When the town selectmen of Highland Plantation, Maine, population 52, learned that a developer wanted to build 48 wind turbines atop the mountains surrounding Highland, their immediate reaction was relief.
The developer, Independence Wind, promised to not only bring Highland 340,000 megawatt hours of clean, renewable energy, but also to pay for 90 percent of the plantation’s taxes. Given the opportunity to lift what has become an ever-growing tax burden on Highland’s population of retirees and low-income families, residents supported the plan, selectwoman Jo Dunphy said.
But by now, Highland is split down the middle over whether Independence Wind and its partners, Wagner Forest Management and landowner corporation Bayroot — which have been connected to Yale’s investments in the past — will ruin Highland’s mountains.
Opponents of wind developments in other parts of the state, including the town of Roxbury, where Independence Wind has begun construction on another wind project, say Bayroot is a shell corporation owned by Yale. Though Independence Wind is working with Wagner, which manages land in Highland and Roxbury as well as forests all over the northeastern U.S. and Canada, Bayroot’s name is on 22,000 of Highland’s total 27,000 acres as well as the mountaintops near Roxbury. In a tax form filed in 2000, the University disclosed that it owned most of two companies called Wagner Timber Partners and Yankee Forest, both based in Lyme, N.H. — and both listed under the same Lyme P.O. box that now belongs to Wagner Forest Management and Bayroot, according to state records.
About 37 percent of Yale’s endowment is invested in alternative assets such as timber, oil and gas. Both University President Richard Levin and Chief Investment Officer David Swensen declined to comment on whether Yale owns forests in Maine. Jonathan Macey, a law professor and chair of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, said he had not heard of the controversy in Maine but would be open to researching it.
This is not the first time wind farms allegedly backed by Yale have run into controversy. Residents of Ira, Vt. have also mounted opposition to a nearby wind farm proposed by the developer Vermont Community Wind Farm, which leases land from Wagner. (The Ira project recently ran into objections from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, which last month said the wind project would cut into one of the largest continuous forest habitats in the Taconic Mountains.)
In Highland, Independence Wind’s proposed $250 million project would set about 48 turbines standing 250 feet high in a single file line across Stewart Mountain, Witham Mountain, Bald Mountain, Briggs Hill and Burnt Hill, in view of the Appalachian Trail.
Not only will they generate noise and unwanted lights, said Greg Perkins, a soil scientist who plans to retire with his wife to a cabin on the side of Stewart Mountain, but the turbines will destroy the natural scenery — the main reason, Perkins said, for living in a town that is miles away from offices and that has just one tiny store and one road.
“It’s a great boon financially, and I’m for renewable energy and wind energy,” Perkins said, “but the top of these mountains isn’t a responsible place to site wind turbines because of the ecological destruction it does.”
Though Independence Wind’s backers, Maine’s ex-governor Angus King and former public broadcasting executive Robert Gardiner, have acknowledged the aesthetic impact, they say the environmental benefit is worth it. King and Gardiner’s other wind project in Roxbury, Maine, has also encountered resistance from residents who say the 22 proposed turbines will disturb the serenity of a lake a mile away.
The Roxbury project, called Record Hill Wind, passed last year in a close vote of townspeople. Residents who oppose the development are having a hard time convincing town officials to push Independence Wind out of town, said Steve Thurston, who owns property on Roxbury Pond originally purchased by his great-grandfather. Though the project, scheduled for completion in 2011, has been delayed because of low energy prices, contractors already blasted some mountain ridgeline last fall.
Meanwhile, in Highland, Independence Wind is just waiting for approval from the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission and other agencies to proceed with construction, LURC staff director Catherine Carroll said. When its application to LURC is complete, commissioners will review the project to decide whether it will cause “no undue adverse impact” on resources, wildlife and plants, she said, adding that LURC has approved three of the four wind projects that have come before it in the past and has another three pending, including Highland.
LURC approves land zoning changes for rural unorganized districts, known in Maine as plantations, such as Highland, and the residents themselves have no say, Dunphy said.
That hasn’t stopped residents from rallying opposition to the project, or King and Gardiner from reaching out to Highland taxpayers in an effort to soothe fears about the turbines. King and Gardiner held a series of town-hall meetings in Highland’s old one-room schoolhouse beginning in October 2008 to explain the project.
Anti-wind activists say scenery is not the only problem with wind turbines: they produce power only intermittently and at a fraction of their stated capacity, destabilize the electricity grid and can impact the health of animals and humans alike, Thurston said. The noise can cause problems from insomnia and headaches to depression, Perkins said.
Wagner spokesman Dan Hudnut said all of the wind farms Wagner backs adhere to environmental regulations and other Maine laws. He declined to disclose the names of any of Wagner’s investors.
Mike Novello, Wagner’s wind projects analyst, was unavailable for comment, while King and Gardiner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
For her part, Dunphy, who came back to Highland from California nearly 50 years ago to marry her high school sweetheart and stayed ever since, said she is not convinced that the turbines will be as harmful as some of her neighbors suggest.
“We’re still supportive of it as far as the financial benefit to the town, but we don’t know what the effects of the wind farm are going to be,” she said, adding, “They’ll be visible from my house, but I don’t have a problem with that.”