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Ocean Wind Hearing Brings Indignation, Hints of Litigation

Wind farm option

By Vince Conti

OCEAN CITY – The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) held a required public hearing Sept. 29 concerning the petition from Ocean Wind LLC to have the board overrule the Cape May County Board of Commissioners regarding transmission cables crossing county land. 
Many members of the public expressed outrage and indignation at the fact that the day before this public hearing, the BPU approved Ocean Wind’s petition to bring its transmission cables across Ocean City beaches and streets. 
At stake was the power recently granted to the BPU to overrule county and municipal governing bodies and allow Ocean Wind LLC to bring its transmission cables on shore at Ocean City’s 35th Street beach. The plans, as outlined, would carry those cables under municipal streets until crossing the back bay to Upper Township. 
In testimony at the public hearing, as well as in previous sessions with county and municipal officials, Ocean City residents have argued for alternative routes for the cables and accused Ocean Wind LLC of refusing to provide details on its analysis of those routes or the costs associated with them.
With the permission granted for Ocean Wind’s preferred route in Ocean City less than 24 hours previously, many speakers at the public hearing questioned the legitimacy of the hearing. 
“This is something to check off the legal boxes,” said Ocean City resident Rick Birch. 
Suzanne Hornick accused the BPU of having already given approval to the transmission cable route favored by Ocean Wind LLC. Others argued that the BPU’s action opened the door to prolonged litigation.  
What these residents referenced was a meeting of the BPU the evening before the hearings. Lost in a thirteen-page agenda as item 8c, the board said it would consider the petition by Ocean Wind LLC seeking easements across Green Acres-restricted properties and consents needed for certain environmental permits in Ocean City. 
Public hearings on this had been held in May, but no special notice was given that the issue would be on the agenda for the Sept. 28 meeting. The BPU voted unanimously in favor of Ocean Wind’s petition. A video of the meeting is available on YouTube. 
That decision left the hearings Sept. 29 to consider the same easements and consents for the transmission cables to cross and utilize county land. To many, this was, in the words of one resident, “disingenuous.” 
How likely was it that the petition to cross county land would be denied if the petition to bring the transmission cables onshore and run them across the width of Ocean City had just been approved?
When the county’s special counsel Michael Donohue spoke, he said he was participating in the hearing in part to defend home rule. He then muttered “for what that’s worth,” showing his frustration with a process that had an almost certain outcome. 
Donohue continued by presenting specific objections to Ocean Wind’s preferred route, asking as well for consideration of Ocean Wind I and Ocean Wind II “as a cumulative matter.”
Some residents argued about emissions from the cables endangering residents and visitors to Ocean City. Others used the opportunity of the hearings to reiterate their opposition to the entire Ocean Wind project with its large turbines “across our horizon.” They called on the BPU to force Ocean Wind LLC to release cost data. Others expressed incredulity that a decision was being made before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had finalized its environmental study. 
While most of the speakers were opposed to the Ocean Wind petition, some did use the comment period to support the project. Those that did so almost exclusively focused on the need for alternative energy sources or on the boost the construction of the wind farms was likely to be for the state and regional economy. 
That was the message of Christina Renna, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey. Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey, Inc., called the project the “best strategy for fighting climate change.” 
Through it all, it was not difficult to see how the issue would likely be decided nor what the county and municipal reaction would likely be. Donohue reminded the BPU that the law they relied on to decide the issue was new and not yet tested in the courts. 
Ocean City Business Administrator and Municipal Engineer George Savastano said the BPU’s authority in this matter rested on a “hastily adopted law.” He urged the BPU to defer the issue to the state Office of Administrative Law as a contested case. 
Resident Barbara McColl said she looked forward to the law having its “day in court.” The hint of litigation permeated many of the public comments by officials and residents. 
The timing of the hearing also coincided with Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 307 issued Sept. 21. In it, the Governor increased the goals for wind power generation before even the first wind farm has begun construction.  Murphy changed the goal from 7,500 megawatts by 2035 to 11,000 megawatts by 2040. He also instructed the same BPU to “undertake (a project) to study the feasibility and benefits of further increasing the goal.”
In his comments, Donohue said the county’s goal was “not to delay or obstruct.” He criticized Ocean Wind LLC for letting the schedule drive the discussion, closing off potentially productive areas of negotiation. 
Ocean Wind LLC’s Madeline Urbish made sure to remind the BPU of the 2024 deadline for commercial operation, underscoring Donohue’s comments of a focus on schedule as a principal driver in how Ocean Wind has approached the county. 
Donohue noted that the county’s position was supported by 10 of its 16 municipalities most of whom were denied an opportunity to intervene and present their cases to the BPU at the hearing. Paul Baldini, who was representing nine of the county municipalities, used the comment period to challenge the BPU’s authority. He even challenged the three-minute time limit for speakers. 
Two hours and 10 minutes after it began, the hearing ended. There was an identical hearing scheduled for the evening to give members of the public unable to attend in the morning an opportunity for comment. The BPU docket for this hearing lists 94 publicly accessible documents including the motions to intervene from several of the county’s municipalities.  
The methodology for submitting written comments is explained on the BPU public notice of the hearing. All comments must be submitted by Oct. 12. 
Thoughts? Comments? Email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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