SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A Rhode Island fishing board on Saturday voted in favor of a revised compensation offer from offshore wind developer Vineyard Wind in a decision that boosts the New Bedford company’s chances of securing a key approval from state coastal regulators later this week.
In a unanimous vote at the special meeting, the Fishermen’s Advisory Board accepted the new offer that includes $4.2 million in payments over 30 years for direct impacts to commercial fishermen from Vineyard Wind’s 84-turbine wind farm proposed in Rhode Island Sound, as well as the creation of a $12.5-million trust set up over five years that could be used to cover additional costs to fishermen resulting from the project.
The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council is now set to vote Tuesday night on whether it believes the $2-billion project is consistent with state coastal activities, including fishing. With the vote by the fishermen’s board, the prospects of Vineyard Wind winning approval appear much improved from just weeks ago when the two sides were mired in negotiations.
But the board’s decision does not amount to an endorsement of the 800-megawatt proposal, which is aiming to be the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the nation, following the completion two years ago of a test project off Block Island.
Even though every member of the fishermen’s board voted for the agreement, each spoke out against a process regulated by the federal government that they argued is weighted in favor of offshore wind development, to the detriment of the fishing industry. And each expressed reservations about their decision.
“It’s this industry against the world,” board chairman Lanny Dellinger said in response to members of the audience who urged rejection of the offer. “Look around and see what you’re up against. That’s what we had to weigh as a group. There is no choice here.”
“This was a stacked deck from the very beginning,” said board member Chris Brown.
In a statement, Vineyard Wind applauded the decision, saying it would allow the fishing industry to coexist with offshore wind development.
“Vineyard Wind deeply appreciates the commitment of the FAB and CRMC staff to working with us to develop this win-win package that sets the standard for how New England’s fishing and offshore wind industries can grow together,” the company said.
Although the new agreement has a lower face value than Vineyard Wind’s original offer of about $30 million, it is worth a small amount more over the long term, according to Tricia Jedele, a lawyer for the fishermen’s board, because the majority of the money is being paid early on, rather than being stretched out over time.
The revised structure of the trust is also more flexible than in the initial proposal and, critically for the board, would be controlled by the fishing industry instead of the state, said Jedele.
CRMC staff on Thursday entered into a proposed agreement that included the compensation offer, contingent on approval by the fishermen’s board and the council itself.
“It’s not everything they wanted, but it’s something,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the agency, who signed the agreement, which was posted on the CRMC website on Friday.
He said that if the board had rejected the offer and the CRMC were to deny certification, they would run the risk of losing an appeal and going forward without a compensation agreement.
Talks over an agreement began after fishermen complained that the orientation and tight spacing of Vineyard Wind’s turbines would make it impossible for them to safely fish in grounds rich in lobster, Jonah crab, squid and other seafood.
Fishermen have historically fished the waters in the project area from east to west and have reached agreements over time that delineate lanes where fixed gear, such as lobster traps, can be placed and where trawlers and other mobile-gear boats can operate. Vineyard Wind, however, has laid out most of the project’s turbines in rows running from northeast to southwest.
Fred Mattera, executive director of the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center, said that Vineyard Wind ignored information from Rhode Island fishermen that would have allowed the company to minimize impacts on the industry.
He praised the work of the board, but expressed concerns about the overall situation.
“We’re not going to stop this,” he said. “But we certainly should slow it down. We should hold them accountable.”