MOLUNKUS TOWNSHIP, Maine — Allen and Mollie Straub think wind power developers shouldn’t be allowed to fast-track state reviews of wind-to-energy projects that may be built in Maine’s Unorganized Territory.
The retired couple who live on South Molunkus Road in Unorganized Territory hope they are the first to employ a new state law that allows petition signatures to push environmental review of such projects off the fast-track list — if the petition is unchallenged. The law goes into effect Jan. 1 but has a time limit of six months.
“We are not against alternative energy or wind power, but we are against improper placement of wind turbines,” Allen Straub said Tuesday.
“Proper placement is more than distance,” Straub added. “Features like trees that will absorb sound, or lakes that would attenuate sound, prevailing winds, the placement of the turbine in relation to dwellings in the sun that cause light flicker, all of these things go into it.”
Under the law, An Act To Improve Regulatory Consistency within the Jurisdiction of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, areas in expedited wind-permitting zones can be removed from those zones by petitions signed by at least 10 percent of a given registered zone’s voters in the most recent gubernatorial election, said Rep. Larry Dunphy, I-Embden, who co-sponsored the bill, which Gov. Paul LePage signed June 29. The zones cover nearly half the state, mostly in rural areas in the western- and northern-most portions of Maine.
Dunphy’s amendment to an existing law requires wind developers to seek rezoning permits and follow the regular application process once the Maine Land Use Planning Commission verifies the petitions, he said.
Dunphy said he was pleased that people are planning to submit petitions — he counted 34 to 35 inquiries as of last week — while Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said he feared the law’s enactment has scared off at least one potential investor in Maine wind power.
“People need to be heard. They need to be heard as constituents, not as an industry or landowner or developer,” Dunphy said Tuesday. “A lot of the people who live in these unorganized territories do so for specific reasons. If the majority of them want to have windmills in their areas, they should. If they don’t, they shouldn’t.”
Payne said he knows of one potential $140 million project that probably won’t be built because its investor balked at the new law. He said the new law creates a redundant two-step approval process, one for zoning and another for project approval.
“In the near-term, I think one project moved on from Maine,” said Payne, whose organization calls itself a nonprofit association of renewable power producers, suppliers and supporters in Maine at its website, renewablemaine.org. He declined to identify the developer.
“[The law] creates a two-step permitting process, and so it is almost like double-jeopardy for the investor. It creates a lot of uncertainty for an investor,” Payne added.
The amendment is now part of the the Maine Wind Energy Act. Signed into law by then-Gov. John Baldacci in April 2008 to encourage industrial-scale electricity production, the act still requires developers to acquire permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and what is now the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, with special provisions made for scenic impacts.
But before the amendment, it defined grid-scale wind energy development as a permitted use within the expedited wind-permitting zones, effectively eliminating rezoning and the public hearings within that process, Dunphy said.
“In the expedited wind law, rights to a public hearing were removed, so essentially the citizens had no weighted say in what occurred in their own communities. I think that was by design,” Dunphy said, calling it “a very poor law.”
According to an overview of the process provided by the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, the removal of projects from the fast-track list can be overturned under two conditions. Removals requests can be denied if they are judged to have an unreasonably adverse impact on Maine’s ability to meet the Legislature’s goals for wind energy development and if the removals are inconsistent with the Maine Land Use Planning Commission’s comprehensive land use plan.
The amendment requires all petitions to be submitted to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission between Jan. 1 and June 30. Requests for review of any petition for removal must occur within 45 days of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission posting notice of receipt of the petition on its website.
The Straubs might not be the first to take advantage of the amendment. As of last week, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission received about 30 inquiries about the petitioning process in 30 plantations and townships — a strong response, said Nicholas Livesay, Maine Land Use Planning Commission’s executive director.
“I suspect that many of the people circulating petitions are either interested in preventing or making developing wind power projects more difficult in their area or want to require a rezoning permitting step,” Livesay said Tuesday. “In a lot of unorganized parts of the state, where people want to be able to engage in commercial development, rezoning is often needed.”
The Straubs said they are aware that SunEdison, which completed its $2.4 billion purchase of First Wind in January, has posted test towers in their area. That’s a possible prelude to a permit application, given that the towers measure whether conditions would make wind farms feasible.
SunEdison spokesman John Lamontagne would not confirm whether the company has a tower in that area.
“We are exploring possible wind projects in a number of locations around the state, including in northern Maine. We’re proud of our track record of building well-sited projects that deliver clean energy in New England and bring significant economic benefits to the region,” Lamontagne said in an email.
The Legislature should re-examine the expedited approval process for windmills, Dunphy said. The law was passed with a host of assumptions about the efficacy of wind power, the industry and jobs it would bring to the state, and its impact on the environment. The Legislature would be remiss if it did not measure the law’s impact, he said.
The Straubs plan to submit their 28-signature petition to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission on Monday, they said.
Payne, meanwhile, said his organization will be paying close attention to the process to ensure that people who take out petitions were registered to vote and living in the appropriate areas during the most recent gubernatorial election, in 2014.
His organization is aware of at least two areas where petitions might be forthcoming that didn’t have registered voters in 2014, he said.
“We want to make sure that the legitimacy of these petitions and the registered voters signing them is consistent with the law,” Payne said.