Cape Cod panel denies permit for wind farm
By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff | October 19, 2007
BARNSTABLE - A proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm that has garnered international attention went before its toughest arbiter yesterday - the locals - and lost, as a commission charged with protecting Cape Cod's natural resources denied the project a permit.
The Cape Cod Commission's decision, which Cape Wind Associates vowed to challenge, poses another obstacle to the long-delayed project and deepened the divide between passionate advocates on both sides of the issue.
Although the wind farm would be located in federal waters - outside the reach of most state and local agencies - the project's transmission lines and other supporting networks pass through land where state and local governments have jurisdiction, leading to a series of other environmental reviews.
The Cape Cod Commission has a role to play because the Legislature has given it power over any local development large enough to require a state environmental permit.
Cape Wind Associates, which first proposed its renewable energy project in Nantucket Sound in 2001, needs the permit that the commission denied, but could appeal to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board to override the local decision.
Because the commission issued only a procedural denial, based on a lack of information, Cape Wind could also return to the panel with an offer to satisfy its requests.
Cape Wind officials declined to say after the hearing which route they would take, but wind farm allies made it clear they did not believe the commission would ever be satisfied.
During yesterday's sometimes heated public hearing in the basement of a court building, a spokeswoman for the wind farm's supporters alleged that the commission was being bought off by powerful monied interests on the Cape - and led a walkout of at least a dozen wind farm allies.
Several pointed to a disparity between the commission's intense interest in the intricacies of Cape Wind's transmission lines and its decision not to weigh in on a new Nantucket electric line running through the same area of the seabed.
"In taking this regrettable step, the commission is providing the people of the Cape all the evidence they need to know that the commission has been captured by a few special interests with enough money to buy just about anything they want, including the government agency intended to protect us all," said Barbara Hill, executive director of Clean Power Now, a nonprofit grass-roots group that supports Cape Wind and staged the walkout.
Commission member William Doherty, who represents Barnstable County, issued an angry response, arguing that the accusation had no basis in fact. Hill did not elaborate on what she was referring to.
Wind farm opponents have long tried to raise local outrage at the idea that a for-profit developer could seize the Cape's natural resources for industrial development, however environmentally friendly. Yesterday, several speakers emphasized that theme, some contending that an off-Cape developer should be treating a powerful local commission with more respect.
Speakers and commissioners asserted that Cape Wind Associates had snubbed the commission's requests for more time and information to review the project, making it impossible for the panel to conduct a thorough analysis of whether the development met its standards.
When the commission asked for more time this summer to review the permit, Cape Wind agreed to only a two-week extension to the time frame laid out by state statute.
"If Cape Wind is not willing to accommodate the citizens of Cape Cod through the appointed board, the Cape Cod Commission that has the regulatory authority to judge the project, how much confidence should we have in Cape Wind . . . that they will indeed stand behind what they are doing?" asked Doherty.
The Cape Cod Commission has a reputation for being extremely stringent in assessing developers' plans. While wind farm advocates argued that the panel was applying higher thresholds than it had in other cases in order to thwart a controversial project, opponents charged that the developer should have been better prepared and properly deferential.
"Cape Wind regards this commission as superfluous, as powerless, and without the authority to review even the most fundamental questions" that the Legislature empowered the commission to review, alleged Charles McLaughlin, assistant attorney for the Town of Barnstable, which officially opposes the wind farm.
The project is still awaiting a draft environmental impact report from the US Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service, expected next month. A final decision from that agency - the last major hurdle - is not expected for another year. But lawsuits have dogged every stage of the six-year process, with more possibly stemming from yesterday's decision.
Jim Gordon, Cape Wind president, said the fight is "absolutely not" over.
"It's a disappointing decision that delays important renewable energy benefits for Massachusetts citizens," he said.
"We have been diligently working on this project for over six years, and we're committed to moving the project forward and ensuring that Massachusetts becomes a global leader in offshore renewable energy."