FRANKFORT, Maine — Nearly three years after a slim majority of Frankfort residents voted to adopt a strict, controversial wind ordinance aimed at keeping turbines off their hilltops, the company that wanted to develop wind power on Mount Waldo has returned.
Some residents of the small town of about 1,100 people last week filed a petition with the Frankfort Board of Selectmen to place a question on the ballot Election Day, asking voters if they want to repeal the existing wind ordinance and replace it with the state’s model wind energy ordinance. If voters agree, Eolian Renewable Energy, based in Portsmouth and Portland, would be allowed to move forward with its plan for a $30 million, six-turbine development on Mount Waldo.
The 18-megawatt Waldo Community Wind project would generate enough electricity to power about 6,500 average Maine homes every year, according to the company.
“This is all about a vote,” Jack Kenworthy, CEO of Eolian Renewable, said Wednesday night during an open house held at the former Frankfort Elementary School gymnasium. “We’ve been having a lot of conversations in Frankfort with people over the past years … We recognize there are concerns in town. We wanted to find a way to address them. We also hear a lot of support.”
At the open house in the now-empty elementary school building, it was hard to find Frankfort residents who were willing to go on the record with clear statements of either support or concern. Instead, the people who attended spoke briefly of the acrimonious, years-long debate over the proposed wind farm that had pitted neighbor against neighbor, some of whom still are not on speaking terms, they said.
“It’s too small a town for that,” one woman said. “It’s more like a family.”
But families, she acknowledged, can have bitter, enduring fights. And the squabble over Eolian’s last proposal — at that time described as a $25 million, four- to six turbine project — touched on issues as diverse and complex as private property rights, health risks from the turbines, the possible loss of property values and aesthetics.
The fight spilled over into a civil lawsuit filed against the town in 2012 by Mount Waldo landowners, which was finally decided in February by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The state’s highest court disagreed with the landowners’ contention that the new wind energy ordinance was an illegally implemented zoning ordinance. The plaintiffs also claimed that the committee’s actions in drafting the ordinance had violated their due process rights under the Maine Constitution, but the state supreme court disagreed with that, too, and upheld the Waldo County Superior Court’s earlier judgement in favor of the town of Frankfort.
This time around, Eolian officials have been seeking comment from residents about the $100,000 the company is guaranteeing to pay every year in a community benefits package. In the door-to-door survey, 92 respondents generated a list that has been boiled down to several beneficiaries. As proposed, the money would be distributed annually as follows: $50,000 in an energy rebate fund, $15,000 in a local scholarship fund, $15,000 in a town discretionary fund, $10,000 for the Frankfort Village and West Frankfort fire departments and $10,000 for the local charities, the Neighbor’s Cupboard and Helping Hands.
In addition, company officials said, Waldo Community Wind would become the largest taxpayer in Frankfort, paying a minimum of $250,000 each year for the life of the 20-year project.
Bernard Madden, one of the Mount Waldo landowners who would lease the property to Eolian, said the town of Frankfort would receive far more revenue from the project than the landowners would.
“I’m excited about the prospects of utilizing some of our property for this project,” Madden, who lives in Millinocket, said. “It would be nice if we [in Millinocket] had the type of wind resource folks have in Frankfort. The reason why this mountain has such potential is because of the geography of the hill. It funnels the wind. It is the perfect site for a small generating facility.”
According to project supporters, Mount Waldo also is not quite a pristine wilderness area. The 1,060-foot mountain already boasts power lines, a rough road to the top and three tall cellphone towers.
“Our view is this is really an ideal site for a wind project,” Eolian’s Kenworthy said. “It should be subject to proper regulation.”
Frankfort’s current wind ordinance, passed by a 244-222 vote, in the fall of 2011, became the first land-use regulation to be enacted in the Waldo County community. It creates a setback of 1 mile from the turbines to each property line of a landowner who is not participating in the wind project. Turbine noise at the property boundary also is strictly limited, allowing up to 45 decibels during the day and 32 decibels at night.
The state model wind ordinance requires a setback of 150 percent of the full height of the turbine, and would allow up to 42 decibels at night as measured from protected locations in the area around the turbines.
Some in Frankfort said they’re skeptical of Eolian’s motives. The wind development company, which also is working on a three-turbine, 9-megawatt wind project on Whites Mountain in northern Orland, in May had to put its Seneca Mountain project in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on hold. Vermont Public Radio reported the company would have had to do expensive upgrades to the regional transmission network before it could distribute its power. Another project in New Hampshire, Antrim Wind Energy LLC, also appears to be on hold — or under revision, Kenworthy said — after the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Commission in 2013 declined to approve the project.
“We all know the reason they’re here is because they failed in Vermont and New Hampshire,” said Erin-Kate Sousa of Frankfort, who opposed Eolian’s previous bid in her community and sat on the committee that wrote the strict wind ordinance, Wednesday night.
However, not everyone in town agrees. Some at the open house spoke of the environmental benefits of having renewable energy.
“As long as there are no health problems or noise for the citizens of Frankfort, I’m OK with it,” said Andrea Danforth, whose Loggin Road home would have a clear view of the turbines. “We consume energy in far excess of most people in the world. If you’re unwilling to change your habits of energy consumption, then accommodations have to be made. The bottom line is our grandchildren and the people who come behind us.”