FORT FAIRFIELD – For the past 150 years, residents of this small border town have scratched out a living harvesting two things well-suited to the long winters and fleeting summers of far northern Maine: pine and potatoes.
Even today, every road out of Fort Fairfield is dotted with century-old farmhouses flanked by rolling hills of spuds, broccoli, canola or similarly hardy crops.
But that bucolic view soon could be altered by the arrival of a new type of “farm,” one that the town’s settlers and many current residents likely could never have fathomed.
One of the nation’s largest wind-power developers is eyeing Fort Fairfield and several other Aroostook County towns for the most ambitious energy projects in state history.
Horizon Wind Energy hopes to build as many as 400 wind turbines in the farm fields and forests of Aroostook County, thereby transforming northern Maine from a producer of world-class potatoes to the premier exporter of wind energy in the northeastern United States.
Officials with Texas-based Horizon Wind won’t disclose how many of the turbines – each likely standing 400 feet tall from base to blade tip – would be built in each location. With the exception of Number Nine Mountain west of Bridgewater, company officials also decline to discuss exactly where they are looking.
But details of the Horizon Wind’s preliminary plans are gradually emerging as the company meets with more landowners.
The Fort Fairfield area could be host to more than 100 turbines. Number Nine Mountain, which would likely be the first project, and the Bridgewater area could see similar numbers of turbines, according to unconfirmed reports.
Horizon Wind also is apparently negotiating lease agreements with landowners in the Fort Kent area, Limestone and other small towns along Maine’s northeastern fringe.
Advantages and concerns
Whether this transformation would help or hurt The County depends on whom you ask.
The projects would create hundreds of well-paying construction jobs and a handful of permanent positions in a part of the state where opportunities are limited, at best.
Hundreds of landowners, family farmers and woodlot owners could receive annual checks worth thousands of dollars for agreeing to host a turbine or transmission line. The projects also would produce an enormous windfall for local tax coffers at a time when small towns, like many families, are struggling financially.
Then there are the highly touted but less tangible benefits that come with wind power.
Four hundred turbines would generate roughly 800 megawatts of pollution-free electricity at capacity, enough to power more than one-third of Maine’s homes at peak load on a hot summer day.
Because the power would feed into the New England grid, this premium-priced electricity potentially could offset dirtier, fossil fuel-burning power plants to the south. It also would move Maine a giant step toward greater energy independence.
“Our motto is a windmill on every corner. We can’t get enough of them,” Dan Foster, Fort Fairfield’s town manager, said with a grin.
Of course, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Foster about the prospect of hundreds of 400-foot turbines dotting the landscape they love.
Horizon Wind’s private negotiations with landowners, while necessary from a business sense, have created uncertainty among some in the communities. That uncertainty has bred concern, mistrust and even fear of this out-of-state corporation.
Some locals worry that the sight of so many wind towers could deter hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers and other tourists who previously made the long trek north to enjoy the “wilds” of Aroostook County.
And then there’s Mars Hill.
People hear the lingering complaints about noise and sun “flicker” from residents of Maine’s only large wind-energy facility and wonder whether these same problems are headed toward their hometowns.
As a result, some local residents are urging caution – and more disclosure.
“I’m quite convinced that wind power … is a good thing, but it’s all about location,” said Dave Soucy, a Fort Kent native and former member of the Baldacci administration. Local governments must step up to ensure turbines are sited appropriately when they are near towns, he said.
“I just think we need to go slower, be more deliberative and show some respect for the people who live here,” Soucy said.
In many ways, Aroostook County seems like an ideal setting for large wind-power facilities.
Aroostook is geographically the largest county east of the Mississippi River. But with just 73,000 full-time residents, it has one of the lowest population densities.
Local communities have a strong relationship with the land after more than a century of farming and forestry. Those facts, combined with relatively steady winds, convinced Horizon Wind officials that Aroostook was an ideal place to scout out possible locations.
Horizon officials stressed that all of their projects in The County are contingent on construction of a high-capacity transmission line connecting northern Maine to the New England power grid. An application on the expansion was filed recently with state regulators.
But the company, which also operates under the name of its subsidiary, Aroostook Wind Energy, is aggressively courting landowners and has opened an office in Presque Isle.
“The community response in Aroostook County has been as positive as anywhere we have worked in the country, which is great to see,” said Justin Dawe, one of two Horizon Wind employees working in Aroostook. “This is a potentially significant investment … on a scale that would be remarkable in the county’s history.”
Some of that investment would go right into the bank accounts of local landowners.
Citing the highly competitive nature of the wind-energy business, Dawe refused to discuss the financial terms being offered to landowners in return for lease agreements. But, again, dollar figures are circulating among the public.
Landowners apparently can receive annual payments of a few thousand dollars for agreeing to allow roads or lines through their property to several times that for hosting a turbine, according to numerous sources.
That’s an attractive proposition for many in Aroostook County, where the median family income is less than $33,000.
Larry J. Guimond of Fort Kent is eager for the projects to start.
Like many County residents, Guimond makes ends meet by working several jobs in addition to farming and harvesting wood on his land. Horizon approached him about locating turbines on a remote ridgeline he owns three or four miles from Route 11 far from the nearest house.
Residents of The County are desperate for additional money and jobs as industries either disappear or hover on the verge of collapse, Guimond said. Horizon Wind’s projects will put much-needed cash in people’s pockets while helping lower taxes, he said.
“We have to do something,” said Guimond, a lifelong Fort Kent-area resident. “I’ve been making a living off of my land for the last 36 years and I can tell you, it’s getting harder and harder. The taxes are killing us.”
Gov. John Baldacci touts Aroostook as prime territory for wind energy development, which has become a high priority of his administration.
“They are mostly agriculture-oriented so they understand the diversity of their land,” Baldacci said recently. “They are more willing to experiment with things … and, frankly, it is in those areas where you would like to see more economic development.”
Earlier this year, Baldacci signed legislation that aims to expedite the regulatory review of wind-energy projects in areas deemed appropriate for the technology, including most of Aroostook.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection or the Land Use Regulation Commission would still review projects within expedited areas, but the agencies would not have to prove the turbines fit “harmoniously” into the surroundings.
Towers and towns
Aroostook County is already home to Maine’s only operating industrial scale wind-energy facility, a 28-turbine wind farm located in Mars Hill about 15 miles south of Presque Isle. The developer of the Mars Hill project, First Wind, also is completing construction on a 38-turbine farm in northern Washington County.
But Horizon Wind’s proposals would dwarf those projects. That has some local residents concerned.
Like others who worry about the County projects, Mark Aman insists he is not opposed to wind-energy development. He merely questions whether 40-story wind turbines are appropriate anywhere near homes or towns.
Aman and his family moved to Fort Kent roughly 30 years ago for the quality of life. They make marionettes and other crafts in a small woodshop beside their modest house on the outskirts of town.
Aman pointed out that if a neighbor objected to his plans to build a shed, that neighbor potentially could convince Fort Kent’s planning board to reject or modify a permit application.
Wind turbines are so large, Aman said, that they might be visible all over town, depending on their placement. Yet Aman fears he and other Fort Kent residents will have little to no say over placement of these giant turbines on private lands.
Aman has asked Fort Kent’s Town Council to consider an ordinance banning any turbines taller than 125 feet. Others are advocating for a moratorium on wind energy.
“I don’t personally think it’s a good idea whatsoever,” Aman said of the wind turbines. “But my main point is the town’s people, and by that I mean all residents of voting age, should have a say in whether this is going to come or not.”
Dawe said the company will not build near any downtown areas, and he said there would be ample opportunities for public comment on any projects when the company files for permits with state regulators.
“A development in Aroostook County is years away and before there can be any development there will be a very public process,” Dawe said.
Frictions in Mars Hill
Still, Aman and other critics often refer to Mars Hill where some residents claim they were shut out of the process until the decision was already made. They also accuse the developer, First Wind, of misleading neighbors about potential noise from the turbines.
First Wind and DEP officials point out that the Mars Hill facility is in compliance with the noise levels laid out in its permit. But some neighbors say noise and vibrations are still a problem that has interrupted sleep, disturbed wildlife and affected the enjoyment of their homes.
Rod Mahan was among a group of landowners so angry about the perceived lack of input on the project that they put together a petition to revert Mars Hill from a board of selectmen to a town meeting-style government. In June, townspeople voted overwhelmingly to support the change.
Mahan’s biggest problem with the turbines is the way they changed the landscape of the town where he grew up, and he said he can hear them a few times a month even from 11/2 miles away.
Seated on his porch overlooking Mars Hill Mountain – a porch he barely uses because of its views of the windmills – Mahan described Mars Hill as the guinea pig for large-scale wind development in Maine.
“I think it’s good we did what we did because we raised awareness,” Mahan said. “I don’t think this is an unusual situation here in Mars Hill. It’s going to be repeated.”
He says the $280 in taxes he saved thanks to the wind-energy facility was not worth the trade-off.
But Foster, the town manager of nearby Fort Fairfield, is betting that many in his community will embrace the windmills precisely because of the anticipated tax benefits. Few people have expressed concerns to him about the turbines, Foster said.
Fort Fairfield has roughly $145 million in taxable property today. Foster said that if Horizon Wind built 100 turbines in the area, the value of Fort Fairfield’s taxable property base could potentially double to $300 million.
Foster predicted the turbines would provide a huge boost to the tax base at a time when the town is facing school consolidation and many residents are worried about paying their heating bills or losing their jobs.
As for how the towers will change the look of town, Foster drew an analogy to another controversial local project.
Eight years ago, people predicted that a large dike built along Main Street would ruin the character of Fort Fairfield’s downtown because it would block views of the Aroostook River. Today, people rarely mention the dike, which spared the downtown from a flood in 2005.
“It’s not bad. It’s just different,” he said.
‘There ought to be a balance’
Still, some Fort Fairfield residents said they need more information – and public dialogue – before they are willing to embrace these new potential neighbors.
Phil Christensen owns one of the many old farmhouses that have sheltered generations of farm families in the Fort Fairfield area. He is one of the dozens of landowners that Horizon Wind has approached about signing a lease option.
The turbines would be located on farmland Christensen owns outside of Fort Fairfield, not near his family’s ancestral farmhouse. But he can see the spinning blades of the windmills from his home, located about 20 miles north of Mars Hill Mountain.
Neither an advocate for, nor an opponent of Horizon’s proposal at this point, Christensen said he simply wants to see guidelines or ordinances developed to ensure his town, its rural character and its people are protected.
“There ought to be a balance, but it’s going to be hard work,” he said. “It seems to me if we all put our minds to it we could find a way to have these in appropriate places … protect people’s investments in their property, their health and their safety, and also give people an opportunity to make money from this resource.”