A proposal from staff at the Land Use Regulation Commission to change the way the agency handles applications for commercial wind power projects is receiving mixed reviews from groups on either side of the often contentious energy issue.
LURC is trying to find efficiencies in the way staff as well as the commission review projects proposed for the vast areas of Maine where grid-scale wind energy projects receive a streamlined regulatory review.
As part of that process, LURC staff are proposing switching to a process now used by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that could result in fewer projects being the subject of lengthy, legalistic public hearings while still offering the public opportunities to share their views on the project. LURC is accepting public comments on the proposed changes through Jan. 20, 2012.
Under the LURC proposal, commission members would hold two “public meetings” — one early and one late in the process — near the site of the project to allow the public as well as interested groups to comment. These meetings would be different, however, from the “public hearings” now held during which intervenors and attorneys from both sides testify and then have the chance to cross-examine the other parties similar to a court proceeding.
Samantha Horn Olsen, manager of LURC’s planning division, said commissioners would retain the option of the full public hearing process for more complicated projects that merit the back-and-forth that takes place during cross-examination and rebuttal. But she said the commission wants another, middle-ground option to help reduce the amount of time and energy needed to review less complicated projects.
“This is coming from the commission out of their desire to make sure they can pay attention to the many other important issues in the jurisdiction,” Horn Olsen said.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, an industry trade group, said wind power developers support the idea of having identical review processes for projects. LURC now reviews projects located entirely within the Unorganized Territory while the Department of Environmental Protection reviews projects outside the UT.
“In general, we like the concept of consistency from regulatory body to regulatory body,” Payne said. Payne said his organization also supports a proposal that emerged from a LURC reform task force that would have the DEP review all commercial wind power projects throughout the state.
But Lynne Williams, a Bar Harbor lawyer who frequently represents groups that have opposed commercial wind power projects, said the cross-examination and rebuttal portions of the public hearing process are important for exploring all aspects of a project. Williams said she does not believe the same level of scrutiny and exploration is possible during a general public meeting without the opportunity for cross-examination and rebuttal.
“We don’t think that is adequate to get out the facts on these complicated projects,” Williams said. “I think the state would be better served if the DEP adopted the LURC process.”
The full proposal is posted on LURC’s website at www.maine.gov/doc/lurc.