FENWICK ISLAND – The message from those opposed was plain and simple.
Towering offshore windmills off Delaware’s southernmost coast and incentive-based amenities and upgrades at Fenwick Island State Park will spoil the natural beauty of one of the region’s last remaining pristine treasures.
Indian River High School’s packed auditorium was a house divided Tuesday night amid opposition and support for a Danish company’s clean energy pitch – the Skipjack Wind Farm – to generate power with a beach-based interconnect in return for upward of $18 million in improvements at Fenwick Island State Park.
An estimated 650 people attended Tuesday’s session.
Lifelong Fenwick Island resident Janet Dudley Eshback, first to speak at the Nov. 19 meeting, seemingly spoke for many in attendance given the rounds of applause she received.
“I have been spending time on the thus far uncrowded, uncluttered beaches of Fenwick Island since I was 6 months old.
“That is 66 years I’ve been loving what makes Fenwick different from Ocean City, Rehoboth and other beach towns that have become overrun and overcrowded,” said Ms. Dudley Eshback.
“I have watched as the town of Fenwick Island has grown up and one by one empty spaces have disappeared.
“There are no other stretches of undeveloped land between Ocean City and Lewes. It’s imperative that DNREC do its job to protect what little natural shoreline remains.”
Ørsted has identified leased lands in federal waters off Delaware’s coast for the wind farm project, according to Joy Weber, Ørsted’s development manager for the Skipjack Wind Farm project.
She said the company, a 30-year global leader in offshore wind farms, built the world’s first wind farm in 1991 as well as America’s first wind farm, Block Island in Rhode Island.
“We want to be a company that finds real tangible solutions for one of the biggest problems facing our world right now,” she said.
The proposed wind farm would provide upward of $18 million in amenities and upgrades at Fenwick Island State Park, the proposed location for the power interconnection facility for distribution to the PJM. The PJM is a regional transmission organization that coordinates movement of wholesale electricity throughout the Mid-Atlantic region as well as other neighboring states.
The Skipjack project would supply power for an estimated 35,000 homes.
“The senator and I are trying to be as transparent as possible,” said state Rep. Ron Gray, who facilitated the meeting with state Sen. Gerald Hocker. “This is a hot item for our area.”
Speakers addressed and occasionally grilled Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin, Delaware State Parks Director Ray Bivens, Ms. Weber and Matt Drew, Lead Sourcing & Onshore Facilities Manager at Ørsted, with concerns and allegations that ranged from public safety, need for new park amenities, possible impact on Delaware’s cancer rate and negative impact on tourism, commercial fishing, fish migration and aquatic life.
Some speakers also spoke of a “secret” deal reached between Ørsted and DNREC, which officials denied.
Ms. Dudley Eshback said, “These are our lands. Proper stewardship is the responsibility of DNREC and Delaware’s elected officials. The environmental safety concerns of what is being proposed make the project proposal completely unacceptable. And the fact is DNREC officials know this, which is why last July a secret agreement … was signed between DNREC and the parties proposing the project development. It was made, signed and marked ‘Confidential.’”
Secretary Garvin said, “For clarification, there has been no legally enforceable agreement signed between DNREC and Ørsted. We had an MOU (memorandum of understanding) that created a conceptual idea of something that we could take out to the public and talk about, if we are making investments in Fenwick, what that might look like so we could get feedback. There was no secret agreement.”
He assured those concerned that the park’s wetlands are not included in any upgrades. “We will not be building in any wetlands,” he said.
He added Delaware’s role for park improvements is totally separate from the wind farm project. “That is a Maryland and a federal project,” Secretary Garvin said.
With Maryland’s involvement, several speakers questioned why the project was coming ashore in Fenwick Island?
“So why did you pick on a tiny little environmentally ecological sensitive state park? What other locations were investigated in Delaware? I know Maryland said they don’t want it,” said Fenwick Island resident Paul Breger.
As an alternative, he suggested the old World War II observatory beaches further up the coast as a better location where there is no fear of contamination, environmental destruction and there “aren’t people playing and enjoying themselves on the beaches,” Mr. Breger said.
Ms. Weber said, “We looked at a lot of locations.”
According to Ørsted, after significant public and stakeholder input, locations known as “Wind Energy Areas” were chosen by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Ms. Weber rationalized that the straightest line from Ørsted’s lease area out in the Atlantic Ocean to shore is Fenwick Island.
“That is why we started looking at Delaware,” said Ms. Weber. “It’s certainly no secret that Ocean City is not a fan of offshore wind. The state of Maryland does want this project.”
Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan disagreed.
“It was mentioned that Ocean City is opposed to windfarms. That is not correct. Joy, you know that is not correct,” said Mayor Meehan.
Ocean City’s mayor said wind farms could be supported, providing they are far enough offshore where they are not visible from land.
“We also think that there needs to be a commitment to further study how these cables are going to make landfall. That is a concern of an awful lot of people in this room,” said Mayor Meehan. “If these wind farms are constructed as proposed, the view off our shoreline to our horizon will be changed forever. It looks like Star Wars. Future generations will not be able to enjoy what we enjoy today, and I think that ties directly into preserving our natural resources.”
Mayor Meehan added that the turbines as proposed are 3 ½ times the height of the tallest building in Ocean City. “They are gigantic,” he said.
“The project is irresponsible and contrary to DNREC’s own mission. Are the state of Delaware’s standards so low that we would approve a project that Maryland has studied, concluding it to be unreasonable and unsustainable?” said Ms. Dudley Eshback. “Fenwick Island State Park is a beach. It is not Coney Island and we do not need pickleball courts built on fragile wetlands. We do not need an amusement park, or more dune crossings or an amphitheater, such as being proposed. Sen. Hocker and Rep. Gray, while we realize you are under pressure from DNREC and the governor to approve this project, we urge you to take the courageous path however difficult.”
There were supporters of the project. Kit Zak of Lewes said opponents need to be cognizant of global warming and sea level rise.
“I think we have lost sight of the big picture. Delaware is the lowest lying state in the country. In 20 years, there might not be a Fenwick Island. And the fact that we think everyone else should suck it up and take … climate change and walk away from it is irresponsible,” said Ms. Zak. “Rising seas may cost the state $9 billion over 20 years. Delaware’s annual budget operating budget is about $4.4 billion. So, talk about, ‘Will Delaware be here in the future and how will we pay for it?’”
At its closest point, Ørsted officials said the Skipjack project —comprised of 10 12-megawatt turbines 850 feet in height – would be 17 miles off Delaware’s coast, somewhat visible to the naked eye on clear days. The wind farm would be approximately 26 miles from Ocean City, Maryland.
Ørsted is currently in the permitting process, which is expected throughout 2021. If granted, installation is set for 2022. “We hope for commercial operations end of 2022,” said Ms. Weber.
Fenwick Island resident Tom Brennan asked why consideration isn’t given to putting windmills closer to Indian River Inlet, and “continuing the commercialization up there instead of ruining of what we have down here?”
Ms. Dudley Eshback referred to periodic flooding at Fenwick Island State Park. “Should the proposed major power transmission plant be flooded following one of these regularly occurring and increasingly frequent storms imagine the public safety impact. It could be very disastrous,” she said. “We must explore alternative, clean sources of energy. And I’m not an expert on wind energy, turbines or transmission stations but I do know it is folly to consider further developing and destroying what little open space is left.”
Ms. Weber said power generated by Skipjack turbines will go into PJM grid, “so Delaware will be getting some of that power as will any other states in that PJM grid.”
The Skipjack Wind farm will be paid only for energy it produces and delivers to the grid on the Delmarva peninsula. According to Ørsted, the Public Service Commission has estimated that once operational, the Skipjack Project will cost each Maryland residential ratepayer an additional 43 cents per month.
In response to questions regarding the cables coming from the turbines anchored in the Atlantic Continental Shelf, Mr. Drew said cables are only eight inches in diameter, not six to eight feet as stated by speakers.
Concerns were voiced about an exposed transmission line at Ørsted’s Block Island project. Skipjack’s connection will be different. Submarine cables buried a minimum 30 feet under the sea floor will connect to the interconnect facility through “horizontally directionally drilling” beneath the beach.
“What you are comparing to Block Island is not accurate,” said Mr. Drew.
Proposed park improvements
Mr. Bivens said aging and obsolete infrastructure is the biggest limitation at Fenwick Island State Park, originally built in 1981. Among the potential improvements for the park, which attracted more than 230,000 visitors last year are:
• increased bathhouse facilities, offices and first aid station;
• extended sidewalks;
• an overhead pedestrian overpass spanning Del. 1 connecting ocean and bay sections of the park;
• increased parking capacity including a two-level unit;
• pickleball courts, playground and pavilion;
• amphitheater for education;
•new visitor center which will house the Chamber of Commerce;
• lifeguard housing;
• improved grading; and
•ability to add a bus stop/service to reduce traffic congestion.
Rare wildlife species prohibit development in certain areas of the park, Mr. Bivens said.
Less than one acre in the 378-acre park will be lost through proposed improvements.
Public safety, he said, remains top priority.
He views the pedestrian overpass as a win-win.
“Right now, I would not let any of my children … cross Coastal Highway between the bay side and ocean side of the park,” said Mr. Bivens. “I think the walking connection between the town, bay side and park is a huge win for visitors an safety all around.”
The state parks online survey on the project, at https://destateparks.com/fenwickimprovements, remains open for public comment through Dec. 2.
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