Ocean City finds wind turbines too gauche

In Ocean City, there’s a boardwalk “odditorium” with authentic shrunken heads, two-headed animals and a fake shark plunging through the second floor. Down the street, there are two dead malls and surf shops selling t-shirts with obscene logos, and there’s even been a major legal battle over topless sunbathing. Amid all this, members of the Ocean City Council were focused this week on the possibility that planned off-shore wind turbines might be visible, under certain weather conditions, from the beach, and that they would absolutely devastate the resort’s ability to attract tourists.

We kid you not.

Mind you, this wasn’t some small portion of town government going all Luddite on wind energy, it was a unanimous vote of the council Monday night with support from Mayor Rick Meehan. The group passed a non-binding resolution calling on two wind energy developers, U.S. Wind Inc. and Deepwater Wind, to not construct turbines any closer than 26 miles away from the beach so as to keep them completely out of sight. Last year, U.S. Wind agreed to move its turbines from 12 miles off-shore to 17 miles to reduce their visibility but warned that any greater distance would not be possible given the parameters of the federal lease agreement. Current plans for the Skipjack Wind Farm bring turbines no closer than 19.5 miles from Maryland, according to its developer.

What’s shocking about the council’s decision — made without public input, incidentally — was not that there is concern about how some people will react negatively to tall windmills visible on the distant horizon (17 miles representing roughly the distance between downtown Baltimore and Reisterstown). There are always folks afraid of progress. No, what’s so surprising is that Ocean City’s leadership showed so little interest in promoting green energy and creating thousands of jobs in a young industry with huge growth potential. Nor did the council apparently put much stock in opinion research that shows Marylanders support off-shore wind power generation — with roughly two thirds of state residents telling Gonzales Research in a wind energy-commissioned poll that the presence of turbines would make no difference in their decision to rent or buy property in Ocean City.

That’s actually a pretty standard response. In Europe, where wind energy is far more common, waterfront resorts near off-shore wind farms are doing just fine. Block Island Wind, the first U.S. off-shore wind farm, hasn’t harmed Rhode Island’s tourism industry or property values by all accounts. Instead, it’s generating imitators. There are a reported three major off-shore wind farms proposed in Massachusetts, all within 15 to 25 miles of shore. And then there’s Empire Wind 15 miles from Long Island and another project 10 miles from the coast of New Jersey between Cape May and Atlantic City. Surely, there’s as much a probability that environmentally-aware tourists will be attracted to Ocean City as a forward-thinking green energy haven then that they would be turned off by flashing red navigation lights on top of the turbines (the biggest complaint of some opponents).

What’s especially galling is that the wind farm developers say Ocean City Council members have had no interest in talking to them about the project. If they did, says U.S. Wind’s Paul Rich, they might find common ground. For example, the flashing red lights might be turned on only when there’s nearby air traffic, a standard practice overseas but one that would require FAA approval in the U.S. So instead of lobbying the FAA for that change, the council is passing ordinances that have no effect other than to poison the proverbial water, as the projects are in the hands of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, not in Ocean City’s or even those of the Maryland Public Service Commission, which last year authorized ratepayer subsidies to help move the two projects forward.

Shouldn’t the economic impact — estimated to be as much as $16 billion in Maryland alone — count for something? And shouldn’t Ocean City embrace the prospect of clean, renewable energy that might address climate change and its rising sea levels and worsening storms that threaten coastal communities? To worry about a proverbial molehill on the distant horizon while greenhouse gas emissions may bring the next high tide to your doorstep seems a little absurd. What’s next, a ban on freighters if they can be seen from the beach? Fishing boats? Whale pods?

Meanwhile, over the objections of Maryland’s Republican governor, the Trump administration continues to pursue plans to lease off-shore areas for oil and gas exploration that could cause Ocean City’s tourism industry far more harm than any 1,000 wind turbines, let alone the dozens proposed, even if they were painted bright red. Since 1974, Ocean City’s leaders have opposed various off-shore drilling plans, too, but if the council wants a cause to truly get angry about, the potential for a local Deepwater Horizon calamity is the one.

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