Sparring Over Offshore Wind Farm Distance Continues; Mayor Says ‘Our View Is Not For Sale’ In Response To Developer’s Benefits Package

Sparring Over Offshore Wind Farm Distance Continues; Mayor Says ‘Our View Is Not For Sale’ In Response To Developer’s Benefits Package
Wind turbines are pictured offshore at a distance of 13 miles in an image included in a recent Ocean City Mayor and Council packet. Rendering courtesy of Town of Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — Asserting “our view is not for sale,” resort officials recently rejected an olive branch of sorts from US Wind that could have provided free electric power and other concessions to Ocean City in exchange for relaxing its opposition to the distance of the offshore wind turbines.

Since the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) over a year ago approved two offshore wind energy projects, or offshore wind renewable energy credits (ORECs) off the coast of Ocean City, town officials have been in a prolonged battle to have the proposed wind turbines sited at least 26 nautical miles off the coast, or the distance perceived to have the turbines not visible from the shoreline. The town’s concerns have largely been over the perceived effects on the viewshed from the Ocean City shoreline and potential impacts on property values and tourism.

The town’s efforts have included at least two resolutions passed by the Mayor and Council, a spirited letter-writing campaign between the town’s elected officials and the wind farm developers and even a failed attempt to mandate the 26-mile distance for the wind turbines by the Maryland General Assembly. Throughout the fray, US Wind officials have remained firm on siting the first line of its wind turbines on the western edge of its designated Wind Energy Area, or WEA, which has been approved by the PSC after careful study by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

Meanwhile, the town continues to dig its heals in the sand on moving the first line of turbines at least 26 miles off the Ocean City coast. Essentially, the town supports offshore wind in general and the proposed projects off the coast of Ocean City specifically, but only if the turbines are at a distance they are invisible from the shoreline. Complicating the issue somewhat is the changing height of the proposed turbines.

Since the offshore wind farms were first approved by the General Assembly in 2010, the height of the proposed turbines has increased with the availability of new technology and are now considerably taller than what was first approved.

Throughout the ongoing battle over the distance of the turbines, US Wind has consistently offered to meet with resort officials to resolve the issue one way or the other. It was learned this week US Wind this spring met in closed session with the Mayor and Council to discuss a proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which, if approved, would have outlined each party’s responsibilities in the development of wind energy off the resort coast.

Among the concessions outlined in the MOU, which was ultimately summarily rejected by the Mayor and Council, was an offer to dedicate a portion of the energy produced by the future wind farms to the Town of Ocean City free of charge, or at least at a substantially reduced rate.

“The parties would agree to evaluate the proposal of US Wind to find a way to dedicate the production of part of its OREC farm to provide electric energy to the municipality free of charge, or substantially discounted based on the applicable laws and regulations,” the MOU reads.

Other concessions outlined in the proposed MOU included a community benefits package, or investments US Wind would offer to Ocean City to placate the resort on the turbine distance issue. However, the Mayor and Council ultimately rejected US Wind’s proposed MOU and essentially vowed to keep fighting to have the distance of the turbines from shore increased.

Mayor Rick Meehan this week reiterated the town continues to support renewable, green energy including offshore wind, but it would not concede on the turbine distance issue despite US Wind’s apparent offerings to Ocean City.

“First and foremost, the Town of Ocean City supports green, unseen energy,” he said. “Despite claims of dangling hundreds of thousands of dollars of community investments, the town has not received any firm offers of a benefits package, nor have we requested or agreed to accept this type of information.”

From the beginning, US Wind has asserted moving the turbines further back in the WEA was not practical or maybe not possible. However, in the interest of reaching some accord with the town over the turbine distance, its proposed MOU outlines a potential community benefit package, that may or may not include free or discounted electric energy for the resort.

The community benefit package could also include US Wind’s investment in local projects or initiatives. However, Meehan essentially said this week the town was not interested in US Wind’s apparent olive branch, which he characterized as vague and undefined. Instead, Meehan suggested US Wind spend the money on the proposed community benefits package on figuring out a way to move the wind turbines further east.

“We would instead suggest that US Wind allocate this type of expense to addressing the town’s more important request to relocate the proposed turbines 26 nautical miles off our coast to protect what is most important to us- our future,” he said. “In addition, and more specifically, any offers to supply ‘free’ electricity have been vague, not clearly defined and would potentially violate state and federal law.”

Taking a slightly harder stance, Meehan said the town’s concerns over its viewshed from the shoreline was not for sale at any price.

“To be crystal clear, while we are great supporters of clean energy, our primary concern is the best interest and future of Ocean City,” he said. “We will continue to do whatever it takes to protect our beach and will not be bullied or bribed into changing our minds. Our view is not for sale.”

However, US Wind General Counsel Salvo Vitale this week discounted the town’s assertion the proposed MOU and some of the concessions it included was somehow an attempt to bribe or coerce Ocean City into dropping it opposition to the wind turbine distance.

“The MOU was a talking point to somehow mitigate some of Ocean City’s concerns,” he said. “In the interest of good corporate citizenship, we wanted to get back to the table and figure out a way to mitigate their concerns, but it was rejected. In a nutshell, we are willing to do our part.”

Vitale said US Wind’s offerings in the MOU, and its position on the wind turbine distance in general has often been misrepresented. He said it was common practice for wind energy companies to offer community benefits packages to jurisdictions in which the projects are located and it was not an offering unique to Ocean City.

“We’ve been victims of mischaracterizations from the beginning,” he said. “Community benefits packages such as what is proposed in this MOU are a common practice in projects such as this. What we are proposing is so ordinary, we take it for granted.”

As far as moving the wind turbines further off the coast of Ocean City, Vitale said it was US Wind’s position not to do that, even if it were possible.

“For us, it’s something that’s not feasible,” he said. “I believe they are conscious it’s not possible. If we want to come to a solution, we have to propose something.”

Vitale said US Wind was disappointed the Mayor and Council rejected the proposed MOU. He said it has been believed all along some middle ground could be met on the turbine distance, but the town has remained steadfast in its opposition.

“When they stated their claim, we were sure it would be resolved through some sort of mitigation, but they have rejected any attempts at partnering on this,” he said. “That they keep maintaining this position is concerning and frankly, disappointing.”

Nonetheless, the town’s opposition will not halt US Wind’s proposed offshore wind energy farm off the coast of the resort. There are still several regulatory hurdles to clear, including the presentation of a construction and operation plan to BOEM, but Vitale firmly believes those steps will move ahead regardless of the town’s opposition to the turbine distance and proposed.

“It will happen,” he said. “We are confident this project will be done. We are moving on with the process and we have to respect the timetables prescribed in the lease.”

The town will have ample opportunity to present opposition to the turbine distance through the remaining steps of the regulatory process. However, Vitale pointed out the Mayor and Council’s position does not necessarily reflect the overall views of the public they serve.

“They will have the opportunity to make their case again, but we believe it’s misguided,” he said. “We continue to deny there would be any impact on the viewshed at 17 miles. From our surveys, we know the public supports this project and the interests of a few are being put before the interests of many with this opposition.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.