LURC officially rejects First Wind’s Bowers Mountain proposal

Posted April 20, 2012, at 4:28 p.m.
Last modified April 20, 2012, at 7:36 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s largest wind energy developer hopes to submit a proposal to build a new, dramatically reduced industrial wind site on Bowers Mountain later this year in response to its first and biggest defeat in Maine.

The Land Use Regulation Commission voted 5-0 with little fanfare Friday to take a staff recommendation and reject the 27-turbine project during a brief meeting at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel on Godfrey Boulevard. Commissioner Robert Dunphy abstained.

Anti-wind power advocates and residential groups that had opposed the project called the LURC vote their most significant win since they started fighting projects proposed by First Wind of Massachusetts about five years ago.

“It’s a good day. We have been fighting this for a long time,” said David Corrigan, a registered Maine Master Guide from Concord Township who opposed the project. “This sets a great precedent. The commission spent a lot of time discussing and looking at this. I think it sets a precedent as far as how these projects should be scrutinized and what the results should be.”

For First Wind, the bad news in Bangor was offset by the company’s announcement that it had closed on Friday a $70 million nonrecourse construction loan and $6 million in letters of credit to build its 34-megawatt, 19-turbine project in Hancock County’s Bull and Heifer hills area near Eastbrook.

The financing, from Union Bank and an affiliate, will allow the company to move forward more aggressively with construction of the project. Crews are already doing preliminary work at the site and Matt Kearns, vice president for development at First Wind, said he anticipates work at Bull Hill will be complete by late fall. The project is expected to create about 200 jobs during construction and, once operational, the facility will generate roughly $340,000 in tax payments and community benefits payments to surrounding localities.

LURC approved the Bull Hill project in October 2011 during the same meeting at which commissioners ordered staff to prepare the decision rejecting First Wind subsidiary Champlain Wind’s application to build on Bowers Mountain. LURC’s 4-0 vote on April 6 opposing Champlain’s request for more time to revise its project effectively doomed the $130 million proposal.

Champlain wanted to build the wind farm in a rural, sparsely populated area east of Springfield on the Penobscot-Washington county line, but neighbors and guides who work the area successfully argued that the site would mar the pristine beauty of the nine-lake region, considered by some to be one of Maine’s most beautifully natural and unspoiled regions.

Commissioners said they were swayed by arguments that the project would have a punishing effect on hundreds of nature guides and other tourism-based industries employing hundreds more indirectly that all depend on the area’s beauty to survive.

The project would have been built within three miles of Pleasant, Shaw, Duck and Junior lakes and eight miles from Scraggly, Keg, Bottle, Sysladobsis and Pug lakes.

The commission’s scenic consultant said that Champlain’s consultants downplayed the project’s impact upon the region. In their 27-page decision commissioners said they relied heavily on testimony from the area’s guides that the turbines “would reduce the likelihood their clients would want to return to the area and thus [the turbines would] adversely impact their businesses.”

The area’s small businesses include sporting camps, lodges and housekeeping cabins, hunting fishing guides, and retail and service

businesses that cater to tourists.

Neil Kiely, director of First Wind’s New England development, said the commission’s decision was unfortunate but ultimately not fatal to the company’s Bowers Mountain plans. As far as First Wind is concerned, the project met all LURC criteria except one — that which regards visual impacts, he said.

“It’s not unusual for us to encounter feedback from project neighbors and go on from there and build,” Kiely said. “This is sort of the normal course of business for us. I expect that we will be submitting a small project and looking at the number of turbines.”

For Kevin Gurall, president of the group Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed, LURC’s decision was the culmination of three years of fighting to preserve Bowers Mountain.

“We did not have a lot of money behind us,” Gurall said, noting that group members didn’t have enough money to afford an attorney and did much of its own legal preparation. “Initially, as a landowner, I was concerned that the project would depreciate our land values, but it grew to be more than that.”

Opponents projected a 20 to 40 percent decrease in land values with the project’s construction, he said.

Gurall complimented commissioners for seeing how the project would have devastated the area’s guide businesses.

“We were blessed with a fantastic area to defend and blessed with a lot of good people to help us,” Gurall said. “LURC did an extremely good job.”

Gurall said his group hopes to work with legislators to tighten regulation of wind farm projects and to build more protection for sporting camps and guide businesses into state law.

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