AUGUSTA, Maine - Wind power advocates squared off against opponents today as lawmakers heard testimony on two competing bills that could affect wind development projects in Maine's unorganized territory.
Maine's unorganized territory, or UT, refers to that vast wilderness which has no local government. It encompasses more than 400 townships, 9,000 year-round residents and more than half the acreage of the entire state of Maine.
Wind power opponent Chris O'Neil, of the group Friends of Maine's Mountains, is concerned that LD 791 - An Act To Amend the Laws Governing Wind Energy Development Permitting - would make it easier for landowners in the UT to strike deals with wind developers, effectively enabling them to run roughshod over one of Maine's best assets: its quality of place.
"There are a few places left that we need to protect," O'Neil said. "This bill could lay bare Maine for these industrial developments everywhere."
Also opposing the bill is the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an organization that has, in many cases, argued in favor of wind power. The council's clean energy director, Dylan Voorhees, said the proposal has worrying implications.
"It would allow large areas in the most remote parts of the jurisdiction to be added to the area for expedited wind development and we think that's a problem," Voorhees said. "We don't think there's any need or justification for doing that, and it would put the UT at risk of inappropriate development."
For the bill supporters, however, the measure is about clarifying the rights of landowners within so-called "expedited permitting areas" earmarked for possible wind development.
Bill sponsor Sara Gideon, a Democratic representative from Freeport, says this would also give more clarity to potential wind power developers looking to site turbines in Maine's unorganized territory.
"Wind power brings investment, employment and a very large tax base to our rural communities," Gideon said. "We need to get this solution right - protecting landowners but also welcoming an industry who's looking to invest billions in our state."
Also testifying in support of the bill was Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, who says developers need one thing above all: predictability. "Developers of any shape, size or technology need to understand that the regulatory process is both predictable, reasonable and fair. They need to understand what the rules of the game are going to be."
The second wind energy bill heard by the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee would require that any proposed wind power developments within the so-called expedited permitting area be subject to a public hearing.
Rep. Larry Dunphy - an Embden Republican - is the bill's lead sponsor. "It merely returns the process to the open-door light of day hearings that the rest of Maine adheres to when decisions are made about land use and policy in local areas."
Those opposing this bill argue that it strips landowners of some of their rights. Steve Schley, of Bangor, is with the National Alliance of Forest Owners. He says members of the Legislature did the right thing in approving the current permitting system. "They considered the public good associated with the renewable of part of their consideration, and protection of landowner rights was part of that consideration as well."
Opponents also describe LD 828 as an unnecessary and expensive measure that sets an unrealistic timeline and threatens to derail potential wind power projects and discourage investment.