Ocean City tourism industry and government officials are portraying two offshore wind projects as dire threats to the resort's economy in a last-ditch effort to push the turbines farther out to sea.
They took their case Tuesday to Annapolis, pressing a Maryland Senate panel to support legislation that would require the developers to erect the structures no closer than 26 miles offshore.
“The two most important factors of Ocean City property values are location and view," Michael James, an Ocean City hotel executive, told the Finance Committee. “Seven-hundred-foot turbines will undoubtedly hurt property values.”
Town officials say they support offshore wind energy but not wind turbines visible from condo and hotel balconies.
"Let’s not let somebody look at us a few years from now and say, 'How did you let this happen?'” Mayor Rick Meehan said.
The bill seemed like a long shot from the beginning in Maryland's Democratically controlled Legislature, which has supported several renewable energy initiatives in recent years.
The Finance chairman appeared to acknowledge its long odds at one point. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-28-Charles County, also urged the developers and the town to become better partners in the future.
“I hope, with the testimony that’s been given, that in time (the opponents') fears will be dismissed," he said.
Top executives with the two offshore wind developers attacked the proposal, saying it would pull the cord on the projects and stamp out hundreds of jobs before they can be created.
"Let me be very clear. This bill will kill our project for sure," said Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski.
A 2013 Maryland law allows the projects to be constructed within 10-30 miles of the coast.
Deepwater Wind and U.S. Wind are planning to construct a total of 47 turbines in two separate federal leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. It is slated to be the country's first large-scale offshore wind energy development.
A Maryland Public Service Commission decision last year paved the way for the projects to move forward, and both companies have begun laying the groundwork for construction.
“When you solicit business to invest and business comes to invest and you try to change the rules mid-game, that’s a horrible precedent for the industry," Grybowski said.
The sides dispute just how visible the turbines will be.
Grybowski and U.S. Wind project development director Paul Rich said the structures will be barely noticeable on the horizon. Town officials countered with a consultant's rendering, showing a tightly packed lineup of stick-like towers protruding a fingernail's width or so above the water.
Plans call for the closest turbines to be erected 17 miles off the coast. But that distance is merely "self-imposed," leaving open the possibility that future phases could drift closer to shore, said Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-36-Queen Anne's, one of the bill's co-sponsors.
Moving the projects at least 26 miles from the shoreline would push the companies out of their lease area and force them to start the approval process again with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Rich said. That could take up to a decade, he added.
What's more, standing that distance or farther would place the turbines in conflict with main shipping routes, Rich said.
A House version of the bill has chalked up four co-sponsors from the Lower Shore: Delegates Chris Adams, R-37B-Wicomico; Mary Beth Carozza, R-38C-Worcester; and Charles Otto, R-37A-Somerset.
That bill has a hearing set before the House Economic Matters committee on Thursday.
More than 40 speakers signed up to lobby the Senate committee Tuesday, reflecting the large stakes for Ocean City as well as the state's fledgling wind industry.
Andrew Gohn was a wind energy planner with the Maryland Energy Administration and oversaw the agency's review of the projects. During the years-long process, he put Ocean City's concerns ahead of anyone else's, he said.
“We put a lot of miles on state vehicles driving out there," said Gohn, now a regional policy director for the American Wind Energy Association.
Also speaking out against the bill: several environmental groups and labor unions in the construction and manufacturing sectors.
Mark Rice, president of Baltimore-based Maritime Applied Physics Corp., said U.S. Wind recently awarded his company a $1.1 million contract to install equipment on a meteorological tower it is building 17 miles offshore. Approving the measure would almost certainly cost him that job, he said.
“It would be a serious economic mistake," Rice said.