OCEAN CITY - Over the course of hours of testimony, critics of an offshore wind power proposal lambasted the plan at a Monday public hearing, while supporters described it as an important step toward renewable energy for New Jersey.
The hearing, held remotely, was supposed to be solely about whether power lines for the project should be allowed to cut across Ocean City, including areas protected by the state's Green Acres program.
But despite multiple requests from Katherine Perry for speakers to address only that topic, most speakers went wider over the course of three hours. Perry is the permit manager on the Ocean Wind 1 project for Danish energy company Ørsted.
At one point, about 250 people were in the remote meeting.
Several Ocean City residents attacked the proposal as vandalism of the coast, and many alleged that wind power is too expensive and too inconsistent to be relied on. They also argued that the project would hurt sea life, including the severely endangered right whale.
"We don't want this here in any way, shape or form," said Suzanne Hornick, of Ocean City, the first speaker. She said she was speaking on behalf of Protect Our Coast NJ. "This whole thing is a farce."
Supporters of the proposal at the same hearing said climate change, and the warming oceans and rising seas projected to accompany it, are a far worse threat to the New Jersey coastline, describing wind power as the best option to limit the damage from carbon emissions.
There was relatively little comment on the proposed diversion of the Green Acres land, which project officials said amounted to less than an acre. Ocean Wind 1 proposes paying $205,000 for the property, describing that as more than 13 times the assessed value. Those funds would be used to preserve additional land.
Those who did speak about the Green Acres issue were divided along the same lines, with opponents describing it as marring Ocean City and supporters calling it a small disturbance for an important project.
According to a presentation from Ocean Wind 1 at the start of the hearing, once the cables are in place, they will be invisible to residents and visitors.
Ocean Wind 1 is the furthest of several wind power proposals on the drawing board for the New Jersey coastline. Officials with the project said at the meeting they plan to be generating power by 2024. When in operation, the project is expected to provide enough electricity to power a half-million homes.
The issue on Monday was how that power would get ashore to homes and businesses. Ocean Wind 1 proposes bringing a cable across Ocean City at 35th Street, drilling under the beach, running across the town and then drilling under the bay to reach Upper Township. From there, it would connect to the grid at the former B.L. England plant in the Beesleys Point section of the township.
Both Ocean City and the Cape May County government have objected to that proposal. Usually, it would be up to those governing bodies to apply for the Green Acres diversion that is part of the state approval process, but last year, a new state law gave the state Board of Public Utilities the authority to make the application if the local governments balked.
Several speakers mentioned that law, describing it as subverting home rule and as undemocratic. Ocean City spokesperson Doug Bergen read a statement on behalf of the city, in which he described the law as a "usurpation of the city's rights." He said the city is on record objecting to the diversion of the beach and wetlands on a procedural basis and because federal environmental impact statements have not been made public.
In September, the BPU unanimously found that the power line proposal was "reasonably necessary" for the project to continue, and the board is set to vote on the same question for the route along county roads at an upcoming meeting.
Still ahead, and the stated reason for the public hearing Monday, is approval from the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the State House Commission. That decision is expected in early 2023.
The hearing was originally scheduled to take place in person at The Flanders Hotel in town on Oct. 3, but was postponed due to tidal flooding in the city that night.
Some wind power proponents described that as ironic, because increased coastal flooding is an expected effect of climate change.
William Healey, speaking on behalf of the New Jersey Alliance for Action, said Ocean Wind 1 is the epitome of responsible infrastructure investment.
"This project needs to move forward in 2023," he said, calling it the first step in creating a new industry for New Jersey.
Paul Eidman, who described himself as the owner and captain of a charter fishing boat in New Jersey, said the project will mean better fishing, cleaner air and an improved economy.
Other fishermen who spoke in favor of the project said they have already seen changes in the marine environment because of warming ocean waters.
Several of the local speakers expressed frustration with the process, along with skepticism of the project.
"This process is out of order from the beginning," said Ocean City resident Michael DeVlieger, a former member of City Council. "Ørsted and your partners have been trying to strong-arm Ocean City into permitting something, and yet we're not allowed to know how it is going to impact us. It's ridiculous."
Ørsted owns 75% of Ocean Wind 1, with PSE&G holding a 25% share.
Other speakers alleged that offshore wind power is not as effective as the proponents suggest, with one speaker calling for nuclear power instead.
Amid the comments from the public, Alan Belniak, the moderator of the event, read comments submitted in writing.
Ocean Wind 1 will respond to comments in a public statement after the close of the public comment period, Perry said.
According to the presentation from Ocean Wind 1 officials, the project is looking at a possible option that would reroute the cable, using less Green Acres property within Ocean City. That determination has not yet been made.
Some critics suggested the line could run through Great Egg Harbor Inlet, avoiding the city. Speakers pointed out that plans already call for a line to be run to the former Oyster Creek power plant in Ocean County, much farther than the potential inlet route.
The wind farm area is 15 to 27 miles off the coast of southern New Jersey, where up to 98 turbines are proposed. Ocean Wind 2 is already proposed, with additional wind farms in the works along the coast and throughout the Northeast.
Contact Bill Barlow:email@example.comTwitter @jerseynews_bill