Bristol to vote on whether UMaine offshore wind project can connect to regional power grid in town

Posted Sept. 24, 2014, at 6:25 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 25, 2014, at 1:57 p.m.

BRISTOL, Maine — Bristol voters will decide two questions related to wind power during a special town meeting at Bristol Consolidated School at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1.

Voters will consider whether to allow the Maine Aqua Ventus I project to connect to the grid in Bristol — should the project reach construction — and whether to add new regulations on utility installations to the town’s shoreland zoning ordinance.

The Maine Aqua Ventus I project would consist of two floating wind turbines in a test site about 3 miles south of Monhegan and 12 miles southeast of Bristol. The turbines would deliver electricity to the mainland via an undersea cable.

The first question on the special town meeting warrant results from a citizens’ petition, and the town acknowledges it might lack the legal authority to enforce it.

The question reads, “Shall the citizens of Bristol allow the placement within our town of high-powered transmission cables to connect the grid to the Monhegan wind power test project?”

Local opposition to the project has focused on the cable between the turbines and the mainland. Bristol fishermen say the cable will have hurt fisheries in general and shrimp draggers in particular.

Other area residents oppose the project for aesthetic reasons — they fear the turbines will ruin sweeping ocean views — and out of concern for bird life, among other matters.

Early feedback from the town attorney and an attorney with the Maine Municipal Association, however, indicates such a ban would lie outside the town’s regulatory authority, according to Bristol Board of Selectmen Chairman Chad Hanna.

“Certainly, if it passes, our intent would be to do a more thorough review,” Hanna said. “We didn’t ask for written opinions on it, but the general thought is, through MMA and our lawyer, is that it would be nonbinding.”

The vote could still serve as a message to project developers regarding the wishes of the town.

“It seems like it would have some influence,” Hanna said. “Whether or not it would be enough to change the direction the cable goes, I don’t know.”

The vote will be the first formal evaluation of the town’s sentiment on the polarizing project.

“We’ve done a couple of informal surveys, but this will be the first time we’ve had a formal vote to get an idea of what the general feeling of the town is on the whole matter,” Hanna said.

Next, voters will consider whether to approve changes to the town’s shoreland zoning ordinances.

The amendment requires a permit for “shoreland zone utility installations,” which would include a cable of the variety Maine Aqua Ventus hopes to bring to shore in the area of Long Cove.

The amendment also includes decommissioning standards — rules for when and how an applicant would have to remove cables and other infrastructure when no longer in use.

Bristol Planning Board Chairwoman Andrea Cox led the months-long development of the amendment.

As the ordinance stands, Maine Aqua Ventus might not have had to come to the town at all, Cox said. The planning board wanted to give the public “the opportunity to know what was going on, to attend meetings, to speak and express their concerns,” Cox said.

The new standards require the applicant to submit the same information to the town that it would have to submit to state and federal agencies, so “nothing more above and beyond what they were already going to have to do,” Cox said.

The development of the amendment and the drive for the cable petition began when construction of the Maine Aqua Ventus I project appeared imminent.

Maine Aqua Ventus was not able to secure a $47 million federal grant to move toward construction, however, and now the project appears to be delayed indefinitely.

About 60 people attended a public meeting with representatives of the University of Maine, a partner in Maine Aqua Ventus, at Bristol Consolidated School Tuesday, Sept. 23.

Jake Ward, University of Maine vice president for innovation and economic development, told the crowd Maine Aqua Ventus will complete the design and engineering phase of the project with a smaller federal grant.

Maine Aqua Ventus will remain on standby if one of the three recipients of the construction grants drops out or fails to meet program guidelines, and it can hope Congress approves money for more grants.

“Absent that, there is no clearly identified funding source to go forward with the project at this time, as far as construction,” Ward said.

The special town meeting warrant also includes amendments to Bristol’s harbor ordinance and a proposal to take $2,000 from surplus to cover legal fees.

The harbor ordinance amendment adds language to allow a harbor master to deal with abandoned vessels.

For the full text of the harbor and shoreland zoning ordinance amendments, visit bristolmaine.org/town-ordinances.

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