The Ocean City Town Council says the “visual pollution” of an offshore wind farm could hurt tourism and property values, and it has started a process it hopes will ensure the farms are moved farther from the shore.
The first step in that plan to put more distance between the beachfront and the sight of the white windmills is a letter the council agreed to send to Gov. Larry Hogan highlighting the council’s concerns.
The move was sparked by renderings of the project presented by Baltimore-based US Wind, one of two companies proposing projects off the coast of Ocean City. The other is Deepwater Wind.
US Wind’s 248-megawatt project would be set on an 80,000-acre area 12 to 14 miles off the coast, and is expected to cost $4 billion. The plan was lauded at a public hearing March 25, with many locals, experts, tradesmen and seasonal visitors pointing out the economic benefits of the project.
On a clear day with no haze, and the lighting just right, the turbines will appear on the horizon about the size of a thumbnail at arms length, according to US Wind Director of Project Development Paul Rich.
It was the sight of the windmills that alarmed the Ocean City Council, which on Monday, April 3, first planned to oppose the project and then agreed unanimously during the meeting to focus on the “visual pollution” angle. They would like to work with the project developers to move the farm 6 to 8 miles farther from land, a process US Wind says would cost another $1 million a mile.
It’s not clear how much influence council opposition will have at this stage.
And a similar brand-new project in Rhode Island may even be helping spur tourism, people there say.
“It’s a little puzzling to me really that they would take this stance now,” said Ross Tyler, of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing offshore wind to the U.S. “When the bill was passed (in 2013), they had the opportunity to voice this concern.”
The Maryland Public Service Commission will approve or deny the project May 17. The window for public comments on the wind farms closed Friday. During the permitting phase that follows, the town can work on compromises with US Wind and Deepwater, but cannot stop the project from going forward.
“I spent a lot of time this weekend doing research on the advantages and disadvantages of these wind farms,” said councilman Tony DeLuca on Monday. “Nothing could replace the picture that I saw at that public hearing. To do anything to slight or hurt that view is ridiculous.”
DeLuca said he believes the projects would hurt tourism and ultimately lead to lower property values.
“It’s just horrifying looking at that picture,” DeLuca said.
He initially made a motion to draft a letter detailing the town’s complete opposition to the wind farms, later revising it to send a letter specifically targeting “visual pollution.”
“Go out and sit on the beach on a clear day and look at the ocean,” DeLuca said. “It’s one of the few places left in nature that’s unspoiled.”
However, DeLuca’s and the council’s opposition to a changed horizon finds no support in Denmark studies on the impact of wind farms off its coast.
Since 2003 the Nysted Wind Farm has been operating about 6.7 miles off the coast of Denmark – about half the distance the Ocean City farm would be. It’s had no impact on tourism, according to a Denmark Commission of Energy study. In a survey of area residents there, 80 percent felt positively about of the wind farms and their impact on the landscape.
The studies also concluded little to no environmental impact from the farms.
In the U.S., the only other offshore wind farm is a five-turbine project off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, constructed by Deepwater Wind and turned on in December 2016. It’s too young to evaluate its impact on tourism, but in February, the University of Rhode Island began a two-year study that will analyze the economic and tourist impact of the farm.
Molly Fitzpatrick, the town clerk for New Shoreham, Rhode Island, the municipality which makes up the entirety of Block Island, said the project has had no impact on tourism, and may have even helped.
“We now have taxi services which take tourists out to view the turbines up close,” Fitzpatrick said. “I can only speak anecdotally, but there seems to be no negative impact on tourism, and even some good.”
While Fitzpatrick said she has seen a good response from tourists to Block Island, those owning oceanfront property there have not been as receptive.
“Some of the people that have homes that look over the water don’t like them as much,” Fitzpatrick said. “But the tourists have embraced it.”
The turbines could even have an environmental boost, US Wind said.
For areas void of reefs, Rich noted, the four legged foundations will over time start serving as artificial reefs, a fact also noted in the Denmark study.
But not at the expense of the view, argued Spencer Rowe, a longtime Ocean City resident and environmental consultant, who believes the projects would only hurt Ocean City.
“When you look out over that water, it’s one of the last unspoiled vistas, one of the last places of a clear view of nature,” Rowe said. “It’s crazy to me that anyone would do anything to hurt that.”
Rowe, a proponent of renewable resources, said the future of Eastern Shore energy should not be in wind, but in solar.
“Solar is perfect for the Eastern Shore; we have tons of flat land and open space to do it,” Rowe said.
According to the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013, the range for building wind farms was set at between 10 and 30 miles off the coast. The US Wind site will feed the Indian River Power Plant.
But at Monday’s council meeting, councilman Dennis Dare notes, “At 20 miles, with the haze and everything, there’s a big difference than 12.”
Councilman John Gehrig took a more pragmatic approach, insisting on understanding the project as well as possible before taking any action.
“I think we should hear all of the facts first before we draft a letter,” Gehrig said.
Mayor Rick Meehan, who had expressed concerns about the view at the March 25 hearing, said he was not surprised by the council’s stance.
“After I saw the pictures, I knew this would be the reaction of the council,” Meehan said.
Meehan insisted on making the town’s stance known before the process moves any further. However, as Tyler noted, the letter may end up being only a symbolic gesture.
“It is federal water, and the bill is already in place,” Tyler said. “This really may be too little to late.”
For US Wind’s Rich, the town’s stance didn’t come as a surprise, noting that something new will always receive scrutiny.
“The council has a big responsibility to understand the ramifications of any new development,” Rich said. “With any change is going to come anxiety. What’s important now is I’m committed to continuing a dialogue.”
While US Wind is open to compromise, the stance of the council is simple, as Secretary Mary Knight succinctly put it: “What we’re saying here is we’re all for sustainable energy. We just don’t want to see it.”
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