Lawsuit Claims State Went Too Easy On Wind Energy Company

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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For several years now, a company called BNE Energy has wanted to place electricity-generating turbines in the Litchfield County town of Colebrook. The proposal has sparked vigorous legal opposition from nearby property owners and has prompted a long-running debate over proposed regulations governing wind energy projects in the state.

Now BNE is in the middle of another dispute. In 2010, in Canaan, about 20 miles west of the proposed Colebrook wind farm, the energy firm paid to have a wide swath of tall hemlocks, oaks and other trees cut down. The stated goal was to facilitate a study to see if that site would be appropriate for turbines.

BNE Energy thought the clearing was being done on private land, and even paid the adjacent-land owner for the rights. But it turns out the trees were actually in the Housatonic State Forest.

"BNE believed they were on private property where they had permission to clear the land and did immediately report the situation to us when they became concerned that they might have encroached on state property," Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said in an email that was released by an environmental group.

The agency reached a settlement agreement with BNE earlier this year. The energy company will have to pay for a survey of the cleared area as well as $10,000 in fines. The fine might be reduced if BNE finances an environmental study of the negative impact of cutting the trees.

Berkshire-Litchfield Environmental Council Inc., a nonprofit land preservation group, had been tracking the case since the trees came down. They view BNE in a harsher light than does the state agency. While the DEEP says BNE self-reported the cutting on public land, the environmental group says the matter was actually brought to the agency by reporters for the Hartford Courtant.

As such, the Berkshire-Litchfield group doesn't believe the settlement goes far enough, especially since the state did not order the company to repair the damaged forest, which it says is required under state law. The organization filed a lawsuit earlier this year against DEEP and the state Attorney General's Office, seeking to have the settlement agreement revoked.

The lawsuit calls for voiding the state's settlement with BNA over cutting down more than 332 trees on nearly three acres, on the grounds that the deal violates state law. In documents that have been filed in the case, the environmental group points to a settlement in another tree-clearing case in which former attorney general Richard Blumenthal filed a lawsuit against Lamar Advertising of Hartford, which had illegally cleared 83 trees on state land along Interstate 84 to maximize visibility of a billboard.

Blumenthal's lawsuit sought monetary damages for the restoration of property. In 2010, the state settled with Lamar for $188,000, which was to be used to replant trees where the cutting had been done.

In 2006, the legislature approved a law providing specific penalties for parties that unlawfully cut trees on state land. It calls for a fine to be opposed, and adds civil liability exposure of "three times the value of the trees, plus the cost of restoring the land."

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