It was David vs. Goliath. Deepwater Wind, backed by a huge hedge fund, planned to run an electric transmission line from its proposed Block Island wind farm under Narragansett beach and the town to a National Grid switching station. It was defeated by a tiny committed, enthusiastic group of citizens called Deepwater Resistance (DWR).
Deepwater Wind dropped its underground plan and communicated that it would run the line overland, erroneously thinking that it had the town’s permission. The overland route was cheaper and faster to construct, it seems. The line would be staked on ugly seven-foot extensions of existing utility poles that would dominate and visually pollute the middle of town.
Narragansett residents, previously placid on the matter, erupted, furious that the treasured town beach (and the town’s economic engine) was being tampered with. Deepwater Wind lost its credibility and the community’s trust.
With 35 members, DWR crystallized around three Narragansett residents: Robert Shields, Gerry McCarthy and Myron Waldman. They attracted members of other concerned groups, such as “Where’s The Town,” a group dedicated to forming a town center in place of the one destroyed by a condominium and retail development. They gathered interested people who responded to newspaper articles on the subject. DWR’s single objective was to convince the Narragansett Town Council to deny Deepwater Wind access the beach and town in any form.
Their focused actions were twofold. First, their targets were the Town Council and the general public. Dozens of DWR and independently written letters and articles appeared in The Journal and other local newspapers.
Second, there were speakers at every council meeting. A large number of DWR’s supporters attended the meetings. They took the opportunity to lobby individual Town Council members in person and by email.
The mechanics and makeup of DWR are classic examples of the anatomy of effective citizen protest. Its members were highly committed to keeping Deepwater Wind out of Narragansett. In addition, there were varying personal interests. About half were solely interested in solving the Narragansett problem. The other half had a potpourri of added related causes: They were against all offshore-wind projects; felt that the tax and electric-rate impact on the taxpayer were too high; and disliked the look of turbines within the sightlines of shore.
The individual skills of the members were diverse and relevant.
There were lawyers, particularly former state Atty. Gen. Jim O’Neil, to guide them through the legislative processes. There was one Town Council member, Matt Mannix, who, after examining the facts and impact of the venture, worked with the group and helped them flesh out their campaign. At a critical point, he recommended that the newly elected council suspend rushed negotiations with Deepwater Wind to give them needed time to further study the issue. As a byproduct, DWR had more time to campaign for its point of view. There were engineers, oceanographers, business people, computer experts and concerned citizens. There were representatives from the fishing industry, Block Island and Newport.
The mix permitted them to analyze data, evaluate technical issues and understand leverage points in state and local laws. They then used the information to track the permitting process to see if they could influence and perhaps stop future permits for Deepwater Wind.
The collected intelligence made for powerful and, for the most part, fact-based communication. Myron Waldman developed a website, updated almost daily, to inform the public, including the media, and seek volunteers.
There was no single leader. The group that met every week was fluid. As one person said, it was a ball of energy bouncing all over the place and then lighting on an issue or action to be dealt with. A facilitator was sometimes used to prevent “opinion mayhem.” But there was usually an obvious consensus and someone always picked up the responsibility for acting.
Many took the responsibility for writing letters to newspapers. There were no assignments to do so. Several emails a day were posted to the entire group by individuals with ideas, pertinent articles and information to share. But the fundamental drivers were the group’s persistence, high level of commitment, intelligence and enthusiasm.
It didn’t hurt that DWR’s competition was weak. The Sierra Club of Rhode Island put on a tepid pro-Deepwater Wind media and email campaign aimed at the Town Council and general public. It was countered in the press by DWR. It petered out. Deepwater Wind, which could have been a formidable competitor, did little public relations to support its cause. Nor did it explain wind power and its ramifications to the public.
The Town Council voted 5-0 to turn down Deepwater Wind. Ninety percent of the audience stood and cheered the decision.
C. Davis Fogg is a writer who resides in Wakefield.
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