The Town Council voted at its Tuesday, December 18, meeting to send public comments to agencies responsible for permitting Deepwater Wind’s proposed 30-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Block Island.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the Coastal Resources Management Council had looming public comment deadlines, although the Army Corps announced on Wednesday, after the council meeting, that it was extending its deadline a second time, to February 10.
The council engaged in three hours of debate. Many issues were raised, argued, revisited and argued again – and on many points, its members could not agree. As the meeting dragged on close to the third hour, and bickering brought the councilors off-track once again, one audience member had enough.
“I am so unimpressed with this Town Council so far,” said Maggie Komosinski. “I am shocked with how this meeting has gone… why not just get on with it and come up with your list, and write something up, and submit it, and give them something to work with. Don’t let them look at us as this town that just can’t make up its mind.”
Two split votes, the second a 3-2 vote to include a positive statement from the Electric Utilities Task Group, ultimately ended with the council taking an official position in support of Deepwater. Two newly seated council members, Sean McGarry and Chris Warfel, opposed the vote.
McGarry and Warfel voiced a bucket list of criticisms against Deepwater. The council’s public comment will include four of these concerns that the full council decided the permitting agencies should consider. This motion passed 4-1, with McGarry opposed.
The following day, Warfel announced in a letter to the B.I. Times that he is starting an online petition opposed to Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm (see letters).
Contention over EUTG statement
First Warden Gaffett read aloud the EUTG statement, noting that the group is an advisory board to the Town Council.
The letter says that Deepwater “should provide significant economic and environmental benefits to Block Island.” It goes into a cost analysis of the economic benefits, and also discusses other alternatives to Deepwater that have not been implemented “in part because of the high costs associated with them.” The comments to the Army Corps include information on decommissioning the turbines.
McGarry questioned the makeup of the EUTG board – which he believes is all Deepwater supporters and does not accurately represent the community. “This report in itself does not warrant inclusion in our comments to the Army Corps of Engineers, for those reasons,” McGarry said.
He made a motion to not include any of it in the council’s public comment to CRMC, but after more than a half hour of discussion, the motion did not pass – McGarry and Warfel were for it, First Warden Kim Gaffet, Second Warden Ken Lacoste and Councilor Norris Pike against.
EUTG Chair Barbara MacMullan, who was in the audience, said that the EUTG was formed two years before Deepwater’s proposal. The composition of the board was formed to include those with electric utility regulatory issues, finance, economics and similar expertise.
“The origin of this board has nothing to do with Deepwater,” she said.
McGarry argued that there were no negative impacts of Deepwater listed in the statement, only positive ones. He listed many potential negative impacts throughout the meeting, but initially brought up a few examples.
He said that Interstate Navigation would bear a loss in revenues because the ferry company would be shipping less diesel over. He also said that there may be downsizing at Block Island Power Company – it may lay off two or three people, claimed McGarry.
Warfel voiced his opinion. He particularly took issue with the section concerning the environmental benefits of the EUTG, which says that the farm will decrease the island’s consumption of fossil fuel power. He claimed the amount is not correct.
“I just had a very short time, about a half hour, to run a computer model on this,” he said. “Block Island is not going to be powered during the summer as much as this document says it would.”
Gaffett disagreed, and questioned the quality of Warfel’s information. She noted that even if the 30-megawatt wind farm operates at 10 percent, which she thinks is low, the wind farm would still produce enough energy to power the town. She said at peak the town uses about 4.5 megawatts.
MacMullan argued that the energy reduction is a “big number,” and debating whether the percent savings is 79 percent or 81 percent isn’t helping to make a decision.
Bryan Wilson, Deepwater’s Block Island Wind Farm manager, noted that Deepwater developed a multi-year study, using meteorological studies and wind data, to predict what the energy production would be. Warfel then said he’d like to see that data at a later time.
“We’ve got to move forward and look at the big picture,” said Pike. “It’s not nitpicking obstructionism that’s going to get us anywhere.”
Disagreement within the council
Pike openly voiced personal support for Deepwater. He said he believes in climate change, and sees the turbines as a way to act local and create change. “The benefits far outweigh any of the shortcomings,” he said. Gaffett noted that she supported Deepwater, too.
McGarry didn’t soften his stance, saying: “I’d like to say to my children that I saved them from this.” He suggested he supported the natural beauty of the island as he experienced it growing up.
Warfel critiqued the town’s past history in dealing with Deepwater research, including the town’s past testimony about Deepwater.
“It really bothered me that eleven pages was the best the town could have done to state whether or not they support this project,” he said. “There was no fierce analysis; it’s an embarrassment.”
He further said that the savings in Deepwater would be so great because the town historically has done little in other ways of renewable energy to create energy savings.
Gaffett suggested that Warfel remain on topic: “You have two years to knock us over about that stuff.”
Warfel said that his point is related to the EUTG document, which analyzes the energy savings of Deepwater compared to other renewable energy options to conclude that Deepwater seems like the most economically viable option.
“I think some of this is very misleading, as to what our options were,” he said. “This town has shown little leadership in this area, and it’s not because of the high cost, and it’s not because a few customers’ high costs can be covered. It has to do with a lack of will, a lack of long term perspective and a lack of regulatory control.”
Pike said he felt the town had done a great job managing renewable energy – giving an example of solar panels outside Town Hall. Warfel noted that he wrote the grant for these solar panels himself. (Warfel was then forbidden to bid on the project, even though he claims he had been assured he could, leading him to resign from the EUTG.)
Second Warden Ken Lacoste initially remained silent during the discussion, stating he wanted to see how the conversation progressed. But when discussion about nixing the EUTG document came up, he suggested changing some things in the document if necessary. He wasn’t prepared to get rid of the document and “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
After McGarry’s motion to not use the EUTG document did not pass, Pike made a follow-up motion to use the document, in its entirety. This motion passed 3-2, with McGarry and Warfel opposed.
Voice to both sides
At the beginning of the meeting, Gaffett read the names of those who wrote letters regarding Deepwater, and summarized their positions. There were 12 letters in opposition or expressing concerns about the project: Michael Beauregard, James Lawrence, Roy and Andrea Hitt, Mike Hickey, Deb Lukeris, Scott Shimomura, Jon Ives, Greg Ives, Tom and Arlene Engle, David Lewis, Edie Blane and Rosemarie Ives.
Elspeth Crawford wrote a letter in support. Several audience members also stood up throughout the meeting in support of the project, including Rob Gilpin, Judy Gray and Maggie Komosinski, among others.
During the meeting, Warfel said that before the meeting he had started “an online petition if there was going to be a minority, that people could sign onto, to support the minority position.”
Warfel asked that the council also include opposition to Deepwater. Gaffett did not agree that the council should have mixed comments.
“That’s why the majority rules,” countered Gaffett. Instead, she agreed to include some questions and concerns to be posed to the permitting agencies. The councilors debated the different points for about another hour, arguing about what should be included, what should not and why.
The four final requests they settled on will ask that the permitting agencies: consider coordinating joint public hearings on Block Island; recommend environmental studies during and after wind turbine construction; assess what, if any, effect Deepwater would have on property values and the island’s tourist economy; and look at the real long-term economic costs of replacing or repairing a cable.
Four council members approved the motion; McGarry was opposed. He had brought up several issues he would like included, but did not make an amendment to include them.
The council also voted to renew licenses for those who own commercial shellfishing licenses. Warfel, who is a license holder, recused himself.
At the beginning of the meeting, the council opened public comment for matters not related to the agenda. Margie Comings spoke up in opposition to Interstate Navigation’s rate filing to the Public Utilities Commission, and Linda Spak echoed these comments. Gaffett noted that the town plans to intervene in the filing.
Bryan Wilson also commended all parties involved with road restoration to Corn Neck and Spring Street, which has been completed, and for having the work done quickly and well.