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Windmill farm limits churn up mixed reactions

Though he’s publicly embraced energy-producing windmill farms, Gov. Chris Christie has literally drawn a line in the sand restricting them from being built on certain sections of New Jersey’s coastline.

Christie signed legislation at a news conference last month granting up to $100 million in tax credits to further construction of offshore windmills, but without fanfare later that same month signed new rules that severely restrict so-called renewable energy projects on the coast from the industrialized Raritan Bay southward to Cape May and along the Delaware Bay.

First proposed in 2009 under then-Gov. Jon Corzine, the regulations are not a complete ban, but limit the height, type and number of windmills that may be erected in those areas – all with the goal of protecting migrating birds and rare raptors, as well as bats, from getting chopped up by the turbines. The restrictions would not affect windmills constructed at least 10 miles offshore.

“We have to recognize that there are some areas that are particularly sensitive,” said Ruth Ehinger, manager of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s coastal management and watershed restoration unit. “In some areas, we have high densities of migrating birds and in other places, it’s nesting areas and feeding areas for rare or migrating birds.”

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna called it a compromise. Much of New Jersey is located within a major north-south migration path for dozens of bird species that move from Canada to South America and back each year. The windmill restrictions carve out only slivers of coastal properties, with a few large swaths in Atlantic and Cape May counties, along what is known as the Atlantic Flyway.

A state report on the restricted areas cited the potential harm rotating turbines pose for bats, which are already being wiped out in the northeast by a mysterious aliment called “white-nose syndrome,” and raptors such as bald eagles, osprey, northern harrier and peregrine falcons.
The report also cited threats to the flight patterns, feeding practices and nesting habits of black skimmers, least terns, black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons, and the disappearing red knots and federally-threatened and state-endangered piping plover.

Yet environmental groups are sharply divided over the restrictions.

“Everyone is looking at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority wind farm project as the most successful on-shore windmill facility in New Jersey. Yet, if these rules were in place a few years ago, it never would have been built,” said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, pointing to the five-turbine, electrical plant built in Atlantic City in 2005.

“Let’s face it, the biggest threat to migrating birds is climate change and rising sea levels. Renewable energy will help stop those threats, but under these rules, it will be easier to construct a coal plant on the shores of Linden than another windmill in Atlantic City,” he added.
The American Littoral Society and New Jersey Audubon Society support the new regulations, contending they strike a “perfect balance” between promoting renewable energy projects and protecting endangered and threatened wildlife species and their habitat.

“Emission-free does not mean impact-free. These rules will protect sensitive natural areas as solar and wind projects are proposed,” said Tim Dillingham of the Littoral Society.

“Prior to these rules, renewable energy and wildlife advocates were pitted against one another in what should have been a win-win situation,” said Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audubon Society.

“We commend the Christie administration for following the science. The myth that in order to have renewable energy we had to sacrifice wildlife has been dispelled by the Christie administration.”

Ehinger at the DEP said having the rules in place, before wind projects are proposed, spares developers from costly impact studies when renewable energy projects move forward.