OCEAN CITY — After getting a glimpse of “dramatic” renderings of the potential offshore wind energy farm last month, resort officials this week unanimously agreed to send a letter voicing opposition to the close proximity of the project to the shore.
The Mayor and Council on Monday heard an in-depth presentation from U.S. Wind Project Development Director Paul Rich on his company’s proposal to develop a wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City totaling as many as 187 five-story tall wind turbines. The U.S. Wind project is one of two currently under consideration by the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), which will decide by mid-May the company to ultimately develop the offshore wind farm.
The other candidate, Deepwater Wind, has proposed a project of a much smaller scale and that company will make a presentation to the Mayor and Council in a couple of weeks. On Monday, however, the focus was on the proposed U.S. Wind project and after seeing some visual renderings of what the project could look like from the beach in Ocean City, the town’s elected officials had seen enough and voted to send a letter of opposition, not directly to the U.S. Wind proposal specifically, but the prospect of having 480-foot tall wind turbines churning offshore in clear view from the beach in general.
Mayor Rick Meehan invited Rich to make his presentation to the council after attending a public hearing hosted by the PSC nearly two weeks ago. At that presentation, Meehan got a first-hand look at some of the most recent renderings.
“I received some pictures from Mr. Rich depicting what the proposed wind farm from U.S. Wind would look like from the shores of Ocean City and I must admit they were a little more dramatic than what I had anticipated,” he said. “I understand the importance of alternative sources of energy and we’ve been involved in this discussion since its inception a number of years ago when it was originally proposed to be much closer to the beach. This does fall within the legislation, but I thought it was important that everybody be aware of what is being proposed.”
In 2013, after years of debate, the General Assembly passed the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act, paving the way for a future offshore wind farm in an 80,000-acre Wind Energy Area (WEA) as close in a range of 10 to 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City. The WEA off Ocean City’s coast is divided into two distinct lease areas including a southern lease area directly off the coast of Ocean City, and a northern lease area to the northeast of Ocean City more situated off Delaware’s coast.
For several years, Ocean City officials resisted the concept of an offshore wind farm off the coast of the resort over concerns of the potential impact on the vistas and views that draw millions to the resort each year. However, satisfied the visual impact would be minimized, resort officials threw their support behind the legislation with the understanding the turbines would be seen from the shore on only the clearest of days and even then only faintly. However, with the proposed projects nearing the finish line, it now appears the turbines would be clearly visible both during the day and at night with red flashing beacons.
“I’m here to present our project, I’m not here to give you a sales pitch,” Rich said. “Your input is crucial. This is your city and I’m not here to tell you how to think. I just want to be as transparent as possible. Trust me, I get it. Change creates anxiety, but with that change comes opportunity, and I ask you to be open to that as I try to present this project as uncomfortable as that might be. I’m an engineer by background so I apologize if that comes off as blunt.”
The legislation created a WEA off the coast of Ocean City as close as 10 miles and as far away as 30 miles. The U.S. Wind project would be done in phases with the first phase including as many as 125 turbines creating 250 megawatts of renewable energy. The finished project could include as many as 187 turbines creating 750 megawatts.
Rich explained the main transmission line for the U.S. Wind project would come ashore near the Indian River Inlet in Delaware, as opposed to a potential landing spot somewhere within Ocean City for the Deepwater Wind project. However, while the Indian River Inlet landing spot is advantageous for Ocean City, it does come with an expensive price tag.
Rich explained it will cost $1 million per mile to bring the main transmission line ashore, which is why the 12-mile range for the first row of turbines was chosen. Under that scenario, the latest renderings clearly show the turbines would be visible from the shore on most days, and nights for that matter.
“I tried to provide you with all transparency a worst case scenario of what it would look like from the closest point in Maryland which is the Ocean City Pier,” he said. “On the most crystal clear day in December, with no atmospherics like haze or condensation, that’s what you will see.”
To his credit, Rich did not try to dance around the potential visual impact from the shore.
“I’m not going to shy away from it,” he said. “That’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to the citizens of this city. It would be one thing to be surprised by a visual rendering and it’s another thing to be surprised once it’s built.”
It’s important to note beauty is in the eye of the beholder and while some would find the sight of wind turbines off the otherwise pristine coast as offensive, others would see them as an opportunity for a cleaner energy future. Rich explained in places in Europe where similarly scaled wind farm projects have been developed, they have actually become tourist destinations.
“Some people see them as a future without propane or natural gas or coal and some people see them as just ugly,” he said. “If you see it as ugly, I understand and I can’t change your opinion on that. What I do know is that for every one person that doesn’t want to look at a wind turbine, there are one-and-a-half to two people that would gladly pay even more and make it a destination to come see them, whether it’s by helicopter or by tour boat or even just from the shore.”
However, it’s not a risk Ocean City officials were prepared to take. Councilman Tony DeLuca said he carefully studied the presentation along with the associated studies, and while he supports the concept of renewable alternative energy, he could not support the proposal that would put wind turbines just 12 miles off the coast. DeLuca made a motion to send a letter of opposition to the governor, the PSC and any other appropriate decision makers including the town’s federal representatives in Washington.
“I spent a lot of time over the weekend researching this and after going through all of that, just looking at that one picture, there is nothing that can replace that one picture by the pier,” he said. “Why do people come here? They come for the beach and the ocean and to do anything to jeopardize that is ridiculous. I really believe this is going to affect tourism and it’s going to affect property values.”
Councilman Matt James seconded the motion, pointing out the potential impact on tourism and property values.
“I think it will have a negative effect on property values,” he said. “We have a lot of waterfront properties in Ocean City and a lot of people come to enjoy the view. I just think at night with the red flashing lights and during the day with 125 to 187 wind turbines will negatively impact that view.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said the latest available rendering was somewhat troubling.
“After seeing the visual, I have to agree the latest renderings are concerning,” he said. “That’s from the ground. If I’m up on the 8th, 9th or 10th floor, how much more prevalent will it be? The permanent impact is concerning.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the resort’s financial contribution through its tourism industry in relation to the cost of erecting a potentially harmful wind farm within sight of the shore. Dare said Ocean City contributes $92 million to the federal government annually, along with $164 million to the state and another $13 million in room tax for a total of $255 million annually.
“If even a small percentage of our visitors dislike the look of this, it can be a big loss,” he said. “There are other choices where people can sit on the beach and look at the pristine view. We’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot possibly and I don’t think we have to do it.”
Dare said the estimated $1 million per mile to bring the transmission line ashore was a small price to pay compared to the potential economic impact of having the turbines so close to shore.
“We heard $1 million a mile to run the cable, but we can lose that in one year,” he said. “I think this can be further offshore. I think it can be 20 to 24 miles offshore. It’s just a little too much and too close.”
At least one councilmember was not quite ready to fire off a letter of opposition, however.
“I think it’s premature for a letter,” said Councilman John Gehrig. “I think we can hear all of the facts. I’m not ready to send a letter, I’m ready to get more information.”
Rich did not try to dissuade the Mayor and Council from sending a letter of opposition, but he did point out there would be ample time for resort officials to weigh in on the finished product.
“Ocean City’s involvement will come during the permitting process,” he said. “Right now, what we’re going through is the regulatory process. You’ll be fully engaged in the permitting process when all of these issues such as sighting the turbines, the noise and the lighting will be decided.”
Nonetheless, the town’s elected officials were not ready to back down from their opposition to the turbines so close to shore.
“We’re looking at 480-foot turbines 12 miles offshore,” said Council President Lloyd Martin. “I think this is something we need to be involved in. Right now, we know what we have. I think we need to keep what we have.”
Again, Rich did not try to talk the Mayor and Council out of sending the letter, but rather pointed to all of the proposed project’s benefits.
“This is your community and I don’t envy your process,” he said. “But I do urge you to keep an open mind.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said Ocean City remained supportive of the concept of the wind farm, but could not support the turbines so close to shore in plain view for residents and visitors.
“I support the motion,” she said. “We like sustainable energy. We just don’t want to look at it. I think it’s a good idea to send the letter letting our concerns known.”
James pointed out the proposed letter did not oppose the U.S. Wind project, or the Deepwater Wind project, but merely would voice the town’s concern over the visual impact.
“We’re not sending a letter that is not if favor of your project or the other project,” he said. “We just don’t want to see it period. I think it’s important we go on the record with that.”
Meehan said once he saw the latest rendering, he was certain his colleagues would not support the turbines so close to shore.
“After I saw the picture, I knew this would be the reaction of this council,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to express our concerns. This is something as proposed that doesn’t meet the test for the town of Ocean City.”
The council voted unanimously to send the letter of opposition to the sighting of the turbines just 12 miles offshore to the governor, the PSC and other appropriate state and federal authorities.