A Canadian energy firm's bid to expand a western Maine wind farm is in jeopardy after state regulators indicated Wednesday they could not support the effort to open more scenic mountain land for the project.
But the Land Use Regulation Commission agreed — after lengthy debate — to consider a similar request from another company hoping to build a third industrial wind power facility on the borders of Penobscot and Washington counties.
During a straw vote, the majority of LURC members said they likely would vote to deny a request by TransCanada Corp. to add 631 acres in Franklin County to the list of locations where industrial wind energy projects benefit from a streamlined permitting process.
The vote, if formalized at a later meeting, would deliver a major blow to TransCanada's plan to add another 14 turbines to the 44 turbines already in place or under construction on Kibby Mountain near Stratton.
Several major environmental groups that had supported the original Kibby Mountain project oppose the expansion due to potential effects on scenery, wildlife and habitat. And the vote came one day after four members of the group EarthFirst! were arrested as part of a blockade of a road leading to the Kibby Mountain construction site. There were no protests at LURC's Bangor meeting Wednesday, however.
Commissioners expressed concerns about the project’s impacts on scenic views from nearby Chain of Ponds and hiking trails, on the rare migratory bird known as the Bicknell’s thrush and on the subalpine habitat on which it depends.
"To me, the impacts far exceed the benefits, so my vote would be to deny this application," said Commissioner Rebecca Kurtz of Rangeley Plantation.
"This is a hard decision for me, and I believe we are probably going to take some flak on this," said commissioner Ed Laverty of Medford. "But on the other hand, I think our job is to protect the resources in some of the high mountain areas."
Juliet Browne, an attorney for TransCanada, said the company was disappointed by the results of the straw poll.
TransCanada made the first request to expand Maine's "expedited wind energy permitting area," a controversial designation that was created by the Legislature several years ago in order to encourage development of industrial wind power.
Under the expedited review process, would-be developers are still required to receive permits from LURC or the Department of Environmental Protection. However, the developers do not have to rezone the land or prove the project would fit "harmoniously" into the surrounding terrain.
But Wednesday's debate on both the Kibby project and a similar request from First Wind LLC — Maine's largest wind power company — brought to light some frustrations among the commissioners about the expedited permitting process.
First Wind is petitioning LURC to add roughly 700 acres of land in Kossuth Township in northern Washington County to the list of areas with streamlined permitting for wind power projects. The Massachusetts-based company has told LURC that it plans to file an application later this fall for a 25-turbine wind farm stretching from Carroll Plantation to Kossuth Township.
The proposed facility would be located just south of Route 6 and about eight miles south of First Wind's 55-turbine Stetson Mountain wind power facilities. But while Carroll Plantation is included in the expedited permitting area, Kossuth Township is not.
That means First Wind would have to submit two separate applications for the project unless Kossuth is reclassified as appropriate for industrial wind power.
On Wednesday, several commissioners expressed frustration that, unlike with the larger Kibby project, First Wind's so-called Bowers Mountain project is still hypothetical. And if LURC chooses to re-designate the 700 acres in Kossuth Township, the land remains part of the expedited permitting area regardless of whether First Wind receives permits or builds the Bowers Mountain project.
Laverty said he worries that the commission could open the floodgates to other applicants seeking to add their land to the expedited permitting area in order to increase their property values or for other reasons.
The commission eventually agreed to begin the rule making process to consider First Wind's request and pledged to hold public hearings on the issue.
Neil Kiely, director of New England development for First Wind, said afterward he was pleased with the decision and pledged to work with the commission to address their concerns.