AUGUSTA, Maine — After a floor debate featuring soaring rhetoric about democracy and self-determination, the House on Monday advanced a bill aimed at giving residents of Maine’s vast Unorganized Territory a new way to slow down wind development.
Since 2008, about one-third of the Unorganized Territory has been categorized as an “expedited permitting area,” meaning wind development is considered, by default, a permitted use. Some residents of the sparsely populated Maine wilderness have criticized the designation as a means to cut them out of the decision-making process.
The bill would allow a majority of voting residents from any Unorganized Territory to petition the Land Use Planning Commission to have their township or plantation removed from the expedited permitting area. If the commission grants their request, any wind developer would have to go through a rezoning process with the commission, in addition to the Department of Environmental Protection permitting process already required.
The law would give residents two years to file such petitions.
Advocates for the bill, LD 616, said the measure is an effort to restore democratic principles for residents of the Unorganized Territory in the expedited permitting zone.
“This is not a wind bill. … It’s a restoration of citizens’ rights that were taken away from roughly 1 percent of Maine citizens,” said Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, the bill’s sponsor.
But Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said that argument was a red herring. Residents of the Unorganized Territory have most of their affairs determined by the state — including decisions on budgets, education, forest management and public safety, Payne said.
He said that if Unorganized Territory residents want to be able to craft zoning rules, they should organize into municipalities.
“Of course they don’t want that,” he said. “The cost of reorganizing is increased property taxes. But I don’t think, as a matter of policy, we can allow the Unorganized Territory to have their cake and eat it too.”
Roughly 9,000 Mainers live in the Unorganized Territory, or about 0.6 percent of the state’s entire population. Before the Wind Energy Act was signed in 2008, wind developers had to have property in the UT rezoned — a vigorous process that included comment from residents of the township or plantation and beyond.
LD 616 would restore that process for communities that are successful in having their communities extracted from the expedited permitting area.
Some of the 48 lawmakers who opposed the bill on Monday said that’s too much to ask. They pointed to legislation passed last year that gave UT residents a public hearing during the DEP permitting process, and said it was unnecessary to add an earlier period for residents to air their grievances.
And, because the law would stop any potential development from being approved in a community that has filed a petition with the Land Use Planning Commission, opponents said the law would create uncertainty in the wind market — an area where the state has committed itself to investment.
“If this bill passes, and there’s a very real chance it may, it will create an environment that will set us back in wind power,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. “But maybe that’s what some folks want.”
The bill faces additional votes in the House and Senate.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.