Slew of bills target growing wind power industry

Posted April 25, 2011, at 7:32 p.m.
Last modified April 26, 2011, at 6:32 a.m.
These turbines are along the Kibby Mountain Range in western Maine in 2009. Legislators on Monday heard two starkly different assessments of an industry that has, in recent years.
AP
These turbines are along the Kibby Mountain Range in western Maine in 2009. Legislators on Monday heard two starkly different assessments of an industry that has, in recent years.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Critics of industrial wind power in Maine are waging their most organized fight against the burgeoning industry, urging lawmakers to impose tougher siting standards or require developers to compensate neighbors when wind farms harm their property values.

During the first of two days of public hearings on the issue, legislators on Monday heard two starkly different assessments of an industry that has, in recent years, made Maine the largest producer of wind power in New England.

To supporters, industrial wind farms create good-paying construction jobs, funnel much-needed tax dollars into host communities and help Maine move a few steps toward greater energy independence from fossil fuels. Wind power developers have spent an estimated $1 billion on projects in Maine in recent years.

“I don’t know of any other industry that has invested that type of money in the state over the last five years,” said John Cooney, vice president of finance and business development for Reed & Reed, a Woolwich firm that constructs wind farms.

But critics contend that state officials — in their rush to embrace wind power — have ignored what they say are very real health, quality-of-life and economic consequences to allowing 400-foot-tall turbines near homes and camps.

“You are now paying the price of haste,” Gary Steinberg, a member of a group fighting wind power projects near Lincoln, told members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “It was a well-planned legislative fraud perpetrated on the citizens of Maine.”

The committee is considering more than a dozen bills targeting the wind power industry.

One bill, LD 1479, would require a setback of between 1¼ miles and 2 miles between industrial wind turbines and houses, businesses or other occupied structures. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, also aims to strengthen regulations aimed at protecting neighbors from disruptive noise levels and “shadow flicker” created by the massive, spinning turbine blades.

Another measure by Dunphy, LD 1042, would require wind farm developers to offer a “property value guarantee program” in which residents would be compensated financially if their property values decline due to the nearby turbines.

Sally and David Wylie said they were assured that any noise from the three turbines spinning roughly 2,400 feet from their Vinalhaven home would be drowned out by ambient sounds.

But they say the thumping, whining and jet planelike noises from the turbines are so severe — and so disruptive — that two doctors have recommended the family move to another location. Now the couple questions whether they could get enough for their home to find a similar island property.

“When people say, ‘If you can’t stand the noise why don’t you move,’ we have to tell them that we can’t afford to,” said David Wylie.

But industry supporters questioned whether wind farms devalue neighboring properties.

James Shaw, who runs a real estate business in the Aroostook County town of Mars Hill, acknowledged that sound levels from the 28-turbine farm vary depending on a house’s location. But Shaw said he has not seen the precipitous drop-off in home values that some people predict, and new homes recently have been built near the wind farm.

“I have seen no negative impacts whatsoever on real estate values in Mars Hill,” said Shaw, who can see 20 turbines from his own home.

Others touted the economic benefits of the wind power industry.

Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy association, pointed out that the wind power industry has supported as many as 600 construction jobs at its peak. Those construction workers, in turn, supported rural Maine by staying in motels, dining at local restaurants and hiring local contractors.

Jack Parker, the company’s president, said he believes the slew of bills pending in the committee would send the following message to businesses: “We don’t want your investment, we don’t want your jobs and we don’t want your capital. Keep out.”

Several people living near wind power facilities questioned whether a few hundred temporary construction jobs is a worthwhile trade-off when the turbines force some homeowners who support the local economy year-round to move away.

“I’m listening to employee after employee come up and say, ‘I’m more important than somebody’s home,’” said Carrie Bennett, who lives near a three-turbine facility near Freedom. “Do you want to buy my house? Do you want to live in my house? Of course not.”

After hearing more than eight hours of testimony Monday, the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will return Tuesday for public hearings on five more wind power-related bills.

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