OC’s Request To Postpone Virtual Wind Hearing Denied

OC’s Request To Postpone Virtual Wind Hearing Denied
A rendering of the proposed wind turbines (right side) at sunrise is contrasted with the view now. Rendering courtesy of Town of Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — A virtual evidentiary hearing on the proposed change in the size of the turbines for one offshore wind farm scheduled for next week will go on as planned after the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) denied Ocean City’s request to delay the proceedings.

The evidentiary hearing on the proposed change in size of the wind turbines for Orsted’s Skipjack wind farm off the coast of the resort is scheduled for next week on June 4-5. Last year, Orsted, the developer of the Skipjack project announced it was committed to using the GE-Haliade 12-megawatt turbines, described as the “world’s largest offshore wind turbine,” for its Skipjack project off the north end of Ocean City’s coast.

The 12-megawatt turbines are triple the size of the turbines originally envisioned for the project off the resort coast. Because of the drastic change in the proposed turbine size, the PSC in January held a five-hour-plus public hearing in Ocean City attended by hundreds, many of whom provided testimony both for and against the changes to determine if an evidentiary hearing was warranted.

In February, the PSC granted the town of Ocean City’s request for an evidentiary hearing on the drastic change in size for the Skipjack project’s offshore wind turbine and the hearing was later scheduled for June 4-5. When COVID-19 emerged, what had been planned as an in-person hearing akin to a court proceeding was changed to a virtual hearing.

Last week, Ocean City filed a motion for a continuance of the evidentiary hearing, asserting an eventual decision relied heavily on full-scale renderings showing the impacts on the large turbines on the resort’s viewshed, renderings the impacts of which would allegedly be diminished for PSC members and the attending parties on a computer screen.

As a result, the town filed the motion requesting the evidentiary hearing be delayed until it could be safely held in public. The resort also requested the PSC’s eventual in-person evidentiary hearing be held in or near Ocean City so residents and stakeholders could attend. This week, the PSC denied Ocean City’s requests for a continuance on all counts.

“The evidentiary hearing will involve extensive documents being entered as exhibits, including visual renderings which are better viewed at a larger scale beyond what can be shown on a computer screen,” the town’s motion of a continuance reads. “Importantly, there is very significant public interest in Skipjack’s announced change in turbine size.”

Ocean City also asserted because of the ongoing federal approval process for Skipjack’s turbine selection, there was no immediate need for the PSC evidentiary hearing to be delayed until such time it could be held in person.

“It is anticipated that there will be significant public interest in the evidentiary hearing by members of the public, including property owners, elected officials, environmental and non-profit organizations, business owners and other municipalities, who should be able to attend an in-person evidentiary hearing,” the motion reads. “In light of the COVID-19 emergency, it is unsafe for such a crowd to attend an in-person evidentiary hearing at this time and not all members of the public may have the ability to access the hearing electronically. For these reasons, Ocean City requests that the evidentiary hearing be continued to a date when it can be held in-person at the Ocean City Convention Center or some similarly located site convenient to the public living is and near Ocean City.”

However, in its order denying the town request to postpone the evidentiary hearing released this week, the PSC pointed out the state regulatory agency has held numerous virtual public hearing since COVID-19 emerged without tarnishing the process.

“These virtual hearings have protected the public and commission staff from the current COVID-19 pandemic while still affording parties the same rights they would have had at an in-person hearing,” the PSC order reads. “Similarly, during the June 4-5 evidentiary hearings, the parties will have the ability to swear in witnesses, introduce evidence and cross examine witnesses. Additionally, the commissioners will be able to ask questions of the witnesses and members of the public will be able to observe the hearing live through the commission’s YouTube channel.”

In the order, the PSC did acknowledge the importance of the physical evidence including renderings and made certain it is available to stakeholders and decision-makers next week.

“Notwithstanding this decision, Ocean City raises an important issue the physical exhibits depicting the size and appearance of wind turbines may appear differently on a computer screen than in person,” the order reads. “Accordingly, all parties who intend to introduce or utilize a physical exhibit or visual aide shall make available to any other party, upon request, a copy of that physical exhibit or visual aid.”

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.