Turbines in the Bull Hill Wind project in Township 16 in Hancock County rotate in the breeze in this May 2018 file photo. Developers for the proposed Weaver Wind project a few miles away are offering to conserve 5,800 acres of land in eastern coastal Maine to mitigate the impact that 22-turbine project is expected to have on birds. Credit: Bill Trotter

A wind power development firm behind a proposal that state officials think will pose a threat to birds is offering to conserve 5,800 acres of woods and wetlands in Hancock and Washington counties as wildlife habitat.

Longroad Energy, which has applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection for approval to erect 22 turbines in Eastbrook and Osborn in Hancock County, has the support of the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the mitigation proposal, which in effect would serve as compensation for the adverse impact the turbines would have on birds.

In 2015, the DIF&W publicly opposed the Weaver Wind project, which at the time was being proposed by the now-defunct SunEdison renewable energy firm. Officials with DIF&W noted at the time that the impact on birds of the existing Bull Hill Wind farm nearby in Township 16 already was significant and that erecting more turbines a few miles away “will represent significant adverse cumulative impact to migrating birds.”

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At the time, wildlife officials said that mortality studies suggested that over a period of several months, a dozen or more birds or bats are killed by each of the 19 Bull Hill Wind turbines.

The Weaver Wind project now is being proposed by Longroad Energy and has been resubmitted to the state for approval. Earlier this month, wildlife officials said they still have concerns about how the project would affect birds but that they were not sure that reducing or temporarily halting the use of the nearly 600-foot tall turbines during peak migration periods would have any meaningful effect on bird mortality rates.

Instead, state officials are considering whether conserving nearby land as wildlife habitat might be considered adequate mitigation for the impact the turbines might have on birds. Areas specifically identified for wildlife conservation as part of the project include 3,100 acres in Hancock north of the Downeast Sunrise Trail and approximately 2,700 acres of woods and wetlands in Whiting.

The Department of Environmental Protection has not yet decided whether to approve the application, but is expected to reach a decision on the development application by May 17. The Land Use Planning Commission, which has some oversight over a few aspects of the proposal that would result in infrastructure development in unorganized townships in eastern Hancock County, certified the project as appropriate earlier this month.

Curtailment has been shown to be effective in minimizing adverse impacts on bats, several species of which are protected in Maine, and Longroad has agreed to curtail operation of the Weaver Wind turbines during peak bat activity periods, according to state officials.

Maria Lentine-Eggett, an environmental specialist with the Department of Environmental Protection, said Wednesday that state officials were prepared to require a study at the site on whether curtailment of the proposed turbines might also offer birds more protection, but they concluded such a study likely would not provide any meaningful data that would be helpful in making a decision.

Plus, in the years since the Bull Hill Wind project was brought online in 2012, and since the 17-turbine Hancock Wind project in townships 16 and 22 was brought online in late 2016, the number of bird deaths has not been as high as state officials had feared, Lentine-Eggett said.

“There hasn’t been a mass fatality that they were worrying about,” she said.

Matt Kearns, chief development officer for Longroad, said Tuesday that company officials met with wildlife officials more than a dozen times to work out the wildlife habitat conservation proposal. He said officials with the nonprofit group Biodiversity Research Institute also were involved in developing the mitigation plan.

Kearns said that by conserving bird habitat in eastern coastal Maine, which is well known as a place where migrating birds stop to rest while traveling north or south, the project will balance out whatever bird deaths may result from turbine collisions.

“There’s no debate about the benefit of conservation,” Kearns said.

Kearns noted that both chunks of land identified for possible conservation abut publicly owned and conserved land — the Downeast Sunrise Trail in Hancock and the Cutler Coast lands in Cutler and Whiting.

Without having approval yet from the Department of Environmental Protection, Kearns said Longroad has not yet worked out details on how the 5,800 acres would be conserved. It may be that the company acquires the land, then deeds it to the wildlife department, or that the company deeds the property to a land trust or conservation organization. Alternately, Longroad might retain ownership of the land with a legal agreement that it must remain undeveloped and preserved as wildlife habitat, he said.

If the Department of Environmental Protection approves the project, Kearns added, he expects that development would begin this summer and that all 22 turbines would be in place sometime next year.

“We’re really gratified by the productive discussions [we had] with IF&W,” Kearns said. “There’s a lot of data out there now, and the benefits of [preserving wildlife habitat] are clear.”

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....