Final Ocean Act plan set

Final Ocean Act plan set

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Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Ian Bowles released the final version of the ocean management plan Monday. He and other state officials described it as the nation’s first comprehensive plan to protect critical marine resources and foster sustainable uses in the state’s ocean waters.

The plan provides a measure of comfort for Island officials who were concerned that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) would not retain regional permitting authority over wind projects in state waters off Island shores.

[A copy of the plan without graphs is available here]

The plan designates only two wind energy areas suitable for commercial-scale development in Massachusetts. One is off Cuttyhunk Island (Gosnold Wind Energy Area), part of the town of Gosnold. The other is south of Nomans Land (Martha’s Vineyard Wind Energy Area), part of Chilmark.

The plan grants the MVC the ability to define the “appropriate scale” of renewable energy projects in the Nomans zone.

However, the plan declares the Cuttyhunk zone – which has generated Island consternation over the effect banks of turbines would have on the scenic view from Gay Head and spawned an ad hoc citizens group – outside the MVC’s purview and in the hands of the elected officials of Gosnold, some of whom have spoken in favor of wind power projects off their island.

Under the Ocean Act and the ocean management plan, the concept of appropriate scale includes such factors as protecting interests associated with fishing, fowling and navigation; ensuring public safety; and minimizing incompatibility with existing uses and visual impacts, EEA said.

The plan also allows for smaller “community-scale renewable energy projects,” clusters of wind turbines off individual towns, subject to review and approval by local elected officials, regional permitting authorities, and the EEA secretary.

The plan allocates a set number of turbines to each of the state’s seven regional planning authorities, on a sliding scale based on the region’s length of shoreline and area of coastal waters for a coast-long maximum of 100.

The Martha’s Vineyard allotment is capped at 17 turbines, up from 10, but there are provisions that would allow the number to be increased. Nantucket gets 11 and the Cape Cod Commission 24.

The plan requires that the host community for a community-scale project endorse the project and that economic benefits, including energy and royalties, be directed back to the host community.

Ball is in MVC’s court

In a telephone call yesterday, Mr. Bowles said there are no developers waiting in the wings to build in the commercial Wind Energy Areas. The secretary said that as the process moves forward, his agency would work with the MVC or the elected officials of Gosnold to develop a review and regulation framework for their respective areas.

He said if the state were to entertain future development it would likely be done through the process of issuing a request for proposals.

“We are not going to take any actions until the MVC has made its decisions about scale, and they have requested us to have an ongoing technical dialog and we would be happy to do that,” Mr. Bowles said. “In the case of Gosnold, we would likely develop a framework with them, but this is all pretty speculative.”

Mr. Bowles said his agency never suggested it had conferred any additional authority on the MVC relative to Gosnold. “In fact,” he said, “Gosnold sent us a letter explicitly asking us not to have any such authority given to the MVC, and the MVC did not request it of us.”

One area of Island concern has been the scenic value of the view from Gay Head. In a comment letter on the draft plan, the MVC wrote that the Gay Head Cliffs is one of the Island’s main attractions and is arguably one of the most important scenic vistas on the East Coast of the United States.

In his comments, Mr. Bowles balanced those scenic values with less scenic modes of energy development. “I don’t think Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod should be proud that they run their entire economy on the oil-powered canal plant, which is how they get their power today,” he said.

All types of alternative energy development must be explored, he said. “I don’t think the posture of Martha’s Vineyard was, we don’t want to see any wind power. I don’t think that is a credible position to take.”

Last month, after being asked for a formal opinion, the MVC’s legal counsel concluded that the commission has jurisdiction over not only the ocean waters off the shores of the six Vineyard towns, but over the ocean waters off the Elizabeth Islands, which form the seventh Dukes County town of Gosnold and which include Cuttyhunk.

However, the ocean plan states: “This Ocean Management Plan does not authorize the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to define the appropriate scale of any wind energy or other project in the Gosnold Wind Energy Area, whether or not the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has jurisdiction over that area pursuant to its enabling act.”

Mr. Bowles said that resolving those differing views is best left to the attorney general and the courts.

Mr. Bowles said the plan gives the MVC authority only over the zone adjacent to Nomans, which would provide it with final say over any commercial wind farm developments.

“The MVC is given the authority to define the appropriate scale,” he said. “Meaning that they have the sole authority to say it can be this big and theoretically they could say zero is this big.”

Mr. Bowles said that tack is unlikely. In an oblique reference to the Island Plan, which sets as a goal the development of alternative energy, he said he expects the opposite reaction.

“Martha’s Vineyard has very aggressive plans and a strong rhetorical commitment to clean energy development,” he said, “so I fully expect they will want to do an offshore wind project in this area which the science of our plan shows is one of the two best areas in state waters to do it.”

Mr. Bowles said the state energy siting board would retain jurisdiction for projects over 100 megawatts. If the MVC defines a project under that number the siting board would have no role, he said.

Some participants in the planning process, including the Conservation Law Foundation, are wary of the authority the plan grants to regional planning authorities to describe appropriate scale.

“I think that they and other commentators were fearful that these organizations would be NIMBY organizations and not thoughtful, proactive planning organizations,” Mr. Bowles said. “I do not believe that, and I think the Martha’s Vineyard Commission said, ‘We have bold goals to do clean energy, and please give us that opportunity.’ So they have the ball and it is on them to move forward and I think they will.”

Play ball

MVC executive director Mark London said on Tuesday that he had not yet fully reviewed the ocean plan, but he acknowledged positive notes. “The secretary followed through with his commitment to recognize the MVC’s authority for the commercial wind farm process off of Nomans,” he said. “As well as for community wind turbines, which are now up from 10 to 17 for community turbines.”

Asked to comment on the plan’s failure to clearly place regulatory authority for commercial wind turbines in the waters off Cuttyhunk in the hands of the MVC, Mr. London hesitated. Then he said, “No comment. It seems to speak for itself.”

Reminded that the MVC had sought a legal opinion that affirmed its authority over Gosnold waters, based on the MVC’s enabling legislation, Mr. London took the diplomatic route. “Well, we will have to see how this plays out,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer, so I am not going to try and interpret this law. We are looking forward to working with town boards in Gosnold.”

Mr. London said that Cuttyhunk officials had expressed willingness about working collaboratively on wind energy planning and that the MVC looked forward to doing that.

Now that the plan has been released and planning authority remains with the Island communities and not a committee in Boston, it will be up to Islanders to set the course, according to Mr. London. “The ball is back in our court,” he said.

The first steps will be discussion and education, Mr. London said, and it is up to the community to decide what it wants. “I think the first step will be some mutual education,” he said. “A lot of people know a fair amount about different aspects of this. I think we will be having a community dialog in the months ahead about what people think is or is not appropriate both for ocean and for land.”

Landmark protection

The ocean management plan was completed six months after release of the draft plan, in accordance with the Oceans Act of 2008.

In a press release issued Monday, Governor Deval Patrick said that Massachusetts had set a national precedent with the plan that protects our ocean environment while harnessing its renewable energy potential.

Compared with the draft plan, released July 1, the final ocean plan raises standards for the protection of the most sensitive marine species and habitats, allows for more community-scale wind energy development, creates a formal role for regional planning authorities in wind energy planning, and outlines a five-year, $2.5 million dollar research plan to be pursued in partnership with, and funded by, the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership, a private nonprofit group.

“The final ocean plan is the culmination of more than a year of assembling the best available science and engaging stakeholders to develop a far-ranging and precedent-setting blueprint for managing our ocean waters,” Mr. Bowles said.

The final ocean management plan provides a comprehensive framework for managing, reviewing, and permitting proposed uses of state waters, according to state officials. Previously, development in state waters has been handled on an ad hoc basis. The plan provides a roadmap for both environmental protection and sustainable use of ocean resources going forward.

Beginning this month, state agencies will implement the plan by undertaking public rule-making to bring existing environmental regulations into compliance with the increased protection required by the final plan, EEA said. In addition, EEA will continue to work with the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership and the Science Advisory Council to implement the five-year research plan. This research agenda will ensure that the Commonwealth continues to address the most pressing management and science issues identified in this final plan, including the need to fully characterize marine habitats, identify and respond to the cumulative impacts of human uses and climate change, and carefully monitor the ocean system to track the effectiveness of management measures.

As part of this effort, EEA will continue to engage stakeholders and the public in the development and review of new information and any modifications to the plan. Also, on an annual and ongoing basis, EEA will monitor the success of the plan by measuring actual performance against formally defined indicators developed as part of the science framework.