BANGOR, Maine — The Land Use Regulation Commission on Wednesday tentatively accepted the addition of 11 wind turbines to western Maine’s Kibby Mountain wind farm and approved the reclassification of nearly 700 acres of Washington County timberland as a fast-track zone for wind-site development.
The decisions dealt a double setback to state wind power foes, especially those who argued that TransCanada’s new turbines would be a damaging intrusion into the sensitive ecosystem of Kibby and Chain of Ponds townships in Franklin County, two miles from 44 other TransCanada turbines. Altogether, the 55 turbines will represent a $90 million investment by the company.
The commissioners expressed agony over the decision during their daylong meeting at the Spectacular Event Center, but only Commissioner Rebecca Kurtz said that she would oppose the plan when LURC meets to ratify it formally next month.
“Economic development does not trump resource protection,” Kurtz said, “particularly compared to damaging a resource of such extreme sensitivity. If we can’t protect this, let’s just throw away” LURC’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
“The benefits do not outweigh the destruction,” she added, “and I do not use that term lightly.”
Commissioner Edward B. Laverty acknowledged that despite the precautions LURC and TransCanada agreed to, the plan would have an adverse effect on some of Kibby’s subalpine forests and Bicknell’s thrush, but not enough to warrant rejecting it.
“This one has been really, really hard,” Laverty said of the decision.
“I see it as part of our very difficult balancing act [between protecting nature and promoting economic development] to allow this kind of project to go forward,” Chairwoman Gwendolyn Hilton said.
Commissioner Sally Farrand said she reserved the right to vote against other, similar plans and expressed hope that the Kibby decision would not be held against the commission as a precedent.
Commissioners likely would have rejected TransCanada’s plan in August, but the company said at the time that it planned to file a revised application removing the four southernmost turbines from what was then a 15-turbine project. A road to the turbines was also cut from the plan, said Christine Cinnamon, an environmental manager for TransCanada.
LURC staff had advised the commission that the new project would not have a major adverse effect upon the environment.
Cinnamon expressed satisfaction with LURC’s tentative decision and said the company awaits approval from only the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it can begin construction. No dates have been set.
“We have been working with them [corps members] very closely on this,” Cinnamon said.
Juliet Browne, a lawyer who represented TransCanada before the commission, said that the company had taken “extraordinary measures to minimize the impacts on the resources of concern.” Those included the 11 turbines themselves, which are three megawatts each rather than the more typically seen 1½-megawatt units.
The project is also sufficiently distant from population centers to avoid the shadow flicker and noise complaints that bedevil other projects, Browne said.
That wasn’t much comfort to Bob Weingarten, president of the organization Friends of the Boundary Mountains, which opposes the project. Weingarten’s group believes the windmills will mar a lovely scenic view.
David Publicover, spokesman for a group of opponents called the Consolidated Parties — the Appalachian Mountain Club, Maine Audubon and Natural Resources Council of Maine — offered the commission a meticulously detailed list of objections to the plan before the five commissioners took their informal poll.
He said the project would directly or indirectly imperil 55 acres of ecosystems that are valuable and fragile because of their high altitudes, above 2,700 feet, and accused TransCanada of disregarding that effect.
“It’s awful,” Weingarten said of LURC’s decision. “They did not consider the bigger picture. They looked at everything in a very myopic view.”
In the other wind power case Wednesday, LURC voted unanimously to reclassify the 700 acres of land in Washington County, clearing the way for an application to build a 25- or 26-turbine facility in Kossuth Township. The vote came with no discussion.
The zoning expansion will allow a subsidiary of First Wind of Massachusetts to expand the footprint of an already designated expedited wind area of about 100 acres in Carroll Plantation, which is in Penobscot County, LURC director Catherine Carroll has said.
The proposed 25- or 26-turbine facility would be located just south of Route 6 and about eight miles south of Stetson Mountain, the site of the 55-turbine Stetson I and II site owned by First Wind.
In its 30-page proposal, Champlain Wind LLC, the First Wind subsidiary, said the zone expansion and project would be a good fit for the land the turbines would be on. It said the land is used primarily for recreation and forest products development, and the project would not reduce its value.
Plan opponents said during a public hearing in September that LURC would be creating a potential compromise of the goals it set in its own Comprehensive Land Use Plan if it approved the expansion.
If Champlain Wind builds the wind site, critics contended, it would be visible from Pleasant and Trout lakes. Trout Lake is among 176 remote state ponds to which LURC affords special protection in order to maintain their remote status, natural resource value and the primitive recreational experience in a remote setting, the critics said.
Kevin Gurall, president of the Partnership to Preserve Downeast Lakes Watershed, said his group is considering appealing the approval to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.