OCEAN CITY — Reiterating a position they have fostered for years, the Mayor and Council this week unanimously passed a resolution opposing the development of offshore wind energy turbines within view of the resort’s coastline.
Last May, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) approved two offshore wind energy projects off the coast that could ultimately place as many as 187 turbines as close as 12-15 miles off the resort’s shoreline. After the Ocean City Mayor and Council voiced grave concerns about the visual impact on the pristine sightlines from the shoreline and its potential impact on tourism and property values, one of the approved companies, US Wind, agreed to move their first line of turbines back as far as 17 miles, or a distance they believe would make them invisible from the Ocean City shoreline, except perhaps on the clearest of days. The other developer, Deepwater Wind, and its Skipjack project would situate its turbines as close as 17-21 miles offshore, but that project’s approved area is situated more in line with Delaware’s coast.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council had before them a proposed resolution voicing the town’s opposition to the close proximity of the turbines to the coast. City Engineer Terry McGean said US Wind’s most recent plans presented to the town did show the turbines 17 miles off the coast in the first of three phases, but subsequent phases in out years had the turbines as close as 15 miles in a second phase and roughly 13 miles in a third and final phase.
It also came to light on Monday the size of the proposed turbines continues to increase, from two megawatts when the General Assembly first approved legislation to allow offshore wind farms in 2011 to eight megawatts now and possibly 12 megawatts in the future. Naturally, as the size of the turbines increases, the potential impact on the views from the shoreline in Ocean City increases in kind, a point not lost on the Mayor and Council. McGean said on Monday the currently proposed turbines would be 643 feet tall when measured from the water line to the tip of the turbine blades.
By comparison, the tallest building in Ocean City is the Century I condominium at 250 feet. For perhaps an even more dramatic comparison, the famed Washington Monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C. is 554 feet tall, or nearly 100 feet shorter than the turbines proposed off the coast of Ocean City. If approved as planned, there could ostensibly by 187 structures considerably taller than the Washington Monument off the coast.
Even before the Mayor and Council reviewed and ultimately approved the resolution stating its formal opposition to wind turbines within view of the coastline, a large crowd had gathered in council chambers to voice their opposition to the town’s resolution. Mayor Rick Meehan acknowledged their presence even before reading the formal resolution and told them the elected officials shared many of their views. Meehan also reiterated the town’s elected officials did not oppose the proposed wind farms, but merely the placement of turbines within view of the Ocean City coast.
“What we’re trying to make clear is we support the same opinions of many of the people in this room,” he said. “We support clean energy and we support the environment and have a desire to conserve it and improve it. As we follow this process, we became aware it can change the landscape in Ocean City forever.”
Meehan said the town supported offshore wind and green energy and pointed to the resort’s 100 percent clean energy portfolio including 25 percent coming from a partnership in a developing solar energy facility in northern Worcester County. He also pointed to Ocean City’s waste-to-energy successes in handling the tons of solid waste produced in the resort. However, the mayor said the town’s elected officials were beholden to its residents, visitors and non-resident property owners who could be impacted by turbines in close proximity to the shoreline.
“We feel it is our responsibility as representatives of our citizens, our taxpayers and the 26,000-plus non-resident property owners to make sure everyone is aware of what is about to happen,” he said. “I can envision somebody coming out the beach, turning to me and saying how did you let that happen. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Meehan again said the town did not oppose offshore wind energy, and even embraced it, but not at the expense of the pristine views from the shoreline.
“This is a big project that will be there for many years and we only get one chance to get it right,” he said. “Let’s not build something we will come to regret. We don’t want people to walk out on the beach to look at the sunrise and see what will appear to be an industrial landscape. That’s been our position all along.”
Resolution Cites Distance From Shore As Main Concern
Meehan said the resolution on the table on Monday merely restated in no uncertain terms the town’s position on the proximity of the turbines.
“What we’ve tried to do is have them moved further east so we don’t have this problem,” he said. “Everyone can look back years from now and say this was a good thing and we worked together to make that happen. That’s been the goal all along.”
During the meeting, two renderings were presented, one of which showed the current view from the beach at sunrise on a clear day, and the second of which showed the view with wind turbines clearly visible on the horizon.
“That’s the pristine view of our only 10-mile stretch of ocean beach in the state of Maryland,” he said. “That would change forever.”
The project developers have pointed out the estimated cost of connecting the offshore wind turbines to the substations on the mainland at $1 million per mile, which explains their reluctance to move the turbines further back in the respective Wind Energy Areas (WEAs). However, town officials have pointed out moving the turbines back even 10 miles would add $10 million to the project cost, which is no small amount, but relatively inexpensive on what is expected to be a $1.4 billion project. Meehan also pointed out the technology exists to move the turbines out further and cited a major offshore wind project in Europe as an example.
“There is technology to allow these turbines to be built further to the east so they’re not visible in Ocean City,” he said. “The largest project in Europe has the turbines 74 miles offshore. Technology is not an obstacle to moving them back.”
Councilman John Gehrig agreed the turbines could be moved further back, but the financial and political capital invested in the projects was causing them to be expedited before consideration was made to moving the turbines out farther than the shipping lanes.
“Because dollars are involved and politics are involved and the governor at the time was trying to be elected president, we’re in a rush to get it built,” he said. “What’s wrong with slowing this down and figuring out a way where everybody wins.”
To be sure, the project will ultimately create jobs and considerable investment in areas where the turbines will be built, for example, but Gehrig pointed out there would be little or no benefit for Ocean City, but rather negative impacts on the viewshed in the resort.
“There are contracts in place in West Ocean City and contracts in place in Salisbury,” he said. “There will be jobs created in Sparrows Point. What is the risk for the people we represent that pay for real estate in this town? If property values are affected and tourism is affected, property taxes must go up. That may not impact people in Sparrows Point and that may not impact people in West Ocean City, but people in Ocean City will be paying for it.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said Ocean City supported the offshore wind farms and clean energy in general, but remained opposed to turbines within view of the coast. It’s important to note the turbines could be visible during the day, but also at night when they will show blinking red beacons. He said simply moving the turbines back past the shipping lane, or roughly 26 miles off the coast, represented a compromise.
“We do support clean energy and we do support wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City, but our view should be protected as well,” he said. “I do believe this will work for everybody. Moving them out further is not that much more expensive to do. We’re only asking for 26 miles. We need to do it right the first time and we need to do it together.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out similar projects proposed in Virginia and North Carolina had turbines at least 25 miles off the coast.
“I think Ocean City has proven its case as far as its desire to be green,” he said. “All we’re asking is for them to be moved east of the shipping channel. What we’re asking for is no different then our neighbors. Everybody can still get what they want from this. We just need to do the right thing and it can and will be a win for everybody.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the Maryland’s approved projects protected the viewsheds in the national and state parks on Assateague Island. Gehrig said the same courtesy should be afforded to Ocean City.
“The permanent residents on Assateague are animals,” he said. “Our permanent residents are humans and I like animals, too. If they’re worried about their residents, they should worry about ours as well.”
Meehan reiterated the town did not oppose offshore wind energy projects but agreed the resolution clearly stated its position on the proximity of the turbines.
“Let’s take our time and get this right,” he said. “Let’s do this in such a way that everyone can benefit. That’s the goal here.”
Environmental Groups Blast OC’s Resolution
With that said, the council voted 6-0 with Councilman Tony DeLuca absent to approve the resolution. There was a brief ruckus after the vote when one of those waiting to speak in opposition to the resolution, the Reverend Greg Knepp, senior pastor of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Ocean City, raised concern about the vote being taken before those in attendance had the opportunity to speak. When Knepp could not be easily dissuaded from his rant about the apparent injustice, he was peacefully removed from council chambers by an Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officer in the room at the request of Martin.
It’s important to note the time period for public comments during regular Mayor and Council meetings such as the one on Monday comes near the end of the agenda. When it came time for public comments after the rest of the business on the agenda was completed, Crystal Hall, representing the Maryland Sierra Club chapter, referenced the disturbance earlier when Knepp was quelled and ultimately taken out of the council chambers.
“People left this meeting because they felt their voices weren’t being heard,” she said. “This has already happened and now the public gets a chance to speak? Ocean City is passing resolutions without the public being heard.”
When it came time for Mayor and Council comments, Meehan addressed Hall’s concerns regarding the disruption caused by Knepp.
“What we passed tonight was a resolution,” he said. “It was a statement from the council. It was not an ordinance and it was not a law. If it had been one or the other, we would have taken public comments before passing it. We are very open to public comments and we have a very open forum here. We offer the opportunity for public comments and it is on our agenda. We were not trying to bypass comments about what you might feel about this issue.”
Incidentally, Knepp quickly went to social media to voice his displeasure with the way the public comment period was handled and called for a boycott of Ocean City.
In terms of the resolution itself, Hall said essentially said offshore wind would benefit all and Ocean City’s resolution to push the turbines further east threatened to derail the projects.
“Climate change is real,” she said. “It’s happening already. I understand you’re concern about the project being rushed, but we are running out of time. This is something bigger than Ocean City.”
It didn’t take long for environmental advocacy groups to come out in opposition to Ocean City’s freshly passed resolution. Within an hour of the meeting, the Maryland Climate Coalition fired off the statement in opposition.
“Requiring the wind projects to be developed 24 nautical miles offshore is a nail in the coffin for the jobs, clean energy and environmental benefits offshore wind will bring to the Eastern Shore and to Maryland,” said Maryland League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Karla Raettig. “Ocean City is a magical place that has every right to preserve its legacy. With all due respect for the concerns of the council, we believe this resolution represents groundless, short-sighted and reactionary thinking that simply does not correspond with the mindset of the people who visit this beloved town every year. The leaders of Ocean City should affix their gaze not to an imagined eyesore off their coastline, but the future.”
Maryland Sierra Club Chapter Campaign and Policy Director David Smedick said the town’s resolution sent the wrong message to the offshore wind energy project developers.
“The desire to move the turbines 24 nautical miles offshore is an arbitrary and unnecessary limitation that is not based on science, math or economics,” he said. “This resolution is sending a chilling message to the burgeoning offshore wind industry, just as it is poised to blossom in our state, that it should take its thousands of jobs elsewhere.”
By Tuesday, Ocean City had at least one ally in its efforts to move the wind turbines further from the coastline. At the request of County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, who represents Ocean City, the Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to pen a letter to the governor and the state’s representatives supporting the resort’s resolution.