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City Council raises concerns about offshore wind farm

For the second time in two months, members of Ocean City’s governing body Thursday night expressed dismay about a proposed wind farm that would be powered by nearly 100 gigantic turbines anchored 15 miles off the coast.

Touted as a form of clean energy, the project by the Dutch energy company Orsted is a centerpiece of Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of having 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in New Jersey by 2035.

Members of City Council, though, pointedly asked whether Orsted’s 1,100-megawatt project would make financial sense while reiterating their concerns that it might harm Ocean City’s tourism industry as well as local businesses.

Councilman Michael DeVlieger, who initiated the discussion about the Orsted project during Council’s Zoom meeting Thursday, said he wants to hear feedback from local residents and the business community about how they feel about the project.

“It’s impossible for us as a legislative body to look at every perspective without the help of the community,” DeVlieger said, noting that the contact information for each Council member is listed on the city’s municipal website at www.ocnj.us.

DeVlieger believes that more research should be done on the project’s possible impact on local businesses – including the restaurant, real estate, fishing and hospitality industries – and other critical parts of Cape May County and Ocean City’s tourism trade.

“I think we have to do our research from every perspective,” he said. “We have to do it from the perspective of the eco-friendly folks, we have to look at it from the dollars and cents standpoint and we have to look at how it affects each and every bit of our economy, particularly here in Cape May County.”

Orsted has announced that it plans to have the wind farm operational by 2024. It is currently going through a rigorous government permitting process that is expected to take two years to complete, a company representative told City Council during a public Zoom presentation on the project in December.

During the December meeting, the Council members repeatedly said they were disappointed when Orsted’s representative couldn’t provide details about some of the more technical details of the project. They were also stunned when the Orsted official didn’t know the estimated cost of the wind farm, other than to say it would be more than $1 billion.

Councilman Keith Hartzell brought up similar concerns with the project at Thursday’s meeting, saying that he is surprised that Orsted failed to answer even basic “kitchen table questions” about the project.

In particular, Hartzell said he is worried about the cost of the wind farm.

“Not knowing what something costs is driving me nuts,” he said.

Orsted has already said that electric bills will increase for power generated by the wind farm – another issue that has stirred concern among Ocean City’s elected officials.

With so many unanswered questions swirling about the project at this point, Hartzell said he was unsure whether the wind farm would be great or “a flop.”

“I haven’t had one person come up to me and say they support it, and that includes environmentalists,” Hartzell added.

Mayor Jay Gillian assured the Council members that his administration will be pressing Orsted for more details about the project, including the impacts on Ocean City.

“We’re not doing anything here until we get the information that I can tell you,” Gillian said.

Orsted is seeking formal approval to possibly run underground electric cables through Ocean City. The cables would connect the offshore turbines to a substation next to the B.L. England Generating Station in Marmora. B.L. England is under consideration as one of the sites where Orsted would link the wind farm to the land-based power grid.

Orsted would need Council’s approval for an ordinance allowing the company to run the cables under Ocean City’s streets. A company official said 35th Street is Orsted’s first choice, with 14th Street and Ninth Street also under consideration.

City Council President Bob Barr indicated that Ocean City may hold the power to slow Orsted’s project if it remains dissatisfied with the plan. He said Orsted still must provide answers “from the most rudimentary questions to the most technical questions.”

“We can make things more difficult for them if we choose to,” Barr said of the city’s relationship with Orsted.

Orsted is planning to build 99 wind-powered turbines that would stretch from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor. They would be spaced about a mile apart in rows and installed in deep water 15 miles offshore. The hub of the turbine would stand 511 feet tall, with blades increasing the height to a total of 905 feet, Orsted has said.

For reference sake, the tallest building in New Jersey is the 79-story 99 Hudson Street skyscraper in Jersey City. It is 900 feet high.

Some members of Council and the public said in December they are worried that the turbines would easily be visible from Ocean City’s shoreline, creating a visual blight.

Councilman Jody Levchuk said the turbines would be “sticking out like a sore thumb.”

In other business Thursday, Gillian outlined Cape May County’s steps to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to local residents. He said the county has been doing a great job, but is still waiting for more vaccine to be delivered from the New Jersey Department of Health.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the shots here so people can get them,” Gillian said.

He noted that the county and Ocean City have all of the policies and procedures in place to administer the vaccine. Despite having to wait for more of the vaccine to arrive from the state, Gillian said, “We’re in a pretty good spot right now.”

Ocean City has information at www.ocnj.us/covid19 on how residents may register to get a vaccination.

First priority for the vaccine has been given to healthcare workers, first responders, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

Barr, who has cerebral palsy, told Council that everything went well when he received his first dose of the vaccine Thursday. He strongly encouraged members of the public to be vaccinated, too.

“It doesn’t hurt, and I’m feeling fine,” Barr said.

Also at the meeting, Council introduced an ordinance for an emergency budget appropriation of $1.2 million to help offset a decline in city revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, said revenue from parking operations, the municipal court, ambulance services and the Ocean City Fitness & Aquatic Center declined because of the pandemic.

The $1.2 million emergency appropriation will come from the city’s budget surplus and will help lessen the impact of any local tax increase in 2021.

It will allow the city to finance the shortfall using its budget fund balance, which will then be replenished in equal installments of $240,000 per year over the next five years, starting in 2022, Donato explained.

“This important mechanism will alleviate what would have been a larger tax levy increase for 2021 and allows the city to spread the loss over subsequent budget cycles,” Donato wrote in a Jan. 8 memo to Council.