After several years of trying, a group of citizens from the state’s rural Unorganized Territories (UT) have won their fight to pass legislation that could give them greater say in the siting of large, industrial wind turbines in their communities.
On Monday, Gov. Paul LePage, in the midst of vetoing almost every bill sent to him by the legislature, signed L.D. 828, legislation his administration supported since its introduction earlier this year.
The bill allows citizens in certain UT plantations and townships to petition for removal from the state’s “Expedited Wind Zone,” where permitting for turbines is meant to be quicker and more streamlined than in other parts of the state.
“We just kind of got our voice back,” said Highland Plantation resident Alan Michka, who has been a leader of the effort to pass legislation for the last several years.
While there were many opponents of wind development among the group advocating the legislative change, Michka and other leaders said they weren’t opposed to wind power. Rather, they just wanted restoration of their right to weigh in on development in their communities.
“Maine citizens deserve to have the ability to have a say in designing the future of the communities in which they live,” Lexington Township’s Karen Bessey Pease testified at the bill’s public hearing.
The wind industry and allied environmental groups had successfully lobbied against the change in past legislative sessions, saying it would cripple the state’s ambitious wind power development goals. But as legislative support grew for the citizens’ position, the wind industry agreed to a compromise bill.
“Ultimately, the best pathway forward is for us to come together,” said Jeremy Payne, chief lobbyist for the wind power industry
The legislation effectively reverses a portion of the state’s 2008 Wind Energy Act, which constituted one of the most significant changes in the state’s land use laws in a generation. The Act placed a large portion of Maine’s Unorganized Territories into the Expedited Wind Zone, eliminating citizen input into the rezoning required for wind turbines.
The portion of the Act that carved out which UT communities were in the Zone and which weren’t was negotiated in secret by a pro-wind-development task force appointed by then-Gov. John Baldacci, with no input from residents of the UT and no record of the deliberations. The Act was passed unanimously by the Legislature.
The exclusion of residents from those decisions came to be seen by many of them and other critics of the Act as an undemocratic move that denied residents power to have a say in industrial development in their rural communities.
Prior to the Act, a developer who wanted to erect wind turbines in the UT faced a big hurdle: getting a rezoning. Rezoning was a time-consuming, difficult and uncertain process that included formal input from citizens in the surrounding areas and beyond.
The Act changed all that, designating industrial wind turbines as a permitted use in the Expedited Wind Zone. That meant no rezoning and thus no formal input would be sought from area residents.
“They have been disenfranchised by a law put in place in 2008 that effectively silenced their voices in the area of industrial wind site development,” testified bill sponsor Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, when he introduced the bill in April.
And the Act had no mechanism for communities that did not want wind turbines to remove themselves from the Expedited Wind Zone.
“This has been a real, glaring omission in the Wind Energy Act,” said Patrick Woodcock, Gov. LePage’s energy advisor.
The bill signed by LePage on Monday will allow residents in those zones to petition the state’s Land Use Planning Commission to remove their townships and plantations from the zone. If they were removed, then the rezoning requirement would go back into effect. The bill would not directly restore the rezoning requirement for wind turbine projects in the Expedited Wind Zone.
Michka acknowledged that after three years of trying to pass a bill, the final bill is less than they wanted because it means they have to go through a two-step process to get a direct say in the siting of wind turbines.
But he said the right to petition the planning commission to remove a township from the Expedited Wind Zone represents far more than the nothing he and his allies walked away with over the previous attempts, when the powerful wind industry lobby joined with environmental organizations and sympathetic legislators in the statehouse to block a bill.
“It’s not the car we were hoping to drive off the lot, but it’s got four wheels and we’ve got to see if we can get it running,” said Michka.
Payne, the longtime opponent of various versions of the bill, was conciliatory about the legislation that passed.
“Ultimately, it will provide certainty for developers and provide an opportunity for those who want to be heard to be heard,” said Payne.
Payne acknowledged that his industry worked hard to prevent its passage — but then changed their position.
“I think up until a month ago, we were pretty far apart,” said Payne. “Things started to come together in the last few weeks.”
The coming together, said Payne, happened as the wind industry and its allies realized “we were potentially going to be back in the same spot a year from now,” because the residents pressing for change weren’t going to give up.
Michka cited several reasons for success this time around, including work by he and his allies to educate legislators about the Act’s effects in their communities. Another major reason: “We had lobbyists this time.”