BANGOR, Maine — With about 30 anti-wind advocates protesting and occasionally speaking out during its deliberations, the Land Use Regulation Commission on Wednesday approved the addition of 11 wind turbines to an industrial wind site atop western Maine’s Kibby Mountain.
The 5-1 vote to accept a staff recommendation permitting the project came with significant protest within the commission from dissenting member Rebecca Kurtz. She said approving the project “makes no sense,” while Commissioner Edward Laverty complained that state laws encouraging wind projects forced him to OK the plan.
Kurtz agreed with wind power foes who have argued that the turbines of TransCanada Maine Wind Development Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of TransCanada Corp. in Canada, 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.
“I look at the small, rare, high-quality forest community [within project boundaries] and I look at the benefits of removing portions of them, and there is no balance there,” Kurtz said. “Why we are allowing this to happen when there are rare species of concern being disturbed and there are other places to put wind towers, I don’t know.”
“It makes no sense,” she said of the commission’s decision. “There is no [public] value here. I just don’t buy the argument that this project would slow global climate change.”
The capital cost of the 11-turbine expansion will be about $92 million. The existing project has been estimated to cost $320 million.
The law provides 30 days to appeal Wednesday’s decision with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said Catherine Carroll, LURC’s executive director. Phil Worden, a Mount Desert Island attorney consulting with the Friends of the Boundary Mountains, a group that opposes the project, said he will be meeting with the group soon about whether to file an appeal.
“We want to show the public and the commission that the people of Maine will not stand for our mountains being destroyed,” Bob Weingarten, a Friends group member, said during a protest outside the Spectacular Events Center, the site of LURC’s meeting.
“These mountains are among the most important wildlife and recreational habitats in the state. All the evidence points to this being a terrible decision,” he added.
Habitats supporting golden eagles, Roaring Brook mayfly and delicate plant life unique to high areas such as the 3,300-foot-tall Sisk Mountain ridgeline in Kibby and Chain of Ponds townships, where some of the turbines will go, will be destroyed by the project, Weingarten said.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon partially opposed the project. The town of Eustis, the Franklin County Commission and the Greater Franklin Development Corp. in Farmington all favor the proposal.
The project’s economic benefits include property tax revenue estimated at $400,000 a year, state income tax revenue of approximately $13 million over a 25-year period, and $33,000 per year for Eustis, according to TransCanada documents.
In supporting the project, LURC Chairwoman Gwendolyn Hilton said she felt that TransCanada, as required by state law, met the burden of proof showing that the project balanced the needs of nature and the public advantages afforded by the project.
When during LURC’s yearlong deliberations commissioners indicated they would reject the project, TransCanada significantly reshaped its proposal to meet the panel’s concerns, Hilton said, including removing the four southernmost turbines from what was then a 15-turbine project.
Other changes include the 11 410-foot-tall turbines themselves, which were increased in size to 3 megawatts each rather than the more typically seen 1½-megawatt units. A road to the turbines was also cut from the plan and some sensitive vegetation would be relocated under the revision.
Hilton and other commissioners agreed to extend the annual reporting period — in which TransCanada must reveal its project’s electrical generation, changes to the site and efforts to maintain its permit — from two to five years.
That’s not enough change, Kurtz said. She said conflicting testimony from various experts left her skeptical of TransCanada claims. She said TransCanada approached each habitat disturbance individually, rather than collectively, and that the sum of the damage done by the project would be greater than its parts.
Laverty echoed statements he made during earlier meetings, when he said that his approval vote was an agonizing decision, but one that he believed ultimately met state law. He and Commissioner Sally Farrand said they believed that the state’s expedited wind law was a bad idea, but they couldn’t ignore the law and still do their jobs.
“Having said that, I don’t think we are in a position to flout the position of the state Legislature,” Laverty said. “We’re not legislators. We don’t dictate policy; we implement it. Maybe I should consider resigning. Maybe that’s what I need to do.”
“That law actually did not compel us to approve everything,” she said. “It gave us the liberty and leeway to measure each application individually.”
Saying he was glad Kurtz’s comments were a matter of public record, Commissioner Steve Schaefer said he hoped the Legislature would take notice.
“The state needs to know of our discomfort,” he said.