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Rhode Island’s ocean-zoning plan first approved in U.S.

NARRAGANSETT – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has approved a Rhode Island ocean zoning plan that designates waters off the state’s coast for renewable energy development. The Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or SAMP, is the first of its kind in the nation to win federal approval.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco was joined by Governor Chafee in announcing the decision on Friday at the Bay Campus of the University of Rhode Island, whose scientists carried out much of the oceanographic research that the plan is based upon. Anne Livingston, chairwoman of the state Coastal Resources Management Council, which directed the two-year, $8-million effort to create the plan, and Paul Rich, chief development officer of Deepwater Wind, the company that proposes building two wind farms off Rhode Island, were also among the speakers.

Lubchenco heralded the Rhode Island plan as a model that other states can follow as they try to find the best locations for offshore renewable energy while still balancing the interests of commercial and recreational fishermen, boaters, environmentalists and others.

“Today truly is a landmark for the state of Rhode Island,” she said. “But it is also a landmark event for the entire nation.”

A year ago, President Obama signed an executive order creating the first National Ocean Policy in the country’s history. One of nine priorities included in the policy is the development of what’s known as marine spatial planning.

“The Rhode Island plan is what President Obama envisioned in the national policy,” Lubchenco said.

Chafee paid tribute to his predecessor, Donald L. Carcieri, under whose administration the plan was initiated. He said it will allow Rhode Island to become a national leader in renewable energy, with the construction of what could be the first offshore wind farm in the country.

“We are going to push the boundaries and transition into clean power,” he said.

Although the SAMP’s study area totaled about 1,500 square miles, the approval announced Friday covers only the portion that applies to state waters, which extend three miles from the Rhode Island shoreline and three miles around Block Island. It’s in the latter area, in a zone southeast of Block Island recommended by the SAMP, that Deepwater Wind proposes building its first wind farm, a five-turbine demonstration project that would go on line in 2013.

The SAMP also made recommendations for an area that extends much farther offshore, into federal waters. That swath of water includes the so-called “area of mutual interest” with Massachusetts, where planners also said offshore renewable energy can be developed with a minimum of conflicts. Deepwater wants to develop a 200-turbine wind farm there. Another offshore wind developer has also proposed a project in those waters.

The part of the plan that covers federal waters is still awaiting approval from NOAA, said Grover Fugate, executive director of the CRMC. Approval would not give Rhode Island permitting authority over those federal waters, but it would give the state official standing to participate in discussions over any plans for their use. Currently, the state can get that standing only on a case-by-case basis, said Fugate.

Other states have contacted Rhode Island about the creation of the SAMP. Countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark and New Zealand, have also made inquiries.

Fugate said that the state is charting new territory and will confront new issues when it starts to implement the plan.

“The eyes of the nation are on you,” Lubchenco told him.

Chafee, standing nearby, responded, “We’re up to the challenge.”