Senator O'Leary's Oceans Bill close to becoming law
A groundbreaking bill that would require all decisions about development or use of Massachusetts waters to conform to a single integrated oceans management plan is close to becoming law.
The so-called Oceans Bill, the first legislation of its kind in the nation, emerged from a joint House and Senate conference committee and received Senate approval last week. Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, the sponsor of the bill, said he expects it to be approved by the House and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick in the next two weeks.
Senator O'Leary said the Oceans Bill would create a large regulatory umbrella that would cover all activities in state-controlled waters, including whale watching tours, liquefied natural gas terminals, and wind energy developments. The state has jurisdiction over near-shore waters out to three miles.
The bill would also give the state the power to collect revenues on approved developments. The revenues would then be used for the purposes of "environmental enhancement, restoration and management of ocean resources."
The bill would provide local boards, including the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the Island's powerful land use regulatory body, with some degree of regulatory control over ocean projects.
"The bill gives the Martha's Vineyard Commission the ability to declare a development of regional impact and subject any development to the commission's review," said Sen. O'Leary. "It gives local community a reassurance that they have a say in what happens off their shores."
The bill sets up a special commission that would have responsibility for writing an integrated management plan by Dec. 31, 2009, after which it will be subject to a public hearing.
One portion of the bill that generated controversy and legislative debate is a provision that allows sustainable energy development, under certain conditions, in areas of the ocean now designated as protected sanctuaries. A proposed wind energy project in Buzzards Bay figured large in the debate that preceded conference committee approval of the bill.
The proposed bill would not affect the contentious Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound. Although the turbines would be in federal waters, the cables that connect the 130 turbines to shore would run though state waters to shore in Yarmouth. However, that project is grandfathered in the new bill.
Senator O'Leary said the Cape Wind project is too far along in its development to make it conform to new procedures. "It would not have made sense to recapture the Cape Wind issue in the bill," said Mr. O'Leary. "No matter how you feel about the merits and demerits of the project, it was so far down the pipeline that it didn't make sense to go after it again."
The bill's language recognizes the authority of the Division of Marine Fisheries and gives the agency the power to review parts of the plan that could have an impact on commercial and recreational fishing in state waters.
"I think it's a nicely balanced bill," said Sen. O'Leary. "It allows for the possibilities for offshore renewable projects but requires that those possibilities be consistent with a planning process. I think that's the key to this legislation: it sets up a planning process."
Senator O'Leary likened the bill's impact on offshore development to issues with which Martha's Vineyard residents have experience. "I think the people on the Vineyard are familiar with the need for regional planning and development control. Now, we in the state legislature are looking at applying those same basic development principles offshore."
According to Sen. O'Leary, the need to rein in private development with regulatory review is intended to protect the public's interest. "We have developers pointing to a part of the ocean, saying we want to put something there, and have the regulators running around trying to figure out to say yes or no," he said. "That is not an appropriate way to conduct business, and this will reverse that process."
Passage of the bill would mark the end of a long legislative battle focused on a plan by Jay Cashman, a wealthy and well-connected developer, who seeks to develop wind farms in Buzzards Bay.
House Republicans accused House Speaker Salvatore Dimasi, a Democrat, of attempting to influence the legislation to make it more favorable to Mr. Cashman's project.
Republicans accused the Speaker of ethics violations, in part because his wife and Mr. Cashman's are in business together.