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Vote may herald wind backlash

At 1,165 feet, Mount Harris is little more than a broad hill in a small town along Route 9, southwest of Bangor. And as residents debated an ordinance to regulate wind power development here, it seemed like a local matter. That changed Nov. 19. By a wide margin - 229-78 - voters approved an ordinance that's being called one of the most restrictive in New England. It requires a one-mile setback between turbines and homes, a standard that likely will have the effect of banning grid-scale wind power on Mount Harris and other wooded ridges in town.

Dixmont's restrictions could lead other towns to adopt similar rules.

DIXMONT - At 1,165 feet, Mount Harris is little more than a broad hill in a small town along Route 9, southwest of Bangor. And as residents debated an ordinance to regulate wind power development here, it seemed like a local matter.

That changed Nov. 19. By a wide margin - 229-78 - voters approved an ordinance that's being called one of the most restrictive in New England. It requires a one-mile setback between turbines and homes, a standard that likely will have the effect of banning grid-scale wind power on Mount Harris and other wooded ridges in town.

But almost immediately, the impact of the vote began rippling beyond Dixmont.

Three months ago, state government unveiled a model ordinance that it hopes communities will use to guide the development of wind power. It's part of an ambitious goal: to reduce the state's dependence on fossil fuels by generating 2,000 megawatts of electricity from wind by 2015, and 3,000 megawatts by 2020.

Now developers, environmentalists and state officials are wondering whether growing public backlash against wind power will prompt more towns to use ordinances similar to Dixmont's to... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Dixmont's restrictions could lead other towns to adopt similar rules.

DIXMONT - At 1,165 feet, Mount Harris is little more than a broad hill in a small town along Route 9, southwest of Bangor. And as residents debated an ordinance to regulate wind power development here, it seemed like a local matter.

That changed Nov. 19. By a wide margin - 229-78 - voters approved an ordinance that's being called one of the most restrictive in New England. It requires a one-mile setback between turbines and homes, a standard that likely will have the effect of banning grid-scale wind power on Mount Harris and other wooded ridges in town.

But almost immediately, the impact of the vote began rippling beyond Dixmont.

Three months ago, state government unveiled a model ordinance that it hopes communities will use to guide the development of wind power. It's part of an ambitious goal: to reduce the state's dependence on fossil fuels by generating 2,000 megawatts of electricity from wind by 2015, and 3,000 megawatts by 2020.

Now developers, environmentalists and state officials are wondering whether growing public backlash against wind power will prompt more towns to use ordinances similar to Dixmont's to restrict similar proposals. Mainers have a long history of craving economic development in general, but fighting it in their backyards. Does Dixmont's vote signal that the apparent public support for renewable energy extends only to wind projects that are very far from where people live?

"I'm sensing the tide is changing a bit," said Rich Silkman, a partner at Competitive Energy Services in Portland. "It does raise questions about the state's ability to meet its goal."

Silkman has good reason to ponder this. Last year, his company built a three-turbine project on Beaver Ridge in nearby Freedom. He wanted to continue development along the rolling hills of Thorndike, Jackson and, finally, Dixmont, adding another dozen or more turbines. Now the investment, valued at $40 million to $70 million, is on hold, as Silkman waits to see whether neighboring Thorndike and Jackson follow Dixmont's lead.

Dixmont's vote seems to be one of the forces pushing wind power to a crossroads in Maine, where it has been heavily promoted by state government as both an economic development and an energy security strategy.

Some projects have strong local support, such as the community wind turbines on Vinalhaven and a 17-turbine wind farm in the Washington County town of Danforth. But a recent string of bad-news stories about wind, including the delay of a controversial project near Rumford and turbines that didn't work in Saco and Kittery, have given ammunition to emerging citizen groups that are against virtually all land-based wind development.

Opponents are benefiting from other factors as well. Falling petroleum prices during the recession have dampened the public's sense of urgency around energy. Media stories about the potential for wind power far offshore, and energy imported from Canada, also create the sense that local wind projects aren't really needed.

These factors may have played a role in Dixmont, where planners spent a year studying wind power and how it might affect their town.

RULES CRAFTED DURING MORATORIUM

Dixmont's farming heritage is reflected in its forests and open fields, but the town has become a rural bedroom community for Bangor, Newport and Waterville.

There are few local businesses; the elementary school is the largest employer. So when developers began measuring wind speeds atop Mount Harris, Hog Hill and Peaked Mountain, some residents saw the chance to lower taxes through revenue collected from renewable energy.

Others, however, saw their town with no protection from industrial development. That led to a moratorium on wind projects last November, while the town crafted rules.

What followed was a deliberate process in which the Planning Board studied wind power ordinances in other states and countries, as well as Maine's model ordinance.

The town encouraged residents to make the half-hour drive to Freedom, where they could stand under the whirling blades on Beaver Ridge. Some residents even visited the wind farm at Mars Hill in Aroostook County.

Several townspeople spoke to homeowners next to these projects. Among the messages they heard is that the turbines disrupted abutters' lives. Complaints ranged from noise and visual flicker to health effects that some people blame on living near wind farms.

These anecdotes seemed to have a decisive impact, said First Selectman Judy Dann. They helped convince a majority that wind turbines weren't a good fit for Dixmont, she said.

"I think people listened to the stories that these people had to tell," she said.

These concerns were shared by residents including Anne Warner, an organic grower who's married to the Planning Board chairman. In her view, there's an analogy between today's surge of wind power proposals in rural Maine and the wave of Walmart stores that began appearing in the 1990s. Residents knew of Walmart, but they really didn't understand the impact of big-box stores until they began springing up in their towns.

"I hope this vote will open a dialogue," she said. "Towns, developers and the state need to start talking about the impact wind power does have."

PROXIMITY AFFECTS VIEWS ON TURBINES

Wind power's impact seems strongly linked to how close people are to turbines.

Driving from Dixmont to Freedom, the Beaver Ridge turbines are visible on the horizon from miles away. It's only after ascending a country road onto the ridge that the scale of the towers can be appreciated against the surrounding landscape. The dozen or so homes near the site are dwarfed by the 262-foot towers and their 122-foot blades.

Standing under the towers in a light breeze last week, it was possible to hear a quiet whooshing and a high-pitched whistle that fell away.

But variations in wind speed, pressure and direction can change the sound. Despite engineering studies and rules that set maximum decible limits, some abutters complain about intrusive noise inside their homes.

A handful of the homes on Beaver Ridge are between 1,000 and 1,500 feet of a turbine. Dixmont's ordinance would set a buffer roughly four times greater. That buffer can be reduced only if a homeowner signs a waiver with a developer.

'YOU CAN'T SAY "NO" TO EVERYTHING'

Dixmont's ordinance has been a gift for the Citizens Task Force on Wind Power, a newly formed umbrella group of local residents fighting wind projects around the state. They plan to circulate the ordinance in other communities, said Brad Blake of Cape Elizabeth, a spokesman for the group.

Blake's family has a lakefront cottage in Lee, near Lincoln, where the 40-turbine Rollins wind farm is being proposed. But his opposition extends to all grid-scale wind projects. In his opinion, the industry is driven by tax breaks and doesn't produce enough power to justify the damage caused by roads, transmission lines and towers.

Blake doesn't mince words, calling Gov. John Baldacci and state officials "wind turbine zombies" whose policies threaten to turn Vacationland into "turbine land."

Blake's position isn't shared by mainstream environmental groups focused on climate change and oil dependency, such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The group is reviewing the Dixmont ordinance and trying to get a sense of what it might mean for other projects in organized towns.

"If this is indicative of a pattern, we have a lot of work to do," said Dylan Voorhees, the group's clean energy director.

The NRCM supports the state's model ordinance. But Voorhees said the Dixmont vote, and abutter problems in Freedom and Mars Hill, raise questions about whether the state guidelines strike the right balance.

Community opposition to wind power also worries John Kerry, the state's energy director. He expects the next governor and Legislature will confront this problem.

Maine can't wait for the promise of offshore wind, which faces technological challenges and may be a decade away, Kerry said. In a state with broad opposition to nuclear power and limited support for liquefied natural gas, he said, there has to be room for wind.

"You can't say 'no' to everything," he said. "At some point, you're going to have to make a choice."


Source: http://pressherald.mainetod...

NOV 29 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/23341-vote-may-herald-wind-backlash
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