By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Cape May County representatives are denouncing state legislation that they say would prevent towns or counties from having any local control over a controversial wind energy farm proposed by a Danish company off the South Jersey coast.
They say the proposed legislation preempts New Jersey’s time-honored tradition of home rule and would give a foreign company extraordinary power to build a project over the objections of local elected officials.
“Suddenly, we’ve got a private, foreign company that is determining our position here. For the Legislature and governor to consider taking away home rule is shameful,” Cape May County Board of Commission Director Gerald Thornton said.
Thornton and other critics of the wind farm proposed by the Danish energy company Orsted are also troubled by its possible harmful impacts on the shore’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry, commercial fishing operations and the environment.
“I’ve had a lot of concerns from the very beginning,” Thornton said, noting that he has had extensive talks with the commercial fishing operators about their objections to the project.
Orsted has proposed building 99 wind turbines that would stretch from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor 15 miles off the coast and produce 1,100 megawatts of electricity.
Touted as a form of clean energy, the project is a centerpiece of Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of having 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in New Jersey by 2035.
Orsted has announced that it plans to have the wind farm operational by 2024. It is currently going through a rigorous government permitting process that is expected to take two years to complete.
The company is seeking formal approval to possibly run underground electric cables through Ocean City. The cables would connect the offshore turbines to a substation next to the decommissioned B.L. England Generating Station in Marmora. B.L. England is under consideration as one of the sites where Orsted would link the wind farm to the land-based power grid.
As it stands now, Orsted would need City Council’s approval for an ordinance allowing the company to run the cables under Ocean City’s streets. A company official said 35th Street is Orsted’s first choice, with 14th Street and Ninth Street also under consideration.
Transmission lines also would need to come ashore and cross through local towns in Ocean County to connect with the former Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township, according to plans.
However, the proposed state legislation would take away local control over transmission lines and other onshore infrastructure from municipalities and county government in an effort to fast-track the project.
The bill would allow qualified wind energy projects to obtain easements, rights-of-way or other property rights from any level of government that are needed to build the project. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, or BPU, would make a final decision if local approvals are withheld by towns or counties.
According to the legislation, no state, county or local government would be able to prohibit or charge a fee for the use of a street or other public property other than a road opening permit. If those governments refuse the permit for any other reason than legitimate public safety concerns, the BPU would be required to issue an order granting the necessary approval, the Associated Press reported.
Faced with those conditions, local lawmakers argue that their towns would be cut out of the process for a project expected to have major economic and environmental implications for the shore communities.
Echoing Thornton’s comments, Ocean City Council President Bob Barr said the legislation is “eliminating” decades of years of home rule for New Jersey towns in favor of Orsted.
“It’s not even an American company,” Barr said. “Basically, we’re bending over backwards for a foreign entity.”
“It’s just designed to blitzkrieg us and not give us any input,” he added.
Ocean City Council Vice President Michael DeVlieger, an outspoken opponent of the wind farm, said supporters of the legislation are ignoring public concerns about the project.
“If they were interested in representing the will of the citizens, they would not need to do this. They are driving this legislation because they are more interested in representing big business and a political agenda,” DeVlieger said.
Barr said the legislation establishes an unrealistic deadline of 180 days for towns to either grant or deny local approvals after the BPU gives the state’s go-ahead for the wind farm.
“Essentially, when he puts pen to paper, our time is zero,” Barr said of the amount of time municipalities would have left within the 180-day period after the governor signed the legislation into law, if he chooses to.
Equally concerning is that municipalities would have to grant or deny their local approvals well before state and federal agencies complete their final reports on the environmental impacts of the project, Barr said.
Orsted has told Ocean City officials that those reports are not expected to be completed until March 2023. Under that timeframe, Ocean City would have to make a decision on the project without even knowing how it could affect the environment, Barr said.
“The No. 1 question that we get is what effect will this project have on our environment,” he said.
Opponents have repeatedly said the project poses major risks to the tourism industry, commercial fishing operations, marine life and migratory birds. They also say that the wind turbines, each about 900 feet high, would create a visual blight when viewed from the shoreline.
“The entire coast of New Jersey should be up in arms over this,” DeVlieger said. “We may be the first to have our right to home rule stripped and our environment raped, but they will be coming to a coastal community near you soon unless they are stopped. Please remember those who stood strong and fought for our community and vote out those who sold out to the special interests.”
State Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, a Republican from Ocean City, also believes that local towns and elected officials would be denied the opportunity of having any input in the Orsted project if the legislation is approved. He opposes the legislation.
“Trenton should not be affecting what’s going on in Ocean City without Ocean City’s opportunity to speak about that,” McClellan said in comments on the Assembly GOP Facebook page.
McClellan said he plans to urge Orsted to “continue to have a conversation” with Ocean City as well as other communities in Atlantic and Cape May counties that would affected by the wind farm.
“We shouldn’t force this upon cities without giving them consideration,” he said.
An Orsted spokesman released a statement Friday expressing the company’s support for the legislation, which was introduced by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senate Environmental Chairman Bob Smith, both Democrats.
“We are in the early stages of building a new American industry in the U.S. and here in New Jersey. We are excited about the potential of offshore wind to generate jobs, revitalize ports, create new opportunities for small businesses, and combat the effects of climate change,” the Orsted statement said.
The statement went on to say that the legislation would establish a “mitigation process” for qualified offshore wind projects approved by the BPU “if talks break down at the local level.”
“This is critical for keeping timelines and schedules not only for the developer but for the supply chain and workforce dedicated to the project,” the statement said.
Sweeney’s office did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
Save Our Shoreline, a Facebook group that opposes the wind farm, issued a press release Friday accusing the governor and New Jersey Democrats of “colluding with the Queen of Denmark, and a foreign corporation from Denmark known as Orsted.”
“This unholy alliance was formed to steal sovereign U.S. territory in our 200-mile exclusive economic zone off our beloved Jersey Shore to build risky, unreliable, unwanted, unnecessary industrial wind farms,” said Tricia Conte, founder of Save Our Shoreline.
Save Our Shoreline says it has 4,100 members and so far has collected 10,240 signatures on an online petition opposing the wind farm.
Calling it a “power grab,” Conte warned that the legislation will be met by lawsuits and strong political opposition in the November election if it becomes law.
Thornton also indicated that Cape May County may consider legal action to challenge the legislation. He said he will confer with the county’s attorney about the options that are available.
In another criticism of the wind farm, Thornton warned that electric bills for wind-generated power would “increase significantly” for New Jersey residents if the project is built.
Orsted has already said that electric bills will go up for power generated by the wind farm. That is another issue that has stirred concern among Ocean City’s elected officials.