OCEAN CITY — Less than 24 hours after Ocean City officials voted to send another letter to potential offshore wind farm developers over the distance from shore issue, Congressman Andy Harris was successful in getting an amendment passed that could derail the project altogether.
Harris, who represents Maryland’s first congressional district, on Tuesday was able to attach an amendment on a Department of the Interior appropriations bill that will prohibit the use of federal funds to conduct reviews of site assessments or construction and operation plans for wind turbines less than 24 nautical miles from the state’s shoreline. The amendment adopted could effectively put an end to the state’s two offshore wind farm projects approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC).
The US Wind project calls for 62 turbines as close as 12-17 miles off the coast of Ocean City in its first phase. During a presentation of the proposed project this spring, Ocean City officials pressed US Wind to push the front line of turbines further back in the designated Wind Energy Area (WEA) and the company agreed to move the turbines to 17 miles offshore. The second approved project, Deepwater Wind’s Skipjack project, calls for 15 turbines as close as 19 miles off the coast of the resort.
Harris cited Ocean City’s concerns about impacts on views from the shoreline as the catalyst for the amendment. It’s important to note while Ocean City officials are not opposed to the offshore wind farm projects conceptually, they continue to express concern about the potential impact on the views from the shore and have pushed the companies to move the turbines back at least 26 miles.
“Ocean City’s economy heavily relies on its real estate and tourism sectors and there has not been a proper examination on whether construction of these wind turbines will have a negative impact on the community. If construction of these turbines too close to the shoreline will reduce property value or tourism, then the turbines may cause more issues than they solve,” Harris said.
US Wind project manager Paul Rich said on Wednesday the company was taken aback by Harris’ late amendment. Rich said the US Wind project was moving toward the construction permit phase, but the project has now been paused or possibly derailed altogether by the distance requirements.
“With respect to the Harris amendment, it certainly isn’t helpful to the process,” he said. “The process began seven years ago with discussions between the federal government, the developer and the Town of Ocean City. During those discussions, the only thing they expressed a desire for was to have the turbines at least 10 miles offshore. In recent months, we’ve had very productive discussions with Ocean City and have agreed to move the turbines back as far as we possibly can to 17 miles. This late amendment really stifles the productive conversations we’ve had with the city. We’re trying to be good corporate citizens. We’ve already agreed to move the turbines as far east as we can.”
Deepwater Wind refrained from commenting on the Harris amendment when reached on Wednesday. For his part, Rich felt blindsided by the amendment.
“I’ve met with Harris’ legislative people and none of this was made clear during those discussions,” he said. “It kind of came from out of left field. We’re confident if we had the same kind of discussions we have had with Ocean City, his position on this might be different. Our project is effectively killed, or at least put on pause, while we’re having a constructive dialogue with Ocean City.”
Rich extolled the economic virtues of the approved US Wind project and said the opportunity could be lost if the amendment is upheld.
“We want to let everyone know that Maryland is open for business,” he said. “We’re here to develop a major business that will create thousands of jobs and generate millions in economic impact. In Ocean City alone, we’re anticipating 60 well-paying high tech jobs alone that will last 25 years or more.”
Rich said he held out hope the Harris amendment could be reversed with more dialogue and facts presented.
“Fortunately, our legislative process allows for more discourse on this,” he said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to set this right because it will be an enormous benefit for everyone involved. I’m hoping cooler heads prevail here.”
For its part, the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) and other like-minded groups have decried the Harris amendment. ACT Executive Director Kathy Phillips said Wednesday that Harris’ amendment appears to fly in the face of the will of his constituents.
“This has been a six-year process with citizen input, stakeholder group meetings and public comment periods in Ocean City, Worcester County and the state of Maryland,” she said. “For the last six years, the issue of siting these turbines has been openly and transparently debated. The public has signed off on this location. For Harris to make an end run around the citizens of this state and submit this amendment at the 11th hour is unfair and unwarranted.”