Officials believe unsightly structures would hurt tourism, economy
OCEAN CITY, Md. — Recent approval of two wind farms off the coast of Ocean City is generating concern.
Beach-goers, property owners and elected officials are worried that the distance of the wind farms from shore will change the view.
In Ocean City, the beach matters. Its 10-mile sandy coast is the No. 1 asset in Maryland's vacation capital. The quaint town of just more than 7,000 welcomes 345,000 visitors each summer.
Hotels, condominiums, clubs, bars and restaurants exist because of beach-goers. Ocean City tourism generates $150 million each year in tax revenues for the state.
But change as significant as the constant offshore breeze is literally on the horizon.
"It's an epic moment for Maryland to cement the U.S. offshore wind industry in the state, (to) create thousands of jobs for multiple generations," said Paul Rich, director of project development for U.S. Wind.
The Maryland Public Service Commission gave U.S. Wind permission to build up to 187 wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City. A 750-megawatt offshore power plant is set to open in 2020.
"This is going to provide enough electricity for 500,000 homes," Rich said.
Electric cables will be buried 6-8 feet under the ocean floor and connect to the grid at a coal-fired plant in Dagsboro, Delaware, eventually replacing coal. It will cost rate-payers 97 cents a month to subsidize the $1.4 billion project.
The turbines are 60 stories tall, which is 50 feet higher than the Washington Monument.
Nearly everyone said they like the idea of a clean, renewable energy source. The problem is that they don't want to see it.
"Our big concern is visual pollution," Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said.
Meehan contends that 12 miles is too close and that an acceptable distance is 26 miles.
"We want them to be moved back to the horizon, so we don't see the towers. I really believe people come to Ocean City because they want to look out into the ocean, the undisturbed natural state of the ocean, and this will dramatically change that," Meehan said.
There are mixed opinions from tourists.
"It would take away from the view and the beauty of this beach," said Marvin McDowell, of Washington, D.C.
"It won't really ruin the view of the beach. I mean, if it's out far enough, and to me I think it is pretty with the spinning," said Sarah Bryant, of New Jersey.
"It would kind of ruin the serenity of it, you know," said visitor Terry Morrison, of West Virginia.
The PSC attached nearly 30 conditions to the project, including requiring manufacturing in Maryland. U.S. Wind will build the turbines on the former site of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill, creating thousands of jobs.
But the wind farm distance from shore remains a sticking point.
"Since we started about 12 miles off the coast, just an initial response to the city and listening to their concerns, we were able to engineer the wind farm to be an additional five miles further east," Rich said.
That puts the wind farm 17 miles from shore.
Ocean City Councilman Tony Deluca agrees with the mayor, saying 26 miles off shore is the magic number and they will push that during the federal permit process. One of the federal officials' criteria requires that the farm does not hurt existing tourism.
"I really think that it's going to hurt tourism. I think it's going to hurt property values," Deluca said.
Officials only have one opportunity to get it right, and they want to do what's best for the resort town.
Another company, Skipjack Offshore Wind, plans to construct 15 wind turbines. They would be located at the northern end of Ocean City, at least 17 to 21 miles off the coast. The company hopes to begin operation by 2022.
Skipjack and U.S. Wind projects must meet federal approval.