Critics of Maine’s fast-growing commercial wind power sector were claiming victory on Thursday, one day after state regulators took a first step toward denying an application for a 27-turbine wind farm northwest of Grand Lake Stream.
The latest project from Massachusetts-based First Wind, the Bowers Mountain wind farm is proposed for a rural, sparsely populated area east of Springfield on the border of Penobscot and Washington counties.
But the project has run afoul with some registered Maine Guides, sporting camp owners and residents concerned about how the large turbines would affect views from the lakes, ponds and streams that draw fishermen, hunters and tourists to the region.
On Wednesday, members of the Land Use Regulation Commission directed its staff to write an order denying First Wind’s application because of the project’s potential for “unreasonable adverse impacts on scenic resources” in the area. The commission is expected to review and vote on the order in December.
Catherine Carroll, LURC’s staff director, said the project met the commission’s other criteria for approval of wind energy projects. But Carroll pointed out that it only takes one failed criterion to reject a project.
Project opponents cheered the commission’s vote, even if it was only preliminary.
“By denying this permit, LURC will send a strong message to wind developers that while former Governor Baldacci’s flawed wind [energy] law provides them with an expedited permitting process, it does not guarantee approval,” Kevin Gurall, president of the 200-plus member Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed, said in a statement.
“There are sites within the expedited wind permitting area that are simply not appropriate for industrial wind development and the Downeast Lakes region is one of them,” Gurall said.
First Wind officials and project supporters, meanwhile, said rejection of the Bowers Mountain wind farm would rob the region of a $136 million project that would create much-needed construction jobs and return money to local communities. And a representative also indicated that the company was not giving up on the project.
“We think this is a good project and the benefits are clear,” said First Wind’s Matt Kearns. “I think there will be a lot of disappointment if this project did not go forward, so we are focused on re-evaluating our options with this project.”
Plans for the Bowers Mountain project call for 19 turbines to be constructed in Carroll Plantation and eight in Kossuth Township. The turbines — standing up to 428 feet tall from base to blade tip — could generate up to 69 megawatts of energy if operating at maximum capacity.
The facility would be built on commercial timberland and would use existing access roads, although additional road construction would be required.
Anita Duerr, who has served as Carroll Plantation’s assessor for more than 30 years, said her community stood to receive $92,000 a year for the next 20 years under the “tangible benefits” package negotiated with First Wind. Additionally, the company projected that the plantation’s mill rate would drop from roughly 14 mills to 2 mills initially and then go to 6 mills the next year.
Duerr said in all of LURC’s discussion about scenic impacts on Wednesday, no one considered how a denial would affect the rural communities hoping to benefit from the project.
“Our mill rate would drop considerably, the tangible benefits package was very generous and we, as a small plantation, have struggled just to maintain what we have here,” Duerr said.
The Bowers Mountain project has received far less attention than some of Maine’s other proposed wind farms, including several others sought by First Wind. But the project’s location within eight miles of at least eight lakes and ponds — some considered “outstanding” natural resources by the state — complicated matters for regulators.
Commissioners had less latitude to consider the proposed wind farm’s impacts on the landscape from a scenic standpoint because the project site is located within an “expedited permitting area,” a zone predetermined by the Legislature to be appropriate for wind power development.
But the expedited permitting law still allows the commission to consider scenic impacts on resources “of state or national significance” as well as how the wind farm could affect public use of a lake, pond or area.
In a statement, the organization Friends of Maine’s Mountains, which is sharply critical of commercial wind power development, said Wednesday’s vote suggested that efforts by its group and others appear to be paying off.
But earlier this month, First Wind received unanimous approval from LURC for a 19-turbine wind energy facility proposed for Township 16 MD near Eastbrook in rural Hancock County.
And despite Wednesday’s unanimous vote, the Bowers Mountain project did have some support on the commission. At least two of seven commissioners — Toby Hammond and Sally Farrand — indicated they favored the overall project but ultimately voted with the will of the majority.
Further complicating matters, the term of one commissioner who voted to deny the Bowers Mountain application — Rebecca Kurtz — will expire before the December meeting. Neither of the two new members were on the commission during the detailed public hearings and work sessions and one already has recused himself from the deliberations.
State statutes would require at least four affirmative votes to approve the permit.