LEE, Maine — A scenic impact expert testifying before the state’s top environmental agency on Tuesday said First Wind’s proposed wind project “comes as close as being unreasonably adverse” in its potential impact on Bowers Mountain as any he has seen.
James F. Palmer told the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that First Wind of Massachusetts’ proposed $100 million wind site avoids an adverse impact on the lakes surrounding the mountain by the narrowest margin.
“I have agonized more over this project than any other,” Palmer said during the first of two days of public hearings at Lee Academy. “I have had projects in other areas with higher-value scenic resources than this, but the issue here is the extent to which these scenic resources are exposed to this project.”
A First Wind subsidiary, Champlain Wind LLC, submitted a second application to build atop Bowers Mountain to the DEP in October. The company cut the project in Carroll Plantation and Kossuth Township from 27 turbines to 16. The cut reduced the project’s footprint by about 40 percent, but that might not satisfy the commission, Palmer said.
“You see fewer turbines from the three biggest lakes there,” Palmer said of Junior, Scraggly and Pleasant lakes, “but you still see them.”
The visual impact of the turbines on the lakes and the businesses and residents that use them was the primary reason the now-defunct Land Use Regulation Commission denied First Wind’s 27-turbine proposal in April 2012.
The decision was First Wind’s first rejection. Anti-wind power activists and residential groups that had opposed the project called the LURC vote their most significant win since they started fighting First Wind projects about six years ago.
The two-day public hearing session, which resumes at the academy at 9 a.m. Wednesday, is the first Maine DEP has scheduled for a wind project. Project intervenors testified during the day session. Close to 150 people attended the Tuesday night portion of the public hearing, which was open to residents.
State law requires the department to review the project’s visual impact within 8 miles of the turbines’ placement on the Bowers Mountain ranges. If approved, turbines would be built within three miles of Pleasant, Shaw, Duck and Junior lakes and eight miles from Scraggly, Keg, Bottle, Sysladobsis and Pug lakes.
Mountain guides and other tourism and recreation industry representatives argued during the hearing that the view of the turbines would disrupt their businesses and drive away their customers in eastern Penobscot and western Washington counties, areas that need the trade.
They argued that the 16 turbines would be taller by 30 feet than the 27 turbines and placed on higher ground, thus negating the footprint reduction.
First Wind proponents argued that the towers would feature radar-controlled aviation warning lights to reduce light pollution and carry turbines that generate 30 percent more electricity than previous models.
First Wind project director Neil Kiely said the project enjoyed support from several snowmobile, ATV, fishermen and Appalachian Trail groups, plus tourism and economic development groups. Surveys the company conducted showed that the project’s opponents vastly overstated the project’s impact on recreation, he said.
Several residents speaking during the 6 p.m. session of Tuesday’s hearing said the project 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.
Turbine fires, wind turbine syndrome — illnesses attributed anecdotally to wind turbines — and fears that wind farms weren’t granting state resident a fair return on their investment were among the arguments project opponents made.
Carroll Plantation Town Clerk Anita Duerr said that the project would bring needed revenue to a town whose residents are considering disorganization because they cannot afford to maintain town roads anymore. She said the turbines were a tourist attraction.
“I understand some may be afraid of what the turbines will look like, but our actual experience is that they have no impact on our daily lives,” Duerr said.
Wednesday’s public hearing will end at 5 p.m. and be followed by a session open to residents that will start at 6 p.m.