AUGUSTA, Maine — The stage is set for lawmakers once again to weigh in on how to address concerns of residents in the Unorganized Territory that a landmark 2008 law stole from them the ability to participate in decisions on wind energy development in their proverbial backyards.
Just like they did last year, and the year before that, residents of the UT paraded in front of a legislative committee to decry the Wind Energy Act for creating an “expedited permitting area,” which rezoned one-third of the territory for wind development in one fell swoop.
While developers must still obtain the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection before breaking ground on a new turbine, the elimination of the zoning process removed from the UT residents the ability to weigh in, to say if they didn’t want wind towers in their communities.
“I don’t want to live in a democracy that dictates over and around me, and without me, how decisions will be made on issues that directly concern me,” said Kirsten Brown Burbank, a 15-year resident of Salem Township in the UT. “Democracy is not something that is done to us.”
Last year, anti-wind activists pinned their hopes on LD 616, drafted by Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden,which would have given them two years to petition the Land Use Planning Commission to remove their particular communities from the expedited permitting area.
The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House, but was killed by a Democrat-led majority in the Senate. With the Senate now under GOP control, Dunphy and his allies will be optimistic about their chances this time around.
This year, it’s another Dunphy bill — LD 828 — that seeks to put the UT residents back into the wind energy planning equation. The bill takes all the communities in the expedited permitting area out, and puts them into a “provision expedited permitting area.”
The Land Use Planning Commission, which governs development in the UT, would be allowed to put land back into the fast-tracked category, but any five people could petition the commission, triggering a public hearing.
Dunphy said the bill would restore the “open door, light of day process” to wind development.
UT residents “have been disenfranchised by a law put into place in 2008 that effectively silenced their voices,” he said. “This is about fairness, and rights.”
Opponents of Dunphy’s bill said that it was wrong to characterize the plan as little more than an effort by opponents to wind energy projects to give themselves more opportunity to gum up the works and delay development for as long as possible, and to dictate what other landowners could do with their own property.
“If you look at the list of townships that are to be taken out of the existing [expedited permitting area], there are many that have no residents at all,” said Steve Schley, a representative of Pingree Associates, which owns huge swaths of land in the UT. “This is not about local control for those townships.”
Elgin Turner, a land surveyor who worked on wind projects on Stetson Mountain and Bull Hill, said it was wrong for wind developers to be stymied by any five people who may ask for a public hearing, regardless of how far they live from the proposed development site.
“In every opportunity, we expect wind power opponents will file for a public hearing,” he said. “If our land is currently zoned to allow wind, and LUPC changes the zoning, where are our rights as landowners?”
Another bill, by House Democratic Whip Sara Gideon of Freeport, seeks to ensure that landowners have a say over whether their property is in the expedited permitting area.
Her bill, LD 791, would give landowners in the expedited permitting area the right to petition LUPC to have their property removed. It would also allow landowners to petition the commission to put their property into the expedited permitting area.
“Our challenge is striking a fair balance that protects private property and land use rights of people” while also allowing for “reasonable wind development,” she said.
Gideon’s bill has the support of the wind industry, which helped her craft the legislation. Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association said it’s a fair way to ensure that everybody has control over what happens on their land — and not anyone else’s.
“If you own the land, and would like your land to be removed, you should have the right to do that. But if you want someone else’s land removed, we don’t think that’s fair or reasonable,” he said.
Critics, however, said Gideon’s bill was a red herring. They contend that any property owner in the expedited permitting area already has authority over their own land. It’s land near them, development on which could affect their quality of life, that’s at issue, they said.
“We think there does need to be a process for removing [property], but we do not think the landowners should have a veto power. We’re not aware of any other situation where landowners have a veto over the zoning process, and we think it would set a bad precedent” said David Publicover, a scientist with the Appalachian Mountain Club who helped write the Wind Energy Act.
Karen Pease, a resident of Lexington Township, agreed: “The fact is that what we do on our property can and often does impact our neighbors. That’s why we created zoning ordinances,” she said.
The Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry will hold work sessions on Dunphy’s and Gideon’s bill in the coming weeks. Both proposals will face votes in the House and Senate.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.