The prospect of towering wind turbines meets early resistance in an area that is launching a new branding effort built on its outdoor activities and breathtaking scenery.
GREENVILLE — Guests from around the world sit on the veranda at the Blair Hill Inn and are awestruck by the panorama below them – island-studded Moosehead Lake, with a backdrop of forested mountains stretching to the Canadian border. On a clear summer evening, the scene is painted red and gold by the setting sun until finally, the Milky Way appears across a pitch-black sky.
So to Ruth McLaughlin, who has owned the inn with her husband for 18 years, it seems unimaginable that 26 wind turbines someday could dot a distant ridge, glinting in the sun and flashing in the night.
“Our calling card,” she said last week, her arms tracing the sun’s track across the western horizon, “is the view.”
Tension between the merits of wind power and its visual impacts is a familiar theme in rural Maine, but recent interest by two energy companies to test the potential for wind farms in the Moosehead Lake region has put a sharper edge on the debate here. That’s because Moosehead, a historic outdoor recreation mecca that has seen better days economically, is in the midst of a makeover.
Residents and a consultant have completed an action plan to turn the region’s stunning scenery and backwoods charm into a globally recognized brand. This branding effort borrows some inspiration from an already world-class destination, Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada. Going forward, the Moosehead Lake region will be known to the world as America’s Crown Jewel.
But the possible arrival of industrial wind farms in the region now has some residents asking: Is there a place for 400-foot-tall wind turbines in America’s Crown Jewel?
There’s no definitive way to answer that question yet, because no permits have been filed and no simulations have been created to depict the turbine views. No one can really say, for instance, whether they’d be more intrusive than the various telecom towers erected in recent years across the forest landscape.
But so far, the ridgelines visible from the largest mountain lake in the East are free of turbine towers, and the prospect of change has many residents up in arms.
Renewable energy giant SunEdison has begun testing wind conditions in the Misery Ridge area west of the lake, with plans to possibly build a 26-turbine commercial wind farm there.
The company has installed six meteorological towers on land owned by Plum Creek, a forest management company and largest landowner around the lake. No application has been submitted yet to the Department of Environmental Protection and SunEdison says it may collect data for two years.
Also measuring the wind is EverPower Wind Holdings, a Pittsburgh-based company that has leased land for a test tower on Black Nubble, a ridge southwest of the lake near Indian Pond.
But some area residents and seasonal property owners aren’t waiting for the test results. Coached by statewide anti-wind groups, they have begun erecting signs along roads in the region that read: “Save Moosehead. Say no to wind.”
Their local campaign reached a wider audience last week, after crews from the Maine Department of Transportation removed dozens of signs that the agency said were within state road rights of way. Bloggers on the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power cried foul under the heading: “Maine DOT becomes the Gestapo.” They issued a news release that generated statewide media coverage.
The MDOT defended the removal, saying that if signs aren’t tied to an election, they need to be 33 feet from the highway centerline. But the unilateral action taken without warning over a weekend has given rise to conspiracy theories of how the wind industry controls state government. It led the Saving Maine anti-wind group to file a freedom of information request at the MDOT, hoping to learn who asked the agency to remove the signs. It has dubbed the saga “Signgate.”
For its part, SunEdison has denied any involvement.
200 MORE SIGNS ON ORDER
Some signs were removed from Route 6 and 15, the main artery into town from the south.
Cresting Indian Hill, visitors are greeted by a dramatic sense of arrival into Greenville, with a sudden, sweeping vista of the lake’s southernmost cove and its wooded islands. This view only hints at what lies ahead, as the cove opens up to become a 39-mile-long water body of largely undeveloped shorelines and mountain scenery, bisected by the 700-foot-tall cliff face of Mount Kineo.
Last Monday, Janet Chasse drove the road from her home in the village to Greenville Junction, showing where signs had been taken away and subsequently replaced beyond the state right of way. Many homeowners had simply moved them farther from the road. Some businesses in the village, such as Kamp Kamp and Crazy Moose Fabric, put them in their windows.
Back at Chasse’s house, a man pulled up in his truck and asked for a sign. Chasse gave him one.
“I have a waiting list for people who want them,” she said.
Chasse is a third-generation resident who has helped organize the sign campaign. After the MDOT action, she ordered 200 more signs. Some are going north to Rockwood, and as far away as Jackman and The Forks.
The goal, Chasse said, is to send a strong message to wind developers, before they file for permits.
“If they get the idea that enough people don’t want them here, maybe they won’t come,” she said.
UNSPOILED VIEWS, MORE TOURISTS
That’s wishful thinking to McLaughlin at the Blair Hill Inn. She knows that elsewhere in Maine, local residents have had no success so far in stopping major wind farms. But as a member of the newly formed brand leadership team charged with turning the America’s Crown Jewel vision into a reality, McLaughlin makes a strong link between unspoiled views, attracting more tourists and economic development.
Standing on her veranda, she recalled the day she got a visit from Roger Brooks, the chief executive of Roger Brooks International, the tourism development consultant behind the branding effort. He sat in an Adirondack chair, absorbed the view and clicked a photo.
“That’s all you need,” he told her.
The branding plan, led in part by the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., aims not only to draw more tourism, but also to attract young families and new residents who can slow the decline of population and school enrollment. It builds on the assets and experiences already present to entice visitors to spend more time and money year-round, to open businesses, buy second homes and move to the area. This effort will take years and millions of dollars. But in the plan’s summary, Brooks noted a sense of urgency, as young people gravitate to urban areas, creating ghost towns in rural America.
“You have one chance to really turn the future of Moosehead Lake around and point it in the right direction,” he wrote, “without overrunning it with visitors and commercial development.”
FOCUS SHIFTS TO ECOTOURISM
The presence of wind turbines will hurt that chance, according to John Willard, owner of The Birches Resort in Rockwood.
Willard is president of the Moosehead Region Futures Board, a citizens group fighting the wind proposals.
Some of the wind activists were part of a group formed 10 years ago, after Plum Creek submitted a development plan for the region that would have been the largest single development in the state’s history, with 975 house lots, resorts and a marina.
Opponents mounted a legal battle against state regulatory approval, which went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2012. The result was a scaled-down development plan, in which 363,000 acres were protected from future development by a conservation easement. That easement, some residents are now learning, didn’t restrict wind turbines.
It’s quiet in early November at The Birches. The 18 log cabins, built in the 1930s, stand idle. Hunting used to be a bigger deal here, but the focus today is ecotourism and the busiest months are August and February. The resort opens again on New Year’s Eve, when the snowmobile and cross-county ski season begins.
Standing on the dock, looking out at Mount Kineo, Willard voices his fear of guests spotting wind turbines from the lake, and how it would detract from the wild feel of the area.
“People drive six hours from Boston because it’s unique,” he said. “The big issue is sense of place. People always say, ‘This place is so pristine.'”
‘WE’RE NOT GETTING ANYTHING’
The perceptions of local residents can differ from those of visitors, according to John Morrell, who owns a hardware store in the village and served on the brand development team.
Morrell recalls when the first cell towers went up. Seasonal residents were upset, but locals wanted cellphone service. Today, people driving into town pass the flashing-white cell tower on a hill behind the Kineo View Motor Lodge and don’t give it much thought.
But wind turbines are another matter, Morrell said. They’ll dilute the experience for visitors and locals, and provide no benefit for the region, because the power typically is sold to utilities out of state.
“We have to live with those things and we’re not getting anything,” he said.
SunEdison’s Misery Ridge project hasn’t been designed yet, but the 83-megawatt Stetson wind farm, which has a similar capacity, generated enough power last year to serve 40,000 average homes, the company says.
SunEdison had planned to meet with residents in September to brief them about its plans. That meeting was canceled and isn’t likely to be rescheduled until next summer, when seasonal residents return.
Wind developers by law have to fashion a “tangible benefits” agreement with host communities, to provide money for economic development, tax relief or other needs. But it’s too soon to say how that would play out here, and to what degree it would appease some residents.
“No date has been determined for application submission to the DEP and we will let the public know as that time frame begins to crystallize,” said Ben Harborne, a spokesman for SunEdison. “We will continue to talk with interested parties in the region in an attempt to ensure that our community benefits packages are tailored to the needs of the region.”
‘VERY POLARIZING’ FOR COMMUNITY
A few answers could come Nov. 18. John Simko, Greenville’s town manager, has invited staff from the DEP and the Land Use Planning Commission, which regulates development in the unorganized townships where the projects are located, to the next selectmen’s meeting.
“I didn’t recognize that wind was a four-letter word, until the issues landed here,” Simko said.
Simko said the issue has confused some of the town’s 1,646 year-round residents. Some who saw the protest signs were calling Simko before last Tuesday’s election to ask if the town was voting on wind power. Others don’t seem to realize that because the projects aren’t located in Greenville, the town has no say about them.
For his part, Simko said he’s struggling with his feelings about wind power and how it might affect the nascent branding effort. An outdoorsman, he hikes the mountains and sees the telecom towers, the logging road networks and the other “footprints of man” on the landscape. If visitors take a boat cruise out of the cove and spot wind turbines in the distance, he wonders, will that ruin their trip?
Simko recalls how the Plum Creek development plan, which took seven years to resolve, split townspeople. He fears wind power will do the same thing.
“I expect this is going to be very polarizing for the community,” he said.