NARRAGANSETT – Town Council members and state legislators approve of Deepwater Wind’s announcement to bury its transmission line in Narraganset, but council members continue to voice concerns about the project’s impact that they plan to address when negotiations resume after June 3.
“I think it’s a victory for the town,” Councilman Matthew Mannix said. “If this process had been open from the start, I think we would have had a better flavor of what the town was thinking. I don’t think that Deepwater would have felt as comfortable changing from below ground to above ground.”
Deepwater proposes an offshore, demonstration-scale wind farm with five turbines off the coast of Block Island. It will take only 10 percent of the farm’s capacity to meet the electric needs of the island –the excess is proposed to be carried along an underwater transmission line that will land at town beach in Narragansett and run along Narragansett Avenue and Kingstown Road to a switch yard near Sprague Park. At a December 2011 public hearing, Deepwater presented plans showing an underground transmission line, but in an environmental report published in September 2012, it called for an above-ground transmission line running on the same path, but supported by telephone poles that would have to be lengthened by as much as 10 feet.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be a part of the National Grid distribution system. Their preference is for above-ground,” Deepwater CEO Jeffrey Grybowski said in January about the change in plans.
On May 7, after months of public dissent and one day after the Town Council unanimously voted to suspend negotiations with Deepwater for one month, Grybowski announced he would propose a buried line, once negotiations resumed.
“For me, underground/above ground was an issue because one thing was promised and then it was changed. It was about trust,” Mannix said. “We were led to believe that the cables were going to be below ground, and then they were switched to above ground. That switch bothered me.”
Resident Robert Shields, who first learned of Deepwater’s preference for an above ground line when he read the environmental report, said he appreciates the company’s concession, but still has doubts.
“I think [the company] sensed quite clearly that momentum had swung away from their above-ground proposal to an underground proposal. I have to grant them some credit for recognizing that groundswell of opinion in town,” Shields said. “I’m just too skeptical of their verbal promises.”
Shields said the company should resubmit its environmental report to all permitting agencies, stating its preferred alternative for a buried line.
But other questions about the project remain, council members said.
“The landing point is important at the town beach, and then I think that it’s a complicated project and a complicated issue. It has a lot of factors that we have to address with Deepwater and with the public,” President James Callaghan said.
“What’s going to be the impact on our beach? What’s going to be the impact on the roads and traffic, when the project is put together?” Mannix asked. “The fishing community has come out strong about their doubts on the project. We have to look at an increase in energy rates.”
“It is clear that Deepwater has acknowledged the public sentiment, but I’m not sure that this ‘concession’ will be sufficient to win over those fundamentally opposed to the initiative,” Councilwoman Glenna Hagopian said.
Tuesday evening at Village Inn in Narragansett, Deepwater representatives fielded questions about the project’s permitting process, effects on fishing habitats and construction.
While Deepwater has been part of a series of regulatory hearings with state and local agencies, the public debate began in earnest April 1, when Mannix introduced a motion to the Town Council, asking to suspend negotiations with the company for three months. He said he and the other council members – some in office only a few months – needed more time to conduct independent research about Deepwater and the project before negotiating.
The council unanimously continued Mannix’s motion to May 6, when President Pro Tem Susan Cicilline-Buonanno offered a compromise to suspend negotiations for one month, until June 3, a move that received unanimous approval. The council also agreed to hold the negotiations in a public forum.
“I was trying to be diplomatic and find a way that we could satisfy Councilman Matthew Mannix and the council,” Cicilline-Buonanno said. “Hopefully, there will be an opportunity for the council to have direct discussions with Deepwater. Until we talk directly across the table, it’s tough to say where everybody is.”
Councilman Douglas McLaughlin agreed, saying it was impossible for him to make a decision about granting the company an easement to land the transmission line without speaking with the company.
“I still don’t understand how you can possibly get more information unless you talk to somebody, especially the people with the contracts,” McLaughlin said.
He also said the council is not close to reaching an agreement with Deepwater.
“I think there’s a misinterpretation of the word ‘negotiations,’ McLaughlin said. “We’re a long way from the negotiating table. It’s more about discussions.”
The current council has discussed the project in a “general sense” in executive session, but has not negotiated with Deepwater, Callaghan said.
“People think it’s a backroom deal because of the [Public Utilities Commission],” Callaghan said. “That sense is a little incorrect, but I can see why people feel that way.”
The PUC initially rejected Deepwater’s plan, citing the high energy costs. But the General Assembly amended the law to return the proposal to the PUC, who found it had no choice but to approve it under the new parameters.
Once discussions resume, council members must also balance representing their constituents while considering the project’s statewide implications. At recent town meetings and hearings on the project, representatives from the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Build R.I. and former state legislators have all spoken about the project.
“It has become a statewide issue at the council level, which is kind of strange,” Callaghan said.
State Senator Dawson Hodgson (R-Dist. 35) of Narragansett, South Kingstown, North Kingstown and East Greenwich appreciates what the council will confront when negotiations resume.
“There’s a real sense that the Narragansett Town Council has found itself as the citizens’ last defense against the implementation of this unsound public policy,” Hodgson said. “I feel Deepwater Wind as a project is going to harm the whole state, in terms of utility rates. The council has the opportunity to lessen the negative impact of Deepwater Wind on the residents of Narragansett.”
Cicilline-Buonanno said she will keep Narragansett’s best interests in mind.
“For me it’s not about the dollar signs,” she said. “It’s if we have an agreement and have discussions, and it’s going to enhance Narragansett.”