By MADDY VITALE and DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Cape May County and its shore towns presented a united front in opposing plans for an underground transmission line that would cut through environmentally sensitive wetlands and beach lots in Ocean City to connect an offshore wind farm to the land-based power grid.
During a Zoom hearing Thursday before the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU), attorneys representing the county and shore towns criticized the Danish energy company Orsted for its preferred route for the transmission line to serve the proposed Ocean Wind 1 wind farm.
No formal action was taken on the Orsted petition by the BPU. Both sides involved in the dispute over the transmission line as well as the public will be apprised of the time frame for a decision at a later date, BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso said.
The BPU is charged with deciding on whether to grant an easement and regulatory permits for the transmission line.
During oral arguments, attorneys representing Cape May County, Ocean City, Upper Township and nine other municipalities in the county said an alternative route through Great Egg Harbor should be considered for the line. They also asserted that the decision should not be made by the BPU, but rather the state Office of Administrative Law.
The sum of the oral arguments on behalf of the county and the municipalities is that the parties feel “shut out” of the decision-making on where the transmission line is installed.
Orsted plans to run a transmission line under the seabed to bring electricity onshore through the beach lots of 35th Street in Ocean City. Orsted has not publicly disclosed how much the transmission line would cost.
The underground cable would travel west to Bay Avenue, north on Bay Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard, west across Peck Bay at Roosevelt Boulevard Bridge and then continue on to Route 9 to property near the former B.L. England Generating Station, according to Orsted’s petition.
The result of the line through 35th Street could mean disruption to delicate wetlands, according to the attorneys for the county and shore towns. Although the BPU hearing was solely for the purpose of considering easements for the transmission line, attorneys touched upon the impact of the project as a whole on the communities on the barrier islands.
“The preferred route is going right through wetlands. Roosevelt Boulevard has mostly a grass shoulder. It is a causeway into a barrier island,” Cape May County counsel Michael Donohue said in oral arguments of Orsted’s preferred route. “Much of it runs through wetlands.”
Donohue told the BPU, an unelected board whose members are appointed by the governor, to “stand in the shoes of elected officials.”
“That is the main reason why the county has felt compelled to object to the process. The county feels strongly that the voters should not be disenfranchised. The unelected board (BPU) steps in the shoes of elected officials.”
He made the argument that the matter is similar to eminent domain and should be treated as such.
“This is a condemnation proceeding. The board is being asked to take property from Cape May County. That is an eminent domain,” he said.
Donohue also touched upon potential negative impacts to fisheries and the environment that might be caused by the wind farm.
“The impacts will be great,” he said.
Orsted’s proposal is to put 99 towering wind turbines in the ocean, 15 miles offshore from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor.
The wind farm is currently in the planning and permitting phase and is scheduled for completion by 2024. Plans call for a 1,100-megawatt project that Orsted claims would create thousands of construction jobs and power over 500,000 homes.
Ocean Wind attorney Greg Eisenstark said the project is under deadlines and that the issue before the BPU is solely involving easements for the proposed transmission line.
He said the company tried, but so far there has been “no real progress” with coming to some sort of agreement to proceed with Cape May County.
“The project had no choice but to file a petition. The issues in this filing are fairly limited. One is, Ocean Wind is asking for a temporary easement of a parcel of land owned by the county. The second is to preempt the county consents for certain environmental permits. The project has sought the consent of Cape May County, but Cape May County has not been willing to give that consent.”
Eisenstark also said that the state gave the BPU the power “to override municipality and county objections for the interest of the state – which should be paramount.”
Like Donohue, Ocean City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson objected to Ocean Wind’s assertions.
McCrosson said Ocean City has been denied power and that a private entity – Ocean Wind – wants to take public land for its own use.
“Ocean City urges this board to refer Ocean Wind to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing and disposition,” she said. “Ocean Wind is focused on its preferred route.”
Meanwhile, Ocean City’s beaches and county wetlands could potentially be impacted, attorneys told the BPU.
McCrosson argued that Ocean Wind is just pursuing its easiest route for the transmission line, to the detriment of Ocean City and the county.
Attorney Paul Baldini is representing nine municipalities in the matter. They are Sea Isle City, Avalon, Dennis, Lower and Middle Townships, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, Wildwood and Stone Harbor.
“These municipalities sought intervention status and were denied. Collectively, I represent the overwhelming majority of residents who reside in Cape May County and will be affected by the decision of the board,” Baldini said in his argument.
Baldini, who also serves as solicitor for Sea Isle City, noted that while the BPU hearing is focused on easements for the transmission line, there are many other concerns that would result from the project, such as “damage to fragile beaches, wetlands, an impact on tourism (and) whales.”
“The city of Sea Isle City is immediately adjacent to Ocean City and immediately affected,” he said.
Like Donohue and McCrosson, Baldini stressed that the Great Egg Harbor route should be considered as a reasonable route that avoids the roads of Sea Isle City. The residents would be directly impacted by the BPU decision, he added.
He went on to say that the “rush to move forward with taking of land is troubling to Dennis Township.”
He went through other concerns of the different towns he represents and said, “The communities implore the BPU to listen to Ocean City and listen to the county.”
On Monday, Nov. 14, Ocean Wind LLC will host a Zoom hearing at 6 p.m. to discuss the wind farm project. Members of the public may participate in the hearing via video conference at https://bit.ly/ocw1-ga-pub-hearing