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County commissioners sign letter opposing Somerset Wind power development project

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DOVER-FOXCROFT — After discussing the idea of following their counterparts in Somerset County by drafting a letter in formal opposition to additional industrial-scale wind development for customers in Massachusetts overlooking Moosehead Lake, the Piscataquis County Commissioners signed a document of their own during an Oct. 3 meeting.

The letter, prepared by County Manager Tom Lizotte, addressed to Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judith Judson, says the commissioners are unanimously opposed to the proposed Somerset Wind turbine project. Even though the site is in Somerset County, the 26 turbines “would be highly visible from many of the most visited recreation areas in neighboring Piscataquis County, including Moosehead Lake itself.”

Much of the land around the body of water falls under the jurisdiction of the commissioners in the unorganized territories.

“We feel this wind power project would have detrimental economic and environmental consequences for our region,” the letter signed by Chair James L. White and Commissioners James D. Annis and Wayne Erkkinen reads. The document says that Moosehead Lake is the chief tourist attraction in Piscataquis County and “that experience would be profoundly changed by the presence of wind turbines along the ridgelines overlooking the lake.”

The letter says wind turbines will undercut the efforts of the Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corporation to rebrand the region as “America’s Crown Jewel” “and have a deleterious effect on preservation of the natural environment and scenic beauty of the region — a necessity for the long-term success of this rebranding effort.”

“Our biggest worry is that many of the visitors to Moosehead Lake and Maine’s North Woods come for a ‘wilderness’ experience. Will they continue to drive long distances to come here if that wilderness feel is gone, replaced by the whirring blades of Somerset Wind’s turbines and the red flashing warning lights placed on each 500-foot tower for aviation safety? Our economy is too fragile to take that risk.”

The commissioner’s letter also addresses turbine construction environmental concerns such as necessary blasting and road building destroying ridgelines and changing wildlife patterns. Soil erosion and sedimentation from the sites would affect nearby streams, rivers and lakes and negatively impact water quality, fisheries and water-based recreation.

“The irony to this proposed development is that while the Moosehead Lake area will experience the negative consequences of industrial-scale wind power, all of the electricity generated by Somerset Wind will be sent out of state to benefit regions which have fought to keep wind turbines out of their own states,” the letter states.

“For all these reasons, the Piscataquis County Commissioners will be taking an active role in opposing this project throughout the regulatory process that will be conducted by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.”

Lizotte said the letter would be sent to the region’s Legislative delegation, the governor’s office and the Land Use Planning Commission. Copies will also be given to the Moosehead Region Futures Committee as part of its advocacy against the proposed project.

In other business, the commissioners reviewed a memo on the preliminary 2018-19 unorganized territory budget and the finances for the 2018 county budget (which follows the calendar year).

“The unorganized territory budget, this one is down by about $62,000,” Lizotte said with the $1,468,763 figure representing a 4.05 percent decrease from 2017-18. He said $30,000 less is needed for paving and a $27,000 cut has been budgeted for the county’s share of closing costs related to the former Greenville solid waste landfill.

“The budget advisory committee starts Thursday, they go through it and hammer away and you approve it after the public hearing,” Lizotte said. The public hearing would be on the evening of Monday, Nov. 27 and the commissioners would approve the respective budgets during a December meeting.

The county manager then said the county expenditures are up by just over $186,600 — 4.56 percent — to $4,282,943. The current estimated tax commitment needed to support the budget would be $3,544,341 or about $148,200 more than the previous year. Lizotte said the municipalities would therefore need to contribute $73,169 (1.27 percent) more and the unorganized territory contribution would be up by $75,042 (4.73 percent).

“Last year we used $100,000 in surplus for the county budget, this year the county treasurer and I are proposing using $175,000,” Lizotte said, with the funds helping reduce the tax commitment.

He said major increases in the county budget are seen in the district attorney’s office and in the county jail tax cap. A full-time investigator position had been funded through the STOP Violence Against Women program, but the grant monies are scheduled to end in 2018 to represent a loss of $63,000 in federal revenue. The office also has a $26,707 increase in personnel costs.

The Legislature approved a bill to increase the tax cap on local funding of the county jail by a maximum of 4 percent. For Piscataquis County the 4 percent increase would raise an additional $36,500 to a new total of $949,015.

“No one likes a tax cap at 4 percent but that’s all we can do to eat into that jail deficit,” Lizotte said. He said the overall jail budget is $1,528,488 and the facility has been operating with a deficit for the last two years due to a sharp decline in state Department of Corrections funding support for local jails.

Speaking on the tax commitment increase Lizotte said, “I think we can certainly get it down from where it is. I think we can get it under $100,000, that certainly is doable.”

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