The Southern Maryland delegation has expressed its displeasure with Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot urging Gov. Martin O’Malley to veto legislation delaying the construction of a Somerset County wind farm that locals fear will interfere with radar testing systems at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
As chairwoman of the delegation, Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) wrote Thursday to Franchot (D) “to express our dissatisfaction” with the comptroller’s own April 16 letter to O’Malley (D) urging his veto.
The legislation would impose a 13-month moratorium on building windmills within the base’s radar test range to allow time for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to complete a $2 million study on how to best mitigate the effect of the turbines.
The Maryland General Assembly passed the bill with large majorities, 122-12 in the House of Delegates and 31-16 in the Senate, “clearly sending a message of the Legislature’s intent to have the bill move forward,” Jameson wrote.
“The bill provides for a pause in the process while we wait for the completion of a study of this issue at MIT, no different than the pause in the process while we study fracking in Maryland,” she wrote.
A proponent of wind energy who spent three years working through the legislature a bill incentivizing construction of a wind farm 11 miles off the coast of Ocean City, O’Malley has stood in opposition to the moratorium.
In addition to the Democratic-controlled legislature, the stance also pitted O’Malley against much of the state’s congressional delegation, particularly U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), who personally testified in support of the bill, the first time he has done so since he left the statehouse as Senate president in 1979.
Those in support eventually included Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and even U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md., 1st), whose district includes Somerset County.
O’Malley has not yet made a decision on whether to sign, veto or merely let the bill take effect after 30 days, spokeswoman Nina Smith said.
As originally proposed, the bill would have forbidden construction of any windmills taller than 50 feet within 46 miles of the base before July 1, 2015. As amended, the bill allows turbines within graduated heights the farther they are from the base out to 56 miles.
The delegation proposed the legislation following concerns from base officials that the proposed Great Bay Wind Energy Center in Somerset County – which calls for 25 turbines that are 600 feet tall – would interfere with radar testing.
As a comparison, Southern Maryland lawmakers have noted that the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall.
Thousands of base jobs “may very well be moved to a location outside of Maryland” should the project move forward, Jameson wrote. “As Comptroller, you should understand the value of Pax River as one of the top economic engines in the State.”
In his letter, Franchot wrote that the base has “legitimate concerns” and represents “one of Maryland’s most powerful economic engines,” but the “legislation is not needed, in any way, to maintain optimal levels of operation at” Pax River.
“It’s just wrong, and the comptroller has known that he could get more information about the base and chose not to,” Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s) said. “From our perspective, it’s unfortunate that he chose to weigh in on a very critical issue to so many families in Southern Maryland.”
Franchot also thanked O’Malley for his “steadfast opposition” to the bill and noted estimates that the Somerset project would generate 500 construction jobs, $44 million in tax revenue and $200 million in economic investment in “one of our most impoverished rural jurisdictions.”
Southern Maryland officials have countered that Pax River employs 22,000 people and constitutes a $7.5 billion economic hub for the region and state.
Franchot highlighted the economic conditions in Somerset, where in 2013 the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent, one in three households survives on less than $25,000 a year, and more than one in five residents lives below the federal poverty line.
“It cannot be overstated what a project of this magnitude would mean for a jurisdiction that has taken far too many economic hits in recent years, is still struggling to recovery [sic] from the worst economic crisis of our respective lifetimes, and where too many families are left with little income and fewer options,” he wrote.
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