Visible impacts

I should start out by saying that while I have never lived near an array of wind turbines, I find their slowly rotating blades to be almost mesmerizing and not a blot on the landscape. I will admit that most of my experience with them comes from cross-country drives and seeing them spread across grazing lands in the Great Plains and farm fields in the Midwest. I understand that many find these wind farms objectionable on various grounds including aesthetic ones.

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission recently unanimously denied a development permit for First Wind’s Bowers Mountain project. The project would have consisted of 27 wind turbines with a maximum height of 428 feet. They would have been located i along the Penobscot-Washington County line in an area that includes nine lakes - Pleasant, Shaw, Duck, Junior, Scraggly, Keg, Bottle, Sysladobsis and Pug.

The decision hinged on the project’s visual impact and its potential impact on the hunting, fishing and guide business that comprises much of the local economy. The commission appeared to rely heavily on testimony of those who worked in the tourism industry and their beliefs that the presence of an array of wind turbines would drive visitors away from the rural, pristine area.

Stetson Mountain, Maine

Since First Wind has already stated that it plans to resubmit a scaled down version of the project, we have almost certainly not hear the last of this particular fight. While I understand the need to consider the visual impact of such projects, I can’t help but wonder if we put too much weight on the visual impacts of projects in our immediate vicinity and too little weight on invisible impacts (i.e., the release of pollutants into the air and water) that nonetheless have a profound impact on the environment and human health.



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Wind rights

It is well established by this time that a landowner can grant an easement over his property to a third party who wishes to build wind turbines that will capture the wind and convert it into electrical power. It is still somewhat of an open question whether an adjacent landowner can still make use of his land for something that would block the flow of wind (e.g., planting a windbreak to impede soil erosion or building a grain elevator). One commentator has noted that some states have recognized a solar right that prevents a  landowner from blocking sunlight needed to power solar panels on a neighbor’s land.

A recent lawsuit in California seeks to have wind rights of a different sort recognized. The Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi, California, has filed a lawsuit seeking to block construction of a wind power project that called for erecting up to 137 410-foot tall wind turbines on 7,100 acres. The owners of the airport are arguing that its users have established a “public easement” in the unique wind currents that occur above the proposed project site.

Wind by its very nature is not a resource that is confined to any single parcel of property regardless of how big. Should it be thought of more like free flowing water and treated similarly from a legal standpoint? The airport’s claim raises another possibility: should the wind be thought of as a resource owned collectively by all of us and held in public trust by state and federal governments? Such an approach would not mean that private landowners couldn’t capture wind resources as they pass over their individual parcels. But it might mean that government would have a role in resolving disputes like this one and ones that are increasingly likely to occur between adjacent landowners.

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