Bill Aims to Restore Public Hearings on Siting Wind Projects

Jun 12, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine - Seven years ago, the Maine Legislature expedited the development of wind power in Maine's unorganized territories, a process overseen by the Land Use Planning Commission.

Members of the Maine House today spent over an hour debating how best to change that law in order to provide for more citizen participation.  

At issue is how difficult it is for the residents of an unorganized territory to have a say in the permitting of wind power projects in their community. The majority recommendation of the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee would allow residents to remove their township from the expedited process if half of all the registered voters signed a petition to do so.

 Rep. Beth Turner, a Republican from Burlington, has several unorganized territories in her district and supported the committee proposal.

"The 32 U-T's that I represent don’t have that right, their voices were taken away and they cannot have a public hearing," Turner said. "They deserve to have their voices heard."

But by a slim majority, 75 to 74, the House backed an amendment that would allow just 10 percent of the residents of an unorganized territory to petition for removal from the fast track process.

Among those who opposed the amendment was Rep. William Tuell, a Republican from East Machias, who says the original proposal, with its 50 percent voter threshold is a better way to weigh local input into the siting process of wind projects.

"There is an economic development component to wind. But there are issues that are bigger than economic development - there are citizens’ rights and this original bill protects citizens’ rights and local control," Tuell said.

And Rep. Thomas Skolfield, a Republican from Weld, also supports its higher petition threshold, which he says is the best way to restore the right to force a public hearing on any wind project.

"They deserve the same rights as those of us who live in municipalities have," Skolfield said. "LD 898 does not ban wind development nor does it infringe on landowner rights to develop their land."

But Rep. Diane Russell, a Democrat from Portland, takes issue with the committee's proposal, which, as written, would only trigger a hearing on withdrawal if a landowner applied to be put back into the expedited wind territory.

"There would be no public hearing where people who oppose being taken out can have their voices heard," she said. "It is only if the landowner applies to be put back in to the expedited wind territory that a public hearing would ultimately occur."

Another Portland Democrat, Rep. Matt Moonen, questioned fellow House members about the wisdom of using the petition process to make decisions on significant public issues.

"For my friends on the left, imagine if signing the TABOR petition was the decision. For my friends on the right, imagine if signing the same-sex marriage petition was the decision. And for my friends from rural Maine, imagine if signing the bear baiting petition was the decision," Moonen said.

The complicated proposal is one of the most heavily lobbied in the hallways and it's expected to get more attention from special interests as it faces further votes in both the House and Senate.