petitions to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission asking for exemption from the expedited area, and opponents have 45 days following the submission of the petition to challenge it. If no requests are submitted for the review of a petition, it will be approved and the land in question will automatically become excluded from the expedited permitting area.
Those challenging petitions so far include Seattle-based Plum Creek, which owns 400,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region; timber companies Frontier Forest LLC and Lakeville Shores Inc. and Milton Township private landowner Wayne S. Buck Sr.
Rep. Larry Dunphy, an unenrolled legislator from Embden, who sponsored the law allowing communities to opt out, said he expects a large number of the petitions to be challenged.
“The reason I think these large landowners are challenging this is it’s pretty lucrative for them to lease their land. A lot of these wind developments are on high ridges that probably don’t get harvested a lot anyway. They simply lease that land, they make a ton of money and retain the rights to the land,” Dunphy said. “It’s a pretty lucrative gig for a lot of these large landowners. I can understand from a business standpoint why they are challenging it.”
Still, he said the law is not about stopping wind development, but rather about allowing small communities to have a say in the permitting process.
By Monday afternoon the commission had received letters from three commercial landowners and a private individual challenging the requests of seven communities seeking to be excluded from the expedited wind permitting area, according to Samantha Horn-Olsen, planning manager for the commission.
Challenges require the state to thoroughly review the petitions and allow public comment, possibly through public hearings.
The law that allows the unorganized territories to opt out of the expedited wind permitting area modifies the 2007 Wind Energy Act, which allowed organized municipalities to create ordinances regulating wind power projects, but did not give the same right to unorganized communities.
“So many people had been disenfranchised by (the Wind Energy Act),” Dunphy said. “They wanted their voices heard. That was my whole contention. The citizens wanted to be heard and wanted a right to a public hearing.”
The unorganized territory is that area of Maine that has no local incorporated municipal government, according to Maine Revenue Services. There are more than 400 townships and islands that fall in the unorganized territory and about 9,000 year-round residents.
Forest land owners are “exercising their right to request a complete and thorough review of how such a land use designation change would affect their property, its value and future potential uses,” said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, in a written statement. The council represents many of the timber harvesting companies that own land in those parts of the state and has worked with some landowners on challenging the petitions.
Those pushing for their community to be left out of fast-track wind development have reasons ranging from their fears for the character of the area to the transparency of the process.
Amy Lane, co-owner of Gray Ghost Camps in Rockwood in Somerset County, has circulated 19 petitions in different unorganized communities around the Moosehead region.
“The removal of unorganized territories surrounding Moosehead Lake from Maine’s expedited wind development area is critically important to our brand,” Lane said in an email. “The untouched natural scenic beauty and mountain vistas found here are majestic, world class, unique and once they are gone they are gone forever.”
Allen Straub, a resident of Molunkus Township who along with his wife, Mollie, circulated a petition to remove the Penobscot County township from the expedited wind area, said, “We have no problems with alternative power, wind energy or solar energy if sited correctly.”
“That’s the main issue with pulling the township out of the expedited area,” he said. “They’re not sharing any information about where things will be sited and that type of thing. I believe by pulling out of the expedited area the community will have more of a say.”
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said that while the association does not plan to challenge any of the petitions, he said the petition process has brought uncertainty to the wind industry.
“I understand local folks will feel they now have their voices heard, but I think that process is already in place through the Department of Environmental Protection,” Payne said. “At a minimum I think it has caused some companies to push pause on their development plans, and at a maximum I think it has caused some companies to re-deploy their capital outside of Maine.”
Strauch, of the forest products council, also said that wind energy developments can be lucrative for large landowners in rural Maine and that in most cases forest management and wind energy are compatible and landowners do not see a threat in the development of wind projects.
Among landowners challenging petitions, Plum Creek has asked that the state review petitions in Long Pond Township, Sapling Township and Taunton and Raynham Academy Grant Township. Wind developer SunEdison is currently testing wind conditions for a possible 26-turbine wind farm near Moosehead Lake on Plum Creek land, and both Sapling Township and Taunton and Raynham Academy Grant Township are on the shore of Moosehead Lake.
Anthony Chavez, public affairs manager for Plum Creek, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Lakeville Shores Inc., a forest products and real estate company, is asking for a review of petitions from Molunkus Township and Trescott Township. Ginger Maxwell, treasurer for Lakeville Shores, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Frontier Forest LLC is challenging a petition in Dennistown Township, and private landowner Buck is challenging a petition in Milton Township.
The Straubs, who live near the site of the proposed Molunkus Wind Project, said that of the roughly 60 registered voters in Molunkus Township, 27 signed the petition to leave the expedited wind area.
“We just want to be treated like any other town or city in Maine,” said Mollie Straub.
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