FARMINGTON — In a decision that could have wide ramifications for the future of wind power in Maine, the Land Use Regulation Commission on Wednesday rejected a plan to place 30 turbines on two western mountains.
The application by Maine Mountain Power to rezone about 1,000 acres on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain to erect 400-foot-high turbines is considered precedent-setting because it is just the second in the commission’s jurisdiction — about half of Maine. A previous wind-power project in the mid-1990s was approved but never built.
Jeffrey Thaler, attorney for Maine Mountain Power, said that speaking as a concerned environmentalist, he considered the decision a “big loss.”>/p>
“This would have been a very well-designed, very well-executed project,” Thaler said.
Many of the more than 100 people attending the meeting at the University of Maine at Farmington, however, opposed the development on environmental grounds.
Several carried signs protesting the wind power proposal into the meeting.
Robert Kimber of Temple said he was “delighted” with the decision. Kimber said he is in favor of wind power as long as it is in appropriate locations.
“What is wrong with this particular site is it is right plunk in the middle of one of the most valuable mountain areas in the state,” he said.
The project was controversial among environmentalists because it would have been built in rare subalpine habitat that is home to several rare or endangered species, and within about a mile of the Appalachian Trail, which is classified as a National Park.
Several environmental groups, including Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, last week called on the commission to reject the recommendation of its own staff.
Wednesday’s vote was unusual because the commission voted 6-1 against the staff’s recommendation.
In a discussion before the vote, several commissioners called the document one-sided and largely inconsistent with guidelines that require the land use agency to protect natural resources and channel development into appropriate locations.
Commissioner Rebecca Kurtz pointed out that the turbines would be located in the habitat of several rare or endangered species and would also place lighted towers near the Appalachian Trail, which is classified as a National Scenic Trail.
“Is this the best reasonable site?” asked Kurtz, of Rangeley Plantation. “I have to argue that it is not.”>/p>
Stephen Wight of Newry was the only commissioner who voted for the project.
Wight pointed to the pollution caused by coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, saying that Maine needs to take a leadership role if it is serious about convincing other states to stop polluting the air.
“We need to figure out how to be part of the solution and not just complain about it,” Wight said.
Commission chairman Bart Harvey said that while he agreed with Wight, the commission had to make its decision on the application’s own merits and on the site in question.
The vote is seen as having significance far beyond the two Franklin County mountaintops, because the state is facing a potential flood of wind power projects.
Improvements in technology, federal and state incentives and volatile energy prices have combined to make wind power profitable, but finding appropriate sites is a challenge.
Maine has by far the greatest wind resource in energy-hungry New England, but much of the best wind is located along the coast, on offshore islands or on mountains.
Developers also have to be near roads and transmission lines to be able to develop their sites and get power to consumers.
Harley Lee, one of the partners in the Redington project, has been working on the 90-megawatt proposal for 17 years. As people filed out of the meeting room Wednesday, he appeared devastated.
The outcome seemed to have a sobering effect on representatives of TransCanada, a Canadian energy company that has filed an application to place 44 turbines on Kibby Mountain and the Kibby Range in Franklin County.
Nick Di Domenico, project manager for TransCanada, declined to discuss the implications of the decision Wednesday. But he did say it would not affect his company’s application.
The Kibby Mountain area is not considered as environmentally sensitive as the Redington Pond Range area.
And while most environmental groups lauded the commission’s decision Wednesday, most still expressed support for wind power as a means to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases and to reduce dependence on oil and gas.
Pete Didisheim, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which supports wind power but opposed the Redington project, said the council still believes Maine can be a leader in the region, with 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity from wind.
Steve Hinchman, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the few environmental groups that supported the Redington project, said the commission missed an opportunity.
Hinchman said his group recognizes that siting the turbines on Redington Pond Ridge would have meant real environmental impacts. However, he said, the long-term harm threatened by global warming makes that compromise necessary.
The rare species on Redington Pond Ridge may be impacted to a limited degree by the power project, he said, but if global warming is not stopped, their habitat will disappear forever.