LINCOLN, Maine — The state’s largest wind developer could face defeat for the first time in Maine with LURC’s decision Friday to deny a request to withdraw a proposed wind project on Bowers Mountain.
The Land Use Regulation Commission voted 5-0 at the Waterfront Event Center to reject First Wind subsidiary Champlain Wind’s request to withdraw its proposal to build a 27-turbine wind farm in a rural, sparsely populated area east of Springfield on the Penobscot and Washington county line. Commissioner Robert Dunphy abstained.
The vote leaves the commission free to act on an October staff recommendation to reject the project at a special meeting or at its next scheduled meeting on May 4, LURC staff director Samantha Horn Olsen said. She doubted that Champlain Wind could change the project enough by then to satisfy LURC’s requirements.
First Wind officials said they plan to submit a scaled-down proposal to build on Bowers Mountain later this year, but that didn’t stop project opponents from calling Friday’s decision a significant advance.
The opponents, who had objected to what they believed would be the Bowers Mountain project’s adverse visual impact on at least eight lakes and ponds within eight miles of the site — some considered “outstanding” natural resources by the state — were elated with LURC’s action.
“This shows the world that First Wind is not unstoppable,” said David Corrigan, a registered Maine Master Guide from Concord Township who opposed the project. “This shows that if they come forward with a bad project they can be denied. As far as I know, that has never happened before to this company.”
“I think the commission has done extremely well in its deliberations,” said Gordon Mott, a Lakeville resident who opposed the project and lives on Almanac Mountain within view of the proposed site. “The application is by no means dead. The applicant can resubmit it, so victory is the wrong word for this.”
“I think it is a significant advance in getting good terms for future developments both there [at Bowers] and in the state in general,” Mott added.
Attorney Juliet T. Browne, who represents Champlain Wind, said the company had taken several steps to answer LURC’s concerns. The company reduced the original number of site wind turbines and the project’s footprint. That increased the project’s cost, but Champlain remains committed to its agreement with host towns as part of a sincere effort to meet LURC’s vague visual impact standards, she said.
The project originally consisted of 27 turbines and carried a $130 million price tag, First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne said in a telephone interview after the meeting.
LURC’s process is lacking in significant ways, Browne said.
“The reality is that there hasn’t been a mechanism in this process for applicants to react to feedback” from commissioners, Browne said during Friday’s hearing. Allowing Champlain to withdraw the application, she said, would send an important message to developers that LURC would work with applicants in trying economic times.
It would create “an opportunity for applicants to come back with a project that meets your standard,” Browne said.
Kevin Gurall, president of the group Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed, argued that LURC had already given Champlain ample time, including a 90-day extension, to revamp its plans.
Granting more extensions would effectively approve “procedural gamesmanship” that would “work to undermine the public process,” Gural said.
Commissioner Sally Farrand rejected the notion that First Wind or Champlain were anything other than “a straight broker,” but agreed with the project’s opponents.
“For us to allow this project to go on and on and on would make the citizens in effect partners in the business,” Farrand said.
Commissioner Edward Laverty agreed that the state’s visual impact standards needed work, but said they have existed for years and that Champlain had been lax in its follow-up of commission recommendations. Commission Chairwoman Gwen Hilton expressed satisfaction with opponents’ arguments that the project would mar the lakes region.
“I don’t see the value of extending the process and I think the applicant still has the opportunity to make substantial changes to the project and come back,” Commissioner Toby Hammond said.
Champlain will rework the proposal and submit it to LURC for review later this year, Lamontagne said.
“Our view is that the reconfigured proposal would have enough substantial revisions that it would address commission concerns enough for them to look favorably upon it,” he said.
Brad Blake, spokesman for the Citizens Task Force on Wind Power, congratulated LURC for its decision.
“We hope that this establishes a precedent,” Blake said, “that both LURC and Maine Department of Environmental Protection will start taking a more critical examination of all the issues pertaining to the cumulative effects of wind power site development throughout Maine.”