OCEAN CITY — The House Economic Matters Committee on Monday voted down a bill that would require future offshore wind energy turbines to be at least 26 miles off the coast of Ocean City, effectively killing the chance for the legislation to advance in the current session.
Last spring, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) approved two offshore wind energy projects roughly off the coast of Ocean City, one of which would put wind turbines 12-15 miles off the resort coast, and the other putting turbines 17-21 miles offshore. In the nearly one year since, Ocean City officials have gone back and forth with the project developers, US Wind and Deepwater Wind, over the distance of the front line of wind turbines from shore and their potential impact on the viewsheds from the resort coast and possibly property values.
The Town of Ocean City has contended the first line of turbines needs to be at least 26 miles from shore to ensure they are not visible from the resort coast. The project developers have made some concessions along with way, including US Wind’s olive branch of sorts to move the turbines back 17 miles proffered last year, but the battle continues over the proposed distance and the ever-changing height and scale of the turbines.
Last week, a delegation from Ocean City, including Mayor Rick Meehan and City Engineer Terry McGean along with other stakeholders and representatives, went to Annapolis to passionately testify in support of Senate Bill 1058, which would require future offshore wind turbines to be at least 26 miles off the coast of the resort. The same delegation, plus or minus a few representatives, returned to Annapolis on Friday to testify in support of the companion legislation House Bill 1135 and the message was essentially the same.
From the beginning, Ocean City officials have said they support offshore wind energy development, but have been adamant about the distance of the turbines being far enough out that they are not visible from the shoreline. Ocean City officials have cited the potential impacts on the viewsheds for residents and visitors, and perhaps more importantly, the impact on property values. It was a message hammered home during the Senate committee hearing last Tuesday and reiterated during the House Economic Matters committee hearing on Friday.
The House Economic Matters Committee heard testimony from the town’s delegation, representatives from the two companies who have approval for wind farms off the coast of Ocean City and the PSC along with other stakeholders on both sides. On Monday, however, the House committee voted 14-5 to oppose House Bill 1135. The conventional thinking is a negative vote in the House effectively signals the death knell for the legislation at least during this session and the Senate will likely shelve its version.
Delegate Chris Adams (R-38B), who represents a large portion of the Eastern Shore, was the lead sponsor on the bill along with Delegate Mary Beth Carozza and Delegate Charles Otto and four others. Adams told the committee last Friday the PSC approval was shortsighted in that it did not take into account the potential impact of the offshore turbines on Ocean City.
“Something was missed,” he said. “The PSC went to great lengths to determine the positive net economic benefit for the state of Maryland, but at no time did they ask the question what is the benefit or detriment of these projects on Ocean City. Ocean City has an $8 billion taxable base, but the PSC ignored how much this is going to affect property values, how this was going to affect tourism and how this was going to affect the hotels and restaurants. They essentially said we would rather ask for Ocean City forgiveness than ask Ocean City for permission.”
Adams said that shortcoming could be repaired with the passage of House Bill 1135.
“It is not too late for the state of Maryland to do the right think and act decisively in support of our friends in Ocean City,” he said. “This is more than just Ocean City. Everybody in Maryland is a stakeholder in Ocean City. My testimony is we all support offshore wind, we just don’t want to see it. Once these are up, they are up forever and we can’t allow that to happen.”
Ultimately, the House Economic Matters Committee voted down the legislation that would move the turbines at least 26 miles off the coast with a 14-5 vote. It is interesting that the five positive votes came from members of the Economic Matters Committee who were also co-sponsors on the legislation.
That means 14 other committee members who were not co-sponsors of the bill voted against the legislation. It was clear from some of the comments and questions asked by the committee members during last Friday’s testimony how the vote was going to go down. For example, Economic Matters Committee Vice Chair Sally Jameson (D-28) drew from her own experiences of fishing off the coast of Ocean City.
“We do a lot of fishing and we go out on head boats out of Ocean City often 17 miles or more,” she said. “I’m telling you I can’t see anything when 17 miles out. I couldn’t find Ocean City from that point.”
Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39) said he was on the committee when the Wind Energy Act was passed by the General Assembly in 2013 and there was no firm opposition from the town of Ocean City at that time.
“I don’t remember anyone from Ocean City coming and raising any concerns,” he said. “Nobody was here. Now, five years later we’re getting to the implementation and all of the sudden Ocean City says we don’t want it.”
Committee member Ben Kramer (D-19) said he didn’t believe the turbines would be visible at 17 miles or even less and had a different take on their perceived offensiveness.
“I think we have a different perspective on what the outcome would be should they be visible,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, they will not be, which I think would be a little disappointing because I think they would be fascinating.”
Kramer pointed out the town’s delegation was relying on a rendering taken in December to illustrate the impacts on the viewshed in Ocean City and questioned why similar renderings taken during the summer were not presented.
“During the summer months, there would be virtually no visibility of the turbines whatsoever,” he said. “The BOEM report indicated the visibility during the summer months is radically different from the dead of winter. Your rendering is from the dead of winter and I’m not sure it gives this committee a clear indication as to what the view would be at 17 miles.”
Delegate Rick Impallaria (D-7) said no where in Maryland could wind turbines be sited far enough that they wouldn’t be visible citizens and questioned what made Ocean City so unique.
“In the state of Maryland, if you put windmills in the bay, people would be within three miles,” he said. “If you put windmills in Garrett County at the top of mountains, people would be within three miles or less. I know you don’t want these out there, but the question is, why is Ocean City different than anywhere else in the state of Maryland. Twelve miles is a long way and much further than anywhere else in Maryland where these could go up. If we use the 26-mile standard you’re looking for, that would mean nowhere in Maryland would these be possible.”
Jameson said the town of Ocean City should perhaps accept the 17-mile concession proffered by the developer and embrace the wind turbines as a possible tourist attraction.
“I certainly understand the concerns about economic impact and tourism,” she said. “At the same time, there is a demonstration project in Rhode Island and it’s only about four miles out. We were taken out on a large boat to look at the windmills. The thing that struck me was the great advantage they are having for tourism there. They have people lined up to get on these boats and go out and look at windmills. Maybe rather than detracting from them, you could look at the benefits of related tourism.”
Perhaps the strongest testimony from the Ocean City delegation came from Delmarva Condominium Managers Association President Joe Groves, who essentially challenged the committee members to see for themselves the possible impact of the views from Ocean City.
“We have 26,000 non-resident property owners and they come to Ocean City from your counties and cities,” he said. “Ocean City is a proven economic engine and creates $8 billion in income for this state. I invite every one of you to come to Ocean City on me and it won’t cost you a cent. We’re passionate about this. I would defy you to sit on that beach and watch the sun come up and not say ‘wow, it doesn’t get any better than this.’”
Nonetheless, the House Economic Matters Committee voted 14-5 in opposition to the legislation, effectively killing it for this year. Every indication points to the Senate shelving its companion bill after the House committee vote.