Townships and plantations in Maine have until June to opt out of being an “expedited permitting area” for wind development. Already there are nearly two dozen petitions that have been received by the Land Use Planning Commission.
Another 18 petitions are in circulation. But the agency is also hearing from large landowners who want to prevent the removal process from going forward without a formal review.
This is the first time since the Wind Energy Act was passed by the Maine Legislature in 2008 that residents of the Unorganized Territory can take steps to remove themselves from expedited wind permitting areas of the state. Last year lawmakers agreed to give them a six-month window to do so. The clock began ticking in January, and planning manager Samantha Horn Olsen of the Land Use Planning Commission says so far, the numbers are about what was expected.
“There are several hundred townships and plantations in the jurisdiction and so the number could be higher, however there places that are being considered for wind energy development where people are more likely to be interested and then others where that might not be so much of an issue,” she says, “and so you may not see people be interested in filing a petition.”
Getting a township or plantation removed from the expedited area does not ensure that a wind project won’t be developed, but it does mean that developers have to get zoning approval before they apply for a permit, something that is not currently required.
To qualify for removal, petitioners need to collect at least ten percent of residents’ signatures, based on the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In some places that might only be a handful.
Chris O’Neil of the group Friends of Maine’s Mountains has been trying to get the word out that there’s a June 30 deadline for what he calls a “unique opportunity.”
“We estimate that about 70 areas should take action on this,” he says. “Looking at the spreadsheets and the maps really lets you know that almost everywhere wind development wants to go there are people who live fairly close by.”
The process also gives stakeholders, such as landowners who object to removal, the opportunity to request a formal review.
And Patrick Strauch of the Maine Forest Products Council says he’s aware of several large landowners, members of his organization, who are concerned about how a land use designation change would affect their property and its future potential uses. They are now requesting formal review.
“The landowners have looked at the petitions that have been filed and figured out where there are areas they want to contest those petitions and that’s just the path we’re following that we set up through the legislative process,” he says.
Their request for review requires the Commission to confirm the residency of the petitioners, take comments and possibly hold a public hearing. Horn Olsen says it also requires the Commission to see if the petition for removal meets two fundamental criteria.
“The first one is that the removal of the place will not have an unreasonable, adverse effect on the state’s ability to meet the state goals for wind energy development,” she says. “And the second criterion is that it’s consistent with the principal values and the goals of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.”
The Wind Energy Act was designed to cut through multiple layers of bureaucracy in a specific zone. But O’Neil says it neglected to give people who live in the area a voice. And he says it’s possible disputes over the the process for removing townships from expedited wind development will wind up in court.