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Wind Turbines (and Lawsuits) Are Coming to the Jersey Shore

The state is carrying out an ambitious offshore wind program as part of a plan to decarbonize its power grid. Some coastal residents don’t want to see it.

Standing on the sand at the New Jersey shore, you can see any number of things that aren’t the ocean. Depending on which beach you’re on, and which direction you’re facing, you might see an imposing water tower, a stately lighthouse, a neon Ferris wheel or an airplane dragging a billowing ad for the Wawa Hoagiefest as it flies past the beach.

One thing you can’t currently see is a wind turbine way out in the waves. But they’re coming, hundreds of them, and just a handful of miles from some of New Jersey’s most beloved beach resorts.

Shortly after he took office in 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order directing a handful of state agencies to implement an offshore wind program that the state Legislature had established in a 2010 law. Initial goals were to provide 3,500 megawatts of wind power to the state by 2030. Murphy later expanded the target to 7,500 megawatts by 2035, enough to power 3.2 million homes and provide half the state’s electricity, according to the governor’s office.

The state has since selected three offshore wind projects to be developed and is expecting to complete another solicitation early this year. Murphy has also expanded the target again, hoping to generate 11,000 megawatts by 2040 and reach 100 percent clean energy for New Jersey by 2050.

Offshore wind is broadly popular in New Jersey, with three quarters of respondents saying they support its expansion, according to one poll. But in the state’s coastal communities, a small opposition has been building for several years, with groups citing concerns about the industry’s impact on the fishing industry, marine wildlife and the tourism economy.

Among the opponents’ most salient concerns is the visibility of wind turbines from the shore. At a community meeting in Brigantine this month, Chris Placitella, a member of the group Save Long Beach Island, gave a 30-minute presentation on the visual impact of turbines, showing images and quoting from a construction plan submitted by Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind LLC, one of the groups selected to build a wind facility off the coast. Depending on weather conditions, the planned turbines will be visible from all sorts of iconic Jersey destinations, from beaches to wetlands and Lucy the Elephant in Margate, Placitella said.

Quoting from the report, Placitella said: “The navigation lights at night will become the focus of viewer attention and could change the character of the nighttime skies on the New Jersey coast …” Then he paused to lean into the microphone and add a word that doesn’t appear in the document: “... forever.”

The crowd booed.

Losing the View

Bob Stern started the group Save Long Beach Island (LBI) two years ago because he thought the visual impact of the proposed wind farms was being downplayed by the state and the developers.

“There were claims being made that the turbines would be barely or rarely visible. Just from our understanding of geometry and distances, we understood that wouldn’t be the case,” Stern says.
A map of the location of the New Jersey wind farm project, created by Ørsted a Danish firm that develops, constructs and operates offshore and onshore wind farms, as well as other renewable projects. (Ørsted)
After doing some calculations, Stern determined that the turbines would be “clearly visible from LBI almost all the time.” He started circulating a rendering and put an ad in the local paper to build awareness about the plans. “That raised concerns about not only the loss of the view, which a lot of people do prize, but also the impacts on the economy — whether it would result in less rentals, less tourism, and so on,” Stern says.

Save LBI and some other opposition groups, along with some local elected officials, say they support renewable energy but think the state is moving too quickly and ignoring local concerns. Around the Jersey Shore are signs and bumper stickers comparing the planned turbines to other global landmarks (they’d be about the size of the Eiffel tower to the tip of the highest blade) and saying, “Move them 35 miles out.”

A Rash of Whale Deaths

In the last few months, opposition to New Jersey’s offshore wind plans has gotten much louder, as a series of whales have washed up on its beaches at an unusual rate. Offshore wind opponents claim these whale deaths are connected to surveying and preparations that the companies are carrying out in the ocean before they begin construction. Save LBI recently put out a press release claiming there is “considerable circumstantial evidence” that the whale deaths are connected to offshore wind.

Scientists say the deaths are part of an “unusual mortality event” for humpback whales in the Atlantic Ocean that goes back to 2016, well before any offshore wind preparations were underway, and that boat strikes are the most common cause of deaths for whales at sea. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management requires “exclusion zones” around surveying vessels and trained “protected species observers” to monitor for marine mammals in areas where work is being done.

After opponents began claiming that the whale deaths were connected to offshore wind, a coalition of environmental groups held a press conference to say that they were not, and to reiterate that climate change is a far greater threat to the oceans than wind turbines are.

But the bell has been rung. Conservative TV pundit Tucker Carlson has been regularly claiming that the whale deaths are connected to offshore wind on his Fox News show. The House Judiciary Committee Republicans recently tweeted, “Joe Biden’s wind farms are killing whales along the east coast.” At the meeting in Brigantine, New Jersey state Sen. Vincent Polistina, a Republican, said the spate of whale strandings was “frightening” and that he believed there had to be some connection to offshore wind.

“Imagine if off the coast of Brigantine we were drilling for oil and you had one dead whale wash up,” he said. “Environmental groups would be strapping themselves to the oil rigs to prevent anything from happening.”

Brigantine Mayor Vince Sera, who hosted the meeting about offshore wind earlier this month, says the projects are going to “forever and drastically change the seascape,” but that community members’ concerns go beyond the projects’ visual impact. Brigantine has joined a group of other shore towns in calling for a moratorium on offshore wind, a call that has also been made by Republican members of Congress.

“I think the projects are too rushed, too close to shore, and I don’t think we understand the long-term environmental and economic impacts,” Sera says.

Lawsuits Likely 

Environmental groups say wind-energy opponents are being disingenuous when they claim to be concerned about whale deaths. The three most common human-related causes of whale deaths are boat strikes, abandoned fishing nets and plastic pollution, says Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters — but wind opponents haven’t called for more restrictions on the fishing industry or anti-pollution programs. Some of the groups too are funded by pro-fossil fuel organizations: Protect Our Coast New Jersey solicits donations on its website for the Caesar Rodney Institute, a think tank committed to stopping offshore wind projects all along the east coast.

“There is absolutely no connection between offshore wind development and the whale deaths,” Potosnak says. “They’re not afraid to say these lies over and over again. That doesn’t make them true.”

Opposition groups are gearing up to sue in hopes of stopping, pausing or moving the offshore wind projects. That’s what’s happened in Nantucket, where a group of local residents have filed a series of lawsuits attempting to stop the development of the Vineyard Wind offshore wind farm.

“We do not see any inclination on the part of the people in charge to change course, so what we’re pursuing at this point is basically litigation,” says Stern, of Save LBI.

For now, the state is firmly in the driver’s seat. In addition to Murphy’s executive orders, the state Legislature approved laws allowing state authorities to bypass certain local approvals when it’s “reasonably necessary” to pursuing the wind program. That has angered some local officials in places like Ocean City, where one of the wind companies is planning to run underground cables from the wind turbines to a power station on land. But it has allowed the Board of Public Utilities to approve certain property easements to keep the projects on track even in the face of local opposition.

It remains to be seen whether municipalities will attempt to join any legal actions against the state. A public information officer for Ocean City said in a statement to Governing that the city “will pursue whatever means is necessary to compel a credible review” of the board’s authority to grant the easements. In Brigantine, Mayor Sera says “every option is on the table.”

Independent groups are less circumspect about their intentions. Stern says that Save LBI would rather be able to negotiate the details of the implementation with state authorities, but doesn’t expect to have that opportunity. The group is likely to file a lawsuit after federal approval of an environmental impact statement. “I don’t see that as a real constructive way to do business, but if that’s what we’re relegated to … ” Stern says.

The group Defend Brigantine Beach is also preparing a lawsuit. At the community meeting in February, the group’s founders said they’d put up $10,000 to get the organization off the ground. And they solicited donations from the public to help pay the costs of eventual legal action. Concluding a presentation about the group’s work, Keith Moore asked for donations and left the audience with a question.

“What is your beach view worth?” he said.
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The Jersey shore on a winter's day. local residents fear offshore wind farms will blight the view. Some groups are pushing forward with lawsuits to force changes in the plans for the massive renewable energy projects. (Jared Brey/Governing)
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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