When the state’s top environmental official signed off on the Cape Wind project last week, attention shifted to Washington, where a pivotal federal review is due later this month.
But the plan to build 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound still faces a significant local hurdle: a review by the Cape Cod Commission, Barnstable County’s regional planning agency.
Opponents of the turbines say the commission, known for its tough-minded approach to large development projects, could prove a serious obstacle to the project – and possibly even kill it.
”The commission has developed a real professional ability to look hard at a project and ask the right questions,” said State Sen. Robert O’Leary, a Cape and Islands Democrat who opposes the wind farm. ”And I’m hopeful.”
But supporters of the turbines, proposed by Boston-based Cape Wind Associates, downplay the commission’s influence, saying the agency’s jurisdiction over the project is limited.
Margo Fenn, executive director of the commission, emphasized yesterday that the agency would keep an open mind about the project during the review, which could take more than six months.
But she said the commission would ”do a thorough and careful review” that could cover everything from its effect on marine mammals to views of the sound.
The commission’s review process kicked off Friday after Ian Bowles, the state’s Secretary of Environmental Affairs, declared that a state-mandated environmental review of the project, paid for by Cape Wind, was ”adequate.”
The decision cleared the way for Cape Wind to apply for permits from a series of state, regional and local agencies including the Barnstable and Yarmouth conservation commissions and the Cape Cod Commission, which has the right to review so-called ”developments of regional impact.”
The extent of the commission’s review will depend, in large part, on how the agency interprets its jurisdiction over the project – and whether the players decide to challenge that interpretation in court.
The turbines themselves are proposed for federal waters, in an area northeast of Martha’s Vineyard known as Horseshoe Shoal, making the federal government’s Minerals Management Service the lead regulator.
But state, regional and local agencies have some jurisdiction as well, since transmission lines would run through state waters, make landfall in Yarmouth and proceed underground to NStar’s existing Barnstable switching station.
Bowles has interpreted his own role and that of the Cape Cod Commission narrowly, deferring to the upcoming federal review on thorny questions about the project’s impact on bird mortality, commercial fishing and other issues.
Opponents of the turbines have criticized Bowles’s interpretation, arguing that fish kills, oil spills or other problems originating in federal waters would ultimately affect state waters and lands. And yesterday, they held out hope that the Cape Cod Commission would take a more expansive view of its role.
”Certainly we would hope the commission would exercise the broadest extent of its jurisdiction,” said Sue Nickerson, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which opposes Cape Wind.
Fenn, the commission’s executive director, said the agency was reviewing the legal parameters of its authority and could ”possibly” take a broader view than Bowles.
Sue Reid, a staff attorney with Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based environmental group that supports the project, said Bowles’s interpretation of the state’s and Cape Cod Commission’s role was proper.
And if the commission limits the scope of its review accordingly, she added, it may not, in the end, have a major impact on the project.
”I don’t think it will necessarily be an obstacle,” she said, of the agency, ”because I think the jurisdiction of the Cape Cod Commission is fairly tightly circumscribed.”
But whatever the scope of its authority, the commission seems determined to press Cape Wind Associates for more information.
Last month, in a lengthy letter criticizing the company’s environmental review as inadequate, the commission wrote that it would need detailed engineering plans and a better explanation of the benefits and drawbacks of the project before it rendered its own decision.
Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, declined to speculate on how difficult the Cape Cod Commission review might be.
”We’ll take it one step at a time,” he said.
By David Scharfenberg
4 April 2007
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