Emotions run high at wind power hearings

wind power hearings
Chris O’Neill of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club testifies in support of LD 1147 An Act to Protect Maine’s Scenic Character.

The down side of legislative harmony was on display for hour after hour Monday as opponents and proponents of wind power finally had the all-out debate they didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – have nearly six years ago. Now it appears likely the discussion will continue in a study group over the coming year.

At the EUT work session Thursday, Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, proposed that rather than take a piecemeal approach — one bill and/or one issue at a time — to wind power, they should “look at the bigger picture.” He asked the committee to create a study group of stakeholders to develop recommendations for the Legislature next year. He won the support of most committee members. Two bills were tabled and a third was voted ought not to pass by a 9-3 margin.

“My sense is that the wind bills will either get thrown into the study group or they’ll get killed,” MFPC Executive Director Patrick Strauch said Friday.

The Wind Power Act of 2008 sailed through the Maine Legislature with a unanimous vote and barely a discouraging word. The economy was in free fall then, global warming concerns were rising along with the price of gasoline (above $3!) and wind power seemed like a what’s-not-to-like proposition.

“This bill balances environmental protection with the need for new clean energy sources,” its sponsor, Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Cumberland, said then. “I am really excited about the potential for wind energy in Maine and the opportunity to increase our supply of energy while reducing our greenhouse gases.”

But that win-win perspective was in short supply at the Jan. 13 public hearings on LD 1147 An Act To Protect Maine’s Scenic Character (voted ONTP) and LD 1323 An Act Regarding Wind Power Siting in the Unorganized Territory (tabled). Testimony didn’t end until about 7:30 p.m. as about 50 people testified on those two bills, which were held over from last session and moved from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to the Energy, Utility and Technology Committee (EUT).

Strauch didn’t get his chance to speak against LD 1147 until after 3 p.m. and he waited until 6:30 p.m. before he finally testified against LD 1323.

“I wasn’t sure I could still stand up,” Strauch joked, but added that the long day was filled with “the typical ebb and flow of testimony. Some passionate, some dispassionate.”

MFPC opposed LD 1147 and LD 1323, as well as other attempts to rewrite the Windpower Act, such as LD 616, (tabled)  “because it is a dangerous precedent to remove landowners’ rights or change the rules in the middle of the game,” Strauch testified. (Read MFPC testimony on LD 1147 and LD 1323.)

All the signs of a long day were present long before the hearings began Monday. Seats in Room 211 of the Cross Building, where the EUT Committee meets, were being saved more than an hour before the scheduled 10 a.m. start. After various delays, Sen. John Cleveland, D-Androscoggin, banged his gavel to open the proceedings at 10:40 a.m. By then every seat was filled and people stood shoulder to shoulder along the back wall, crammed the sides of the room, jostled in each other in the doorway and piled up in the hall outside.

Like a referee at a prize fight, Cleveland laid down some rules. He made a plea for civility, encouraged all present to listen to what others had to say — even if they didn’t agree with it — and warned that nearly everyone would get just three minutes to testify, with a large clock literally ticking before them. As an “experiment,” however, the chief spokesperson for opponents and the chief spokesman for supporters could each speak for 10 minutes.

Just before 11 a.m., Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, sponsor of both LD 1147 and LD 1323, was the first to testify and she offered an amendment to LD 1147. Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, co-sponsor, came next, followed by the two “chief” spokespersons. Then supporters and opponents of the bills took turns, five supporters and then five opponents.

The chief spokesman in favor of LD 1147 was Chris O’Neill of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which wrote the bill.

“It is sound public policy to review complex legislation such as the Maine Wind Energy Act in light of gained experience,” O’Neill said. “The proposals for change made here by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club are not radical.”

The chief spokesman for opponents, Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, pointed to a poll released last month by the Wind for ME coalition, which said 87 percent of voters surveyed agreed that “wind power is the type of zero emission, clean and renewable energy source that should be encouraged in Maine.”

Payne testified the Windpower Act “has helped shepherd in over $1 billion of investment, created and sustained 240 jobs per year, including 600 jobs in’08 and ’09, year of severe economic distress.”

As often happens, though, the most memorable moments at the hearings came when someone had completed their formal testimony and was simply speaking from the heart.

Sen. John Cleveland, Rep. Barry Hobbins, Rep. Larry Dunphy and Rep. Roberta Beavers discuss LD 1147 at Thursday's work session.
Sen. John Cleveland, Rep. Barry Hobbins, Rep. Larry Dunphy and Rep. Roberta Beavers discuss LD 1147 at Thursday’s work session.

Jim Robbins Sr., retired president of Robbins Lumber and an MFPC board member, had such moment during an exchange with Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, the sponsor of LD 616, An Act To Amend the Expedited Permitting Area for Wind Energy Development under the Jurisdiction of the Maine Land Use Planning.

Dunphy, who made no secret of his opposition to wind power throughout the day, asked Robbins if there are any wind towers on his land at T-40 or T3ND. Robbins said no, but added that some are being built eight miles away on Passadumkeag Mountain. Robbins explained that he’d “put a conservation easement on our land to protect it, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to protect Passadumkeag Mountain because I was trying to protect our land, not someone else’s.”

Dunphy asked, “Why wouldn’t you want to protect someone else’s land?”

Robbins replied, “Because we don’t own it and I don’t think I have the right to tell someone else what they can or can’t do with their land. My dad always said that if you want to control what goes on on someone else’s land then you should buy it.”

Dunphy conceded, “Sounds like wise advice.”

“It was,” Robbins said.

Dunphy’s interactions with others who opposed LD 1147 were not so cordial. He sharply questioned several, including Glen Brand, Maine director of the Sierra Club. Dunphy asked Brand four times in various words “if eliminating rights of people in the UT as a result of the expedited wind process is a fair public process?”

Each time Bell replied that he did think the process, in which public comments are heard at public hearings, is fair. After the fourth time, Dunphy replied, “I would suggest sir that you reevaluate. But thank you.”

Marilyn Keyes Roper of Houlton, who supported LD 1147, provided a chilling moment as she testified about the “lake on fire scenic effect,” her name for the reflection of turbines’ red lights on the surface of water at night.

“It’s the reflection of many red lights spreading out and merging so that the whole lake appears red and pulsating as the red lights go off and on,” Roper said. “My husband and I have observed this in the summer. He characterized it as a ‘pulsating hell.’ Others have said they have seen this effect of the red lights on lake ice. Certainly this scenic effect – which is quite frightening – should be addressed.”

Phil McIntyre, owner of Skye Theater in South Carthage, provided one of the few lighter moments at the hearing. In his testimony, McIntyre opposed LD 1147 and strongly supported wind power, both to provide clean energy and to revitalize the economy in rural areas. He told the committee that wind developers don’t just pay taxes, they also support local organizations, including his theater. But it was an anecdote at the end of his testimony that drew a big laugh from the crowd.

Skye Theater is on top of a mountain in South Carthage, McIntyre said, right at the beginning of the proposed Saddleback Ridge wind project. From the theater’s parking lot, there’s a remarkable view, stretching great distances and including Mounts Washington, Jefferson and Adams.

“Recently I had one of the opponents of wind power come up,” McIntyre said. “I went out and met him in the parking lot and he wanted to know where Saddleback Ridge was going. I told him it was going up towards the north. He just went on and on about wind power and how he hated it and how it was ruining the view. So he pointed out to the west and he said, ‘Can you just imagine if you had a whole bunch of wind towers out there and you had to look at them?’ And I said, ‘You mean like the 13 wind towers that are right there in front of you on Roxbury Ridge?’

“And he kind of stooped over a little,” McIntyre said, “and he looked and he squinted and he said, ‘You can hardly see them. And I said, ‘Exactly.’”

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