Opposition to plans for onshore transmission facilities at Fenwick Island State Park for the proposed Skipjack offshore wind farm project is growing in the weeks following a public presentation on the project and its potential impact on the state park and surrounding area.
The proposal, laid out in a July 15 Memorandum of Understanding between Skipjack and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, calls for transmission facilities on the bay side of the state park property that would connect energy produced offshore to the existing power grid, which would be distributed to the power supply on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The offshore portion of the Skipjack project would consist of wind turbines off the coast of Maryland and the southernmost Delaware beaches. The power would be connected to the existing grid through one or more underwater cables which would come ashore at the Fenwick Island State Park.
As part of the proposed project, Skipjack’s owner, the Danish renewable energy company Orsted, has offered to fund and construct a number of improvements at the state park. They include construction of a two-level parking facility, trails connecting the park with the north side of the town of Fenwick Island, housing for lifeguards, recreational facilities including pickleball courts on top of the proposed transmission facility, and a new, larger building for the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.
The improvements have been estimated to be worth about $18 million, according to Raymond Bivens, director of Delaware State Parks.
On Friday, Oct. 25, the Fenwick Island Town Council at its regular monthly meeting heard from a number of citizens who are concerned about the impacts of the project as a whole on the town and the surrounding area.
One of the foremost concerns voiced by residents was that the MOU had been signed in July and notice of the public presentation wasn’t made till September. “I’m frustrated that it got to this point and we didn’t even know about it,” resident Marlene Quinn said. Resident Mark Tingle said the town should retain legal services regarding the project “before they continue to steamroll this thing down the road.”
Each of the Fenwick Island council members who spoke at the council meeting expressed opposition to the project, although the council as a whole has not taken a position either way. All were present except council member Richard Mais.
Mayor Eugene Langan said he is “disappointed” that in DNREC and Orsted for “not including the Town of Fenwick Island in this. There’s so much we don’t know about this project and don’t understand,” Langan said.
He said that “Orsted contacted me and they let me know that nothing’s cast in stone…so we’ve got to keep that in mind as we move forward.” Langan said, however, that “as of now I’m opposed to this, because the location’s too close to town.
“I don’t know if they’d change that,” Langan said. “There’s almost three miles of state park up there; why put it down on this end?”
Council member William Weistling encouraged the public to stay vocal about the proposal. “Hopefully, we can continue to work with them…and provide some input on what we’d like to see” Weistling said.
He added that he agrees with the idea that parking at the state park needs to be increased, but like many at the council meeting, said “I don’t think we need all the amenities. (Park visitors) are coming to use the beach,” he said.
Resident Patti Breger announced a meeting to be held the following day, during which a representative from the Caesar Rodney Institute, a Newark-based non-profit whose motto indicates that it is “committed to protecting individual liberty.”
At that meeting, on Saturday, Oct. 26, Caesar Rodney Institute executive director John Toedtman quoted surveys done by the University of Delaware, which he said indicate that as many as 15 percent to 35 percent of tourists would stop coming to the Delaware coast because of changes in the view from the beach after the turbines are constructed.
By bringing the cables ashore at the state park, Toedtman said, Orsted officials “only have to deal with DNREC and the parks people,” to get approval for the project. He urged Fenwick residents to oppose the project. “It isn’t whether it happens here,” he said. “This is not happening at all. That’s the position you have to take.”
Toedtman also said the wind farm would cause a decrease in property values along the beachfront. He also told those in the Fenwick Island municipal building on Oct. 26 that the project would probably not result in cheaper electricity for those in the Maryland power grid it would supply, but rather more expensive.
“On the face of it, it’s not a good use of anybody’s money,” Toedtman said.
State Senator Gerald Hocker and state Rep. Ronald Gray were both in attendance at the Oct. 26 meeting. Hocker said he had met with Bivens and Chamber officials regarding the proposal in July, and that he was asked not to divulge any information about the plans, pending the public presentation in October. “This is all the same secret dealings they do all the time,” Hocker said.
Meanwhile, a document titled “Confidential Memorandum of Understanding” between DNREC and Orsted was released to the public last week as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests by the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners and by Fenwick Island Town Council member Vicki Carmean.
The 11-page document was signed July 18 by DNREC Secretary Shaun Garvin and Prem Pereira, deputy director of Skipjack Offshore Energy LLC. It defines the project scope, outlines the objective, lists approvals from DNREC that would be required for the project to move forward and lays out responsibilities for both DNREC and Skipjack throughout the process.
The MOU also states that it is a “summary” and that it “is meant to serve as a basis for continued discussions,” but does not serve as a binding commitment for either DNREC or Orsted.
The Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce issued a formal statement earlier this week on the proposals. “The (Chamber) board of directors and staff recognize the need for upgrades to the park as there have been limited updates since 1977,” the unsigned letter to Chamber members said. “As tenants of the Park we will continue to be educated to ensure that this proposal is what is best for the proposed project.
“We encourage our members to contact DNREC and Orsted to answer any specific questions in regards to the proposed project,” the letter said. It included email addresses for Matthew Ritter, administrator for DNREC’s operations and maintenance division, and Joy Weber, Orsted’s development manager.
Rep. Gray, who attended both the Oct. 25 council meeting and the Oct. 26 meeting with Toedtman of the Caesar Rodney Institute, said last Friday at the council meeting that “I had a heads-up about it, but not about the July memorandum [MOU].
“It just felt like something was already decided on,” Gray said.
He added that he does believe the park needs some upgrades. “There are actual safety issues with parking lot traffic lining up on the highway, which impacts bicycle safety too.”
“There are some good reasons that they could at least do an expansion of the parking there. I didn’t know much more than you did,” he said, except that he knew “a few weeks earlier.
“I’m trying to stay neutral because it sounds really good for the park, Gray said. “But there’s just too many unknowns at this point for me to support it.” “I don’t think this is a done deal by any means. There’s some parts of the park that I’d like to see improved, but the way that DNREC is going about doing this is completely wrong,” he said.
Gray said he and Hocker will attempt to put together a public meeting – likely to be held at a local fire hall – where the public can directly ask questions of the parties involved in toohe proposed project.
DNREC spokesperson Michael Globetti said on Wednesday, Oct. 30 that “DNREC is in the process of actively taking public comments on the proposed project. After all of the comments have been received, the Department will respond to them. The Caesar Rodney Institute’s comments will be taken under consideration along with the other public comments.
“The MOU put together a framework for what is being considered, and does not bind DNREC and the Division of Parks & Recreation to anything. It also does not alleviate Orsted’s requirements for obtaining all of the necessary federal, state, and local permits for the proposed project,” Globetti said.
– Staff Reporter Laura Walter contributed to this report.