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Hundreds attend offshore wind hearing in Ocean City

OCEAN CITY – The detriments and merits of super-sized wind turbines offshore were the subject of Saturday’s five-hour-plus public hearing, which ended with state officials mulling a re-opening of an evidentiary hearing on the proposed projects.

In December, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) issued an order opining the proposed changes in wind turbine heights for two approved offshore wind energy projects off the resort’s coast represented a “substantial change” in what was first approved in 2017 and that the changes warranted further review. To that end, the PSC held a public hearing in the Roland E. Powell Convention Center on Saturday to hear testimony from both sides on the proposed changes in the wind turbine heights.

It’s uncertain just how many attended Saturday’s public hearing at the convention center, but a safe bet is somewhere in the 800-1,000 range. It was a bit of a moving target as some left and others came during the proceedings, but at the height of the hearing, it was standing-room only around the perimeter of the bayfront ballroom.

By way of background, in 2017 the PSC approved two offshore wind energy projects roughly off the coast of Ocean City, or technically awarded Offshore Renewable Energy Credits (ORECs) to the two companies seeking to develop wind farms off the coast including the US Wind project and the Skipjack project.

However, with the advancements in technology, the height of the proposed turbines has increased exponentially since the original PSC approvals, prompting a request to reopen the original approval proceedings. For example, Orsted’s Skipjack project is now committed to using 12-megawatt turbines described as the “world’s largest offshore wind turbine.”

For its part, US Wind has not finalized a decision on the turbines proposed for its project, although the company has stated publicly and in written correspondence to the PSC it is considering turbines considerably larger than the four-megawatt turbines first proposed including, potentially, the same 12-megwatt turbines chosen by the Skipjack project.

For the purposes of Saturday’s public hearing, the scope was intended to be limited only to the proposed size increase in the turbines and not a larger discussion of the merits of offshore wind projects in general, and for the most part those who responded stuck to the issue at hand. There were times, however, during the hearing when the comments strayed from the immediate issue at hand.

From the outset, the PSC outlined the ground rules for the hearing followed by a presentation from representatives from both projects on the proposed changes in the turbines, how increasing the size would allow the developers to reduce the number of turbines needed to meet the energy generation goals and how some of the renderings being circulated did not accurately represent the actual visual impacts on the town’s viewshed.

When it came time to open the public hearing, the town’s elected officials, representatives in the General Assembly and even U.S. Congressman Andy Harris had the opportunity to voice their concerns first. It’s important to note Ocean City officials from the beginning have repeatedly said they support clean renewable offshore wind, but have continued to object to the distance of the turbines from the resort’s coast and, more recently, the ever-growing size of the proposed turbines. Mayor Rick Meehan led off on Saturday by reiterating the town’s position on those issues.

“We support these projects,” he said. “The only thing we ask is that these projects are placed out of our viewshed. These turbines are much more dramatic that I ever envisioned. We only get one chance to get this right. These 12-megawatt turbines are three times the height of the tallest building in Ocean City and would be the tallest structures in Maryland if they were built on land. What is currently proposed will change the viewshed forever. Our future is in your hands and we only get one chance to get this right.”

For his part, Harris suggested the dramatic change in the size of the proposed offshore wind turbines was somewhat disingenuous by the developers of the two projects.

“It’s the most amazing case of bait-and-switch I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve been working on this for three years and until October, I was unaware the 12-megawatt turbines were even being considered. The difference is stunning. Under the law, they can build 12-megawatt turbines 10 miles from shore. That’s the law.”

State Senator Mary Beth Carozza’s district liaison Pat Schrawder read the senator’s comments into the record. Carozza said in the statement she opposed any potential impact of the two proposed projects on the resort’s viewshed.

“The stunning beauty of our natural viewshed of the Atlantic Ocean in Ocean City could become history with the current plans of two companies to build offshore wind turbines directly off the Delaware and Maryland beaches,” she said. “As Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan has so aptly and consistently stated, we support clean energy in Maryland including offshore wind, but stand together in strong opposition to the size and location of the wind turbines. I also have been deeply concerned about the impact of the larger turbines on commercial fishing, maritime transportation and military communications.”

Delegate Wayne Hartman raised concerns about the future of the proposed wind farms and used an analogy to illustrate his view on the growing size of the turbines.

“I have many concerns aside from the viewshed impact,” he said. “I have concerns about property values and tourism. If they turn out to be ineffective, or if one of both of these companies go bankrupt, are there reserves in place to ensure they can be dismantled? Here’s a simple analogy: If I came in a got a permit for a two-story building and then I came back with plans for a four or six or eight-story building, I’d have to go back to the permitting agency.”

Worcester County Commission President Joe Mitrecic pointed out everything the county has to offer, from the natural environment to the great schools to a vibrant economy is largely tied to the success of Ocean City because the resort contributes 60 percent of Worcester’s operating budget. He said the county at-large could be impacted by any detriment to the resort’s tourism economy and property tax base caused by the proposed offshore wind projects.

“We are able to have all of these things because of property values and tourism,” he said. “This is one of those should have, could have moments in our history. We owe future generations the same unobstructed views we enjoy. This project has gone so far past what was originally proposed and it is time to reopen an evidentiary hearing.”

After the developers presented overviews of the two projects and the local and state elected officials had the opportunity to weigh in, the floor was open to a steady stream of commenters on both sides of the issue. It seemed practically every state, regional and even national environmental advocacy group was on hand and their representatives hammered home the importance of clean, renewable energy’s role in reversing climate change and global warming, even if it came at the expense of impacting the viewshed in a small, Maryland coastal town. Perhaps only missing was climate change activist Greta Lundberg.

Joy Weber, develop manager for Orsted’s Skipjack project, said the increase in the height of that project’s turbines had perhaps been overstated.

“There is a misconception that needs clearing up,” she said. “The total height of the 12-megawatt turbines will be no more than 35% higher than the eight-megawatt turbines. The height difference will be difficult to perceive. On a clear winter day, they might be visible from 146th Street, or the closest place in Maryland from our project. We can reduce the number of turbines and still meet the PSC’s requirements.”

US Wind’s project manager Salvo Vitale said there are successful offshore wind projects in Europe with little or no impact on tourism and property values in the affected communities.

“Denmark, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and Sweden all have renewable energy like offshore wind and there are facts that support the science that says they don’t bring any detriment to tourism or real estate value,” he said.

Nancy Wilkinson of the Maryland Climate Coalition said the climate crisis outweighed any parochial concerns about impacts on viewsheds.

“We are facing a global climate crisis that supersedes any concerns about views,” she said. “For the first time, 11,000 scientists in 50 countries agree on this. Let’s use untapped wind off the coast to begin to reverse that.”

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day straddled the fence somewhat, saying on one hand he supported the concerns of neighboring Ocean City, but that the economies of the Lower Shore counties including Sussex County in Delaware are intrinsically linked and the proposed offshore wind projects represented an opportunity for economic development across the region.

“Those of us who live a bit inland must remind ourselves in this process that we love our beaches and love our neighbors to the east and we must remind us that this is in their block, not ours,” he said. “But I ask us all to remember that it’s still in the neighborhood of the Eastern Shore. We can’t turn our backs on either that growth or the specific concerns about fishing or tourism. Our futures are intertwined and we have to find balance now more than ever that we are one community.”

Throughout the afternoon and early evening, the PSC heard from nearly 100 speakers both for and against the proposed wind farms, and perhaps more to the point, the increased size in the proposed turbine heights. The public comment period in writing or online remains open through the end of January.

At some point thereafter, the PSC will determine if a further evidentiary hearing is warranted. It’s important to note the PSC is the regulatory agency in Maryland and there are numerous steps still in the process at the federal level.

To read more comments from the public, click here.