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Eye on Ocean City's horizon

Imagine lying on the beach in Ocean City and feeling visually assaulted. Is it the looming stucco-plastered high-rises or the indiscriminant clutter of surf shops, arcades, bars and condos behind you? Let's say no. Or maybe the throngs of beach-goers in their colorful attire and various states of undress to your left and right. Again, we'll give that a pass. Then what about the wind turbines located 20 miles off-shore, a mere thumbnail on the horizon that requires a clear, sunny day to even be discernible in the distance?

Aha, there's the culprit.

At least that's what was on the collective minds of the town's elected officials from Mayor Rick Meehan to all seven members of the City Council who earlier this month sent a letter to the Maryland Public Service Commission protesting the "visual impact" of the combined 189 off-shore wind turbines proposed by two wind farm developers, U.S. Wind and Deepwater Wind, off Ocean City's coast. Town officials say they support clean energy but worry that tourists will be turned off if they can see the enormous 600-foot-tall structures that even at night might be recognized on the horizon because of their flashing red lights required to warn off aircraft (if the night is clear enough anyway).

Officials expressed some other concerns — about the routes of high-voltage cables and construction noise, for example — but it's clear that the prospect of turbines turning off potential beach-goers is what really has them most worried. And to some degree, that's understandable. A North Carolina State University study released last year found that a majority of Outer Banks vacation home renters polled would not return to the resort area if wind turbines were built off-shore in North Carolina — even if the rental price was discounted.

That survey probably requires a grain of salt. The United States has little history with off-shore wind so it's impossible to know exactly how people will react. In Europe where off-shore wind has become far more common, such projects haven't caused any mass exodus of beach-goers but some negative impact on tourism is not unheard of. Donald J. Trump even got into the debate when, as president-elect last fall, he expressed opposition to a wind farm near one of this Scottish golf courses because it might spoil the view.

Still, the two developers behind the Maryland/Delaware wind farms appear to be sympathetic to Ocean City's concerns. U.S. Wind, which wants to build the largest of the two projects with 150 6-megawatt turbines, recently agreed to move them five miles further offshore to as much as 20 miles away. Deepwater Wind's Skipjack Wind Farm was already contemplating being 19-to-26 miles off the beach. Both are a greater distance than was contemplated in the North Carolina State study which asked renters about turbines that might be eight and 12 miles off-shore.

The better measure might be to wait and see what happens this summer on Block Island where last December Deepwater Wind started up the first off-shore wind farm in the U.S. just three miles off the coast of the popular Rhode Island tourism destination. It might actually turn out to be cool and hip to see turbines on the horizon — a comfort to those who support non-polluting renewable energy and recognize the need to lower humanity's collective carbon footprint or see those same beaches overwhelmed by sea level rise due to climate change. The turbines may bring with them a feel-good element that town officials haven't contemplated but private companies increasingly do as they advertise their use of green power (Kohl's and Walmart) or contribute to the fight against climate change (the National Hockey League's "I AM PRO SNOW" initiative).

Right now, the best thing that could happen would be for Ocean City beach fans, renters and owners alike, to contact town officials and let them know that the presence of a wind turbine 20 miles away (the equivalent of driving from Cockeysville to the Fort McHenry National Monument including the entire Jones Falls Expressway) won't keep you away from the beach this summer. The address: P.O. Box 158, Ocean City, MD 21843-0158 or call at 410-289-8221. Such reassurances might go a long way to alleviating the fear of what is essentially an unknown — the possibility that some specks on the horizon will be more of a turnoff than all those visual planks sticking out from the sand.

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