AUGUSTA, Maine — The latest round in Maine’s near-constant wind power debate unfolded Monday, during a lengthy legislative committee hearing at which advocates for what they see as clean energy traded arguments with those who say towering turbines endanger Maine’s scenic vistas.
Currently, the Maine Wind Energy Act requires “visual impact studies” for proposed wind development sites located within eight miles of a “scenic resource of state or national significance.”
Proposed legislation, LD 1147, would stretch that sphere to 15 miles, though a developer could appeal the requirement if the proposed facility would be more than eight miles from the vista.
The bill would also create a presumption of “unreasonable adverse effect” if a wind farm site is located within 15 miles of Acadia National Park, the Appalachian Trail, Baxter State Park, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway or any other designated wilderness area; and it would force the Department of Environmental Protection to consider the cumulative impact of wind energy facilities — such as successive wind facilities located within the viewline of Maine’s 280-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail.
The bill was submitted last year by Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, and held over until the second legislative session, which began last week. Hayes presented her bill Monday to the Legislature’s Energy Committee, framing it as a simple housekeeping measure to address pitfalls in the state’s Wind Energy Act.
“This bill does not create a ‘No Wind Turbine Zone,’” she said. “It provides a protocol for a more fair and accurate process for considering scenic impact.”
Hayes submitted the bill on behalf of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which has a state position in support of wind energy.
Maine created an aggressive expedited permitting process to promote wind development in 2008. Back then, only one wind farm, on Mars Hill, was operating in Maine. Today, there are 11 wind turbine farms across the state.
Because of the rapid growth of the industry, the state has learned a lot about the impact of wind farms, said Chris O’Neil, a Portland consultant and member of the MATC. O’Neil said the bill is important to protect the primitive nature of the Appalachian Trail.
“We now know that 360-foot-tall wind turbines located on ridgetops of mountain environments can be prominent features of a landscape at a much greater distance than eight miles,” O’Neil said during a public hearing on the bill Monday. “If wind projects continue to be developed in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail at the current pace, the Appalachian Trail hiker’s experience in Maine will be, essentially, a walk through a wind farm.”
Opponents, including the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club and the Maine Renewable Energy Association, say the bill would undo what they call the state’s good work toward promoting wind energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.
“Our concern is this is going to be used by folks who don’t support wind power to create more roadblocks, more speed bumps, more problems,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of MREA.
DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho denied two recent wind energy proposals on the basis of visual impact. A project on Passadumkeag Mountain was denied DEP approval in 2012, but won its permit on appeal last year. A proposal on Bowers Mountain was denied in September 2013 on the basis of visual impact, and is being appealed, in part because the developers argue that Aho went beyond what current state law allows when factoring the project’s visual impact.
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, serves on the Energy Committee. He asked Monday whether the proposals in LD 1147 would start the state on a slippery slope.
“This issue we’re dealing with today is about wind, but when you open this door, would you be concerned that we’re going to start talking about things like logging next?” asked Jackson, himself a logger. “Maybe people on these trails don’t like to see a clear-cut 15 miles away. Today it’s wind, next year or a couple of years from now, you and I are talking about not cutting in these sites.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-North Anson, who also serves on the committee, grilled nearly every opponent of the bill. He said that if wind energy was such a slam-dunk for the state, it shouldn’t need an expedited permitting process, as created by the Wind Energy Act.
“If it is such a good thing for Maine, why does it require preferential treatment, and why is there a constant battle to protect the rights of property owners?” he asked during the hearing.
Another bill by Hayes, LD 1323, would establish that the DEP could approve wind energy developments in the Unorganized Territory only if the proposed location is zoned for planned development by the Land Use Planning Commission.
The Wind Energy Act largely wiped away any involvement by the LUPC in wind development, and residents of the Unorganized Territory have bemoaned a lack of say in what projects are approved — or not — near their homes. A bill to give them a voice in the process was defeated last year.
The Energy Committee invited public comment on LD 1323 later Monday afternoon. The committee will hold work sessions on both bills on Thursday, Jan. 16.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Chris O'Neil as an attorney with Preti Flaherty. O'Neil is a Portland-based policy consultant.