A legislative committee Thursday sided with residents in some of the state's western mountain communities in their fight to have more say over the construction of industrial wind towers in their backyards. If the full legislature approves the bill, it would be the first significant blow to the state's ambitious Wind Energy Act.
Residents in townships and plantations such as Concord, Lexington and Highland have complained that the Act took away some of their rights to oppose the towers, which they said ruined the beauty and serenity of their communities.
“I think it’s a positive step,” said Alan Michka, a resident of Lexington Township and head of a group of citizens from the area. “It can only be better than what we have right now.”
The legislation approved by the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee mandates that the state’s Land Use Planning Commission establish a process to allow those communities and dozens of others to once again have a say in the rezoning that was required for wind tower construction.
They lost that right when the Wind Energy Act of 2008 put them in the so-called “expedited permitting area,” where wind development was fast-tracked.
Michka and residents in five townships and plantations in the Unorganized Territory (UT) —Concord, Lexington, Highland, Carrying Place and Pleasant Ridge — asked the legislature to remove them from the expedited permitting area. While the Act contained provisions for state agencies to add areas to the expedited zone, there were no provisions to remove an area.
Prior to the Act, a wind developer who wanted to put up turbines in the UT faced a big hurdle — getting a rezoning. Rezoning was a time-consuming, difficult and uncertain process which included formal input from citizens in the surrounding areas and beyond.
The rezoning process was eliminated by a critical provision of the Wind Act, which removed the restrictive zoning in portion of the UT that was in the expedited permitting area.
To speed things up, the Act made wind turbines a “permitted use” in the approximately one-third of the UT that was designated by the task force as an “expedited permitting area.”
Making turbines a “permitted use” meant no rezoning was necessary.
“The situation we have before us today is that a cornerstone right of a select group of rural Maine citizens has been denied through statute,” testified Michka in March, when the bill had its public hearing.
The legislation, L.D. 616, was sponsored by Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, who represents the five communities, and was amended by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.
If passed, said Russell, the law would only be in effect for two years.
“We’re trying to create a very specific timeline so folks can get out and from that point forward, then the legislature in good faith and the wind energy developers can say in good faith going forward, ‘You had an opportunity to get out of the expedited permitting area,’” said Russell, D-Portland.
Russell’s amendment included a provision that placed a temporary suspension of permitting for wind development in the five communities that petitioned for the change. The suspension would be in place until the new rules are in effect.
“I’m hopeful that we found a reasonable balance that allows people to feel like their voice was heard and to have a formal process, but that we also protected the need of developing renewable energy in the state,” said Russell.
Jeremy Payne, a lobbyist and head of the state’s renewable power association, said the legislation strikes no such balance — and introduces uncertainty into what had been a favorable regulatory climate for wind power.
“One of the benefits of the Wind Energy Act is that it has provided that predictability developers seek,” said Payne. “It doesn’t matter what type of development we’re taking about, they seek predictability, reasonable outcomes so that they know their investment, and the investors that they have behind them, are well taken care of. Their concerns about whether these processes are going to change is ultimately what drives them away from wanting to invest in Maine.”
Dylan Voorhees, the energy coordinator for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a strong supporter of the Wind Energy Act, said the bill was short on specific directions to LURC about how to allow a community to exit the expedited zone.
“I’m not sure that that’s going to work so well because, given the complexities of balancing for local interests, conservation interests and wind generation interests, those are extremely challenging to balance,” said Voorhees.
“It could have a significant impact on how the Act takes effect in the real world.”
Dunphy was already thinking about the next step, when the full legislature considers the bill.
“My concern is these people get lobbied hard by the wind industry and they get squeezed, and it’s a tough time,” said Dunphy.
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.