The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has been promised the final say over all wind power developments in Island waters, following a concerted campaign by all levels of Vineyard local government against a state plan earmarking them for commercial wind generation.

This was the message delivered to the Island from Ian Bowles, state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, this week through the Cape and Islands legislative delegation.

Madden
Rep. Timothy Madden.

“I think he has heard loud and clear the concern from the Vineyard,” Rep. Tim Madden said in a brief stop at the Gazette on Wednesday afternoon.

The state’s concession to local anger over the provisions of its ocean plan — which allows for building up to 166 large wind turbines off the Vineyard coast — was flagged in a letter from Mr. Bowles dated Tuesday and sent to Mr. Madden and Sen. Robert O’Leary, who have held a series of meetings with the secretary in recent weeks.

“The final Ocean Plan will state that regional authorities with regulatory authority shall define the appropriate scale of any renewable energy project located within waters within those municipalities that are presently subject to the jurisdiction of such regional planning authorities,” Mr. Bowles wrote. The complete text of the letter is published on the Commentary Page in today’s Gazette.

Local politicians welcomed the development, but with some caution. The changes are only included at this stage in the ocean plan; they want to see them reflected in legislation, through amendments to the relevant legislation, the Oceans Act.

“This was a major concession that they extracted from Bowles. My guess is they had to do some pretty heavy lifting to make sure that happened,” said West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel.

“So now it’s in writing and it’s going to go into the plan. But what we want to see is that this becomes an amendment to the [Oceans Act] legislation itself as soon as possible. Until it’s enshrined in the legislation I think a lot of us are still going to be a bit uneasy,” he added.

Robert
Sen. Robert O’Leary.

Mr. Knabel and a delegation of Island officials are scheduled to meet with Mr. Bowles this afternoon.

In his letter Mr. Bowles also says that half the mitigation money from near shore wind farm developments will “flow through” municipal control. In their stop at the Gazette Wednesday Mr. Madden and Mr. O’Leary said they believe this means that half the money will go to the affected community.

And they said what Mr. Bowles did not put in the letter was his promise to them that he would not stand in the way of revised legislation if they file it. Mr. Madden and Mr. O’Leary said they had begun working to have the act amended, hopefully sometime in the spring.

But it does not end the controversy over potential large-scale wind generation in local waters, which is expected to pit Island residents who support alternative energy generation as a means to fight climate change against those who object to wind turbines on aesthetic and other grounds.

Senator O’Leary explained the import of Secretary Bowles’s concession.

As things now stand, he said, final judgment on any commercial scale wind power development, defined as anything over 100 megawatts, is under the province of the state Energy Facilities Siting Board [EFSB].

But the Oceans Act contains language saying any development must be of “appropriate scale” and what the agreed changes do is give the Martha’s Vineyard Commission — and the Cape Cod Commission — the power to determine what is appropriate scale.

“The MVC could, in its planning process, simply determine any project offshore larger than 100 MW is not of appropriate scale. They would establish that as a maximum size [and] no development could come forward greater than that.

“That’s how I assume it would play out,” Mr. O’Leary said.

Larger developments are still theoretically possible, but even then, he said, “anything over [100MW] would have to be approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to be permissible.

“By doing it this way, we are essentially empowering the local community to say yes or no. They can have blanket prohibition if they choose against any offshore wind.

“If they want to do some wind, this applies not only to commercial scale but to community scale wind,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Madden and Mr. O’Leary also met with local officials to brief them ahead of the meeting between the Island delegation, representing all the towns, the MVC, Dukes County Commission and Wampanoag tribe, and Secretary Bowles today.

“There were a few people there that still are upset,” Mr. Madden said. “They didn’t like the process. But we can’t do anything about the process now. I think though they understood that at the end of the day this was what they had been asking for.

“I think without the selectmen’s and the towns’ energy and efforts, turning up at meetings and via press, we would not have got to where we are today as quickly,” he added.

Mr. Madden also gave credit to Secretary Bowles for listening to the concerns brought to him over recent weeks.

Mr. Bowles’ views, he said, “evolved quite quickly.

“He started off a bit more comfortable he was on the right path . . . I think when he saw and heard from the Vineyard people he realized they had valid points of concern.”

Points of concern remain, foremost among them the problem of development near the Elizabeth Islands.

The ocean plan includes two areas for potential commercial wind development: one near Noman’s Land, over which the MVC has clear authority, and one near Cuttyhunk, over which the MVC’s authority is at best unclear.

Asked this week if it still was possible a major wind development could happen in those waters, Mark London, the executive director of the MVC, was uncertain.

This remains a major concern because any development near Cuttyhunk would still be visible from the Vineyard and would still present the same concerns about impacts on fishing, bird life and scenic values, among other things. Early indications are that the attitude toward commercial wind is more generally favorable in Gosnold than it is on the Vineyard.

“I met with them a week and a half ago,” said Mr. London. “Deerin Babb-Brott [Assistant Secretary for Ocean and Coastal Zone Management], along with the board of selectmen and members of the public.

“There seemed to be mixed feelings. There were concerns about putting turbines right on the shoals, and the effect of that on fishing. But people also referred often to the fact they now had to produce their own power by diesel generator, and assumed that as part of the deal they would get plugged into the grid.

“I think they are only now coming to grips with the specifics of the proposal. And it’s not clear in this process what decision-making power the board of selectmen has. It is not clear what powers the commission, the board of selectmen and the EFSB would have.”

The Cuttyhunk question will be one of the major questions to be explored at today’s meeting, Mr. Knabel said. The commission’s apparent lack of power to regulate waters off the Elizabeth Islands remain “a huge hole in the whole thing,” he said.

“My understanding of it is far from perfect, but it appears the MVC has some jurisdiction over the Elizabeth Islands, but not in their waters, so we only control half of Vineyard Sound.

“Hypothetically, they could build wind farms all around the other half of Vineyard Sound. And should there be a major industrial wind farm over there, that would have as much impact on the Vineyard as anything off Noman’s Land,” he said. He continued:

“And the underlying concern, a certain amount of anger and concern remains, about how the entire plan evolved, that hasn’t gone away.

“There remain two areas off Cuttyhunk and Noman’s Land that have been imposed on us, and continue to be imposed on us, without proper studies having been done to justify them as being primary industrial wind sites.”

Mr. Knabel also said the other main request made by Islanders of the state — that it stop the clock on preparation of the final plan, which is due by year’s end — had not been met.

Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Madden, he said, had convinced the delegation that there was no point in pursuing that demand.

But the MVC’s decision last week to designate the waters around the Vineyard as a district of critical planning concern, imposing a one-year moratorium on ocean wind development, has bought the Island some time to further study the issue.

“All the studies that the state should have done with regard to geology, birds, fishing, recreation, all of those things are now going to fall into the lap of the MVC, to do in its DCPC evaluation and in helping to write regulations for the towns. The state has not done its proper homework and now it falls to us to do it for them,” Mr. Knabel said.

And with that responsibility comes inevitable conflict, as all the players noted.

“The first step was to ensure that we have control over what happens and that it wasn’t a group of people in Boston making decisions for us. Having apparently got over that first hurdle, the substantive issues still remain,” said Mr. London.

“The fundamental one is how we balance the views of people who feel that renewable energy is important with people that feel they don’t want any turbines anywhere.

“And I’ve heard from a lot of people that have very divergent opinions.”

Mr. Knabel echoed him.

“Now it becomes a local matter, if in fact the jurisdiction of the MVC is final, [with] all the political wrangling to come over what we want. You’ve got people saying ‘wind turbines anywhere, everywhere’ and others saying ‘I don’t want to see one anywhere.’

“This is likely to create a major fight here on the Island.”

Senator O’Leary agreed.

“This debate is now going to play out on the Vineyard. It’s going to be, I suspect, a pretty interesting debate. If you went to a couple of those meetings you could already see the lines there. There were people who were very aggressive in favor of offshore wind and people who didn’t want to put a windmill anywhere.

“As I said to Mark London: ‘Now, you’re up to bat.’

by Mike Seccombe