Roxbury wind ordinance debate stirs emotions

Rumford Falls Times
August 27, 2008

ROXBURY—It was a hot time in Roxbury Thursday night, as about 75 residents grappled with the issue of whether or not to amend the town’s zoning ordinance to create a “mountain zone” that would permit the building of an industrial wind power facility on Record Hill.

In a public hearing that lasted nearly three hours and was moderated by State Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, citizens grilled would-be wind farm developer Rob Gardiner, of Independence Wind, LLC, about every possible aspect of his proposed project.

Roxbury Pond homeowner Linda Kuras, representing Concerned Citizens to Save Roxbury, presented a letter from the group’s attorney, Frank Underkuffler, expressing the opinion that the proposed change to the ordinance would render it incompatible with Roxbury’s existing comprehensive plan, and therefore illegal.

“You’re partly correct,” responded Gardiner. “The incompatibility issue is a judgment call.” However, he said, his company was now requesting that the town consider making modifications to both the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance, a two-step process that could be handled at one town meeting.

He then introduced Shana Mueller, an attorney with the firm of Bernstein Shur in Portland. Mueller, who specializes in municipal law, distributed a handout she had prepared, outlining the process to change both the plan and the ordinance.

Chris Jones, a fourth-generation Roxbury Pond camp owner, asked about the expected lifespan of the proposed wind turbines, and what provisions would be in place for their eventual removal. Gardiner replied that, as part of the company’s permit application to the state, they are required to create a fund to decommission and remove the turbines at the end of their useful life, estimated to be 20 to 25 years. He added that he fully expects for wind power to gain in importance, and for the turbines to be replaced at that time with updated equipment.

Another resident expressed concerns about the possible restriction of access to hiking and snowmobile trails in the area. Gordon Gamble, representing Wagner Forest Management, which manages the Record Hill parcel for landowner Bayroot, LLC, said there would be no change in access to existing recreational trails, since none comes close enough to the proposed project to be an issue.

Many of those attending the hearing expressed suspicion toward the developers. In particular, they distrusted the promise that the developers would not seek any type of tax exemption for the project, and that any future owners to whom the project might be transferred would be held to that promise. “We will put it in writing in a legally enforceable means…that we will not seek tax exemptions, once and for all,” said a beleaguered Gardiner, adding, “Those legal obligations will go with the ownership of the wind farm, if it should ever be transferred.”

There was also skepticism about the developer’s assertion that the wind farm would likely result in a two-thirds reduction of residents’ property tax bills, an assertion based on calculations showing the current value of property in the town at about $33 million, the potential assessed value of the wind project at $108 million, and taking into account the reduction in state school subsidy payments and increased county taxes based on the higher town valuation.

However, Gordon Touchette, one of the few attendees to speak in favor of allowing the wind project, pointed to the tax benefit to residents as an important consideration. “I’m a senior citizen on a fixed income,” said Touchette, “and this is the only thing I can see coming into Roxbury to help with taxes.”

A vocal number of those attending expressed concerns over quality of life issues resulting from the proposed wind farm, particularly as a consequence of noise and visual impact. Gardiner’s attempts to reassure them, and his claims that no houses lie within the distance to which sound from the turbines is likely to travel—the nearest homes are more than half a mile away—were not well received.

Paul Jones of Dixfield, who has owned a camp on Roxbury Pond since 1939, pushed the developers to devise a way to test the noise effects with a recording of sound at the actual expected decibel level, played from 400 feet above Record Hill, a demonstration Gardiner said sound engineers had told him was impossible.

In an emotional plea, Lisa Hodgkins, who said her husband’s family has lived in Roxbury for over a century, asked, “What protection do we have? What if my husband and I can’t sleep at night because of the noise? What protection is in place, healthwise, for people who are going to be affected by it?” and urged planners not to take hasty action that would change the character of Roxbury forever.

Some at the hearing took the planning board and selectmen to task for attempting to muddle through such a complex process without legal advice. “Should the town be doing this on our own?” asked one resident. “Shouldn’t we have a lawyer?”

The planning board agreed that they felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the application and regulations, and said that they had been requesting legal representation “for months.” However, according to selectman Mark Touchette, town officials’ hands are tied, as they have no authority to spend money on attorney’s fees unless the expenditure is first approved at a special town meeting.

The next step in the process is uncertain. If planners decide, based on citizen input at Thursday’s hearing, to amend the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance, another hearing will be required. If they decide to stay with the original proposed amendment, the town will vote on the ordinance change at a special town meeting. Selectmen were expected to take up the issue at their next regular meeting Tuesday evening.

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