OCEAN CITY – In January, members of the Ocean City Council suggested denying the Danish energy giant Ørsted permission to bring power lines across its jurisdiction as a means of slowing down a massive wind energy project off the coast.
That option could be taken off the table under a state bill now on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. Some members of City Council are furious, calling the bill an attack on the principles of home rule.
“They just took our democracy away, folks,” said City Councilman Keith Hartzell at the Thursday council meeting. “They decided that they know better than us and we don’t have a choice and/or an opinion, and they did it with a stroke of a pen.”
In essence, the bill would mean that if an offshore wind power project cannot get permission to use a right-of-way from a city or county, it will be able to apply to the state Board of Public Utilities instead.
“We are not going to let Ocean City stop offshore wind,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday. “It’s crystal clear what Ocean City is trying to do. This is not about a power line.”
Sen. Bob Smith, a sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said the bill would allow the distribution line for offshore power generation to go through any public space, including rights-of-way on municipal and county roads.
In previous public discussions with Ocean City, Ørsted representatives have said the likely route to bring power generated in the proposed Ocean Wind offshore energy project is to travel under Ocean City at 35th Street, to continue through Upper Township to tie in to the power grid at the site of the former BL England Power Plant in Beesley’s Point, a now-idled coal-fired plant.
“The point of this bill is to make sure that we actually make offshore wind happen,” Smith said. “New Jersey unfortunately has a deserved reputation for finding ways to not get the big stuff done.”
Smith argued that wind power is a vital part of moving New Jersey to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. He cited projections of continued sea level rise and more powerful storms driven by a changing climate, saying that should be especially important to beach communities.
“Places like Ocean City are going to have huge problems,” he said.
Ocean City’s elected officials did not seem convinced.
City Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the Senate and Assembly bills. City Council president Bob Barr said the bills moved through the process at an extraordinary speed.
“I don’t know what will happen. I have to be honest. I think the windmills are probably coming,” Barr said. “I just want the public to understand what’s gong on. I don’t care if you’re for the windmills or not, this legislation should concern you.”
City Councilman Michael DeVlieger has been a vocal critic of the plan. At one point in the Thursday meeting, a resident described him as Don Quixote, a character from a 16th century Spanish novel who famously attacked windmills. DeVlieger seemed to embrace the suggestion, even as council members say the resolution is more about local rights than the proposed wind turbines.
“The fight now is not about windmills. It’s about home rule,” said Hartzell.
“What are they going to do next? I don’t know if it’s your guns, I don’t know if it’s your, whatever,” DeVlieger said at the meeting. “But they can change an awful lot if we allow this precedent to stand. It needs to be challenged.”
In an email exchange Monday, an Ørsted spokesperson did not answer specific questions about meeting with Ocean City, but said the company is looking forward to Murphy signing the law and said the company is in the early stages of building a new American industry.
“The bill introduced by Sen. President Sweeney and Senate Environment Chairman Bob Smith establishes a mitigation process for qualified offshore wind projects approved by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities if talks break down at the local level. This is critical for keeping timelines and schedules not only for the developer but for the supply chain and workforce dedicated to the project,” the statement reads in part.
State Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, a former Ocean City councilman, said local representatives opposed the measure in the Assembly and Senate in what he described as a party line vote. Sen. Michael Testa voted no, along with McClellan and Assemblyman Erik Simonsen, all Republicans, but they were strongly outnumbered.
McClellan said the law infringes on local rights.
“Because it’s Ocean City, I take it personally,” he said.
Smith and Sweeney are both confident Murphy will sign the bill, and Smith emphasized that the bill will only apply to underground power lines.
“Put that in all caps, that we’re not going to have towers. Towers drive everybody crazy,” he said. He added that roads and public land will need to be restored after the project is complete.
Ørsted won a solicitation from New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities for the state’s first 1,100-megawatt offshore wind farm, set to be the largest in the country, part of Murphy’s plan to transition the state to renewable energy by 2024. The total project is expected to cost more than $1 billion.
The Ocean Wind Project envisions 99 wind turbines starting about 15 miles off the coast, each more than 900 feet from the water’s surface to the highest point of the spinning blades. They will be visible from the beaches of Cape May County, with the project area running roughly from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor. It’s the first, but not the last, offshore wind project on the drawing board.
A second project of a similar scale is set for approval on June 30.
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