NARRAGANSETT — Town Council members said they respect Councilman Matthew Mannix’s commitment to make an informed decision about granting an easement to Deepwater Wind for a transmission line in Narragansett, but are concerned suspending negotiations until July 1 may hurt their ability to gain financial compensation.
The council voted to continue Mannix’s motion to suspend negotiations with Deepwater, but approved a motion to direct Town Solicitor Mark McSally to notify the state Coastal Resources Management Council the town has not reached an agreement with the company. Both votes were unanimous.
Deepwater Wind Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Grybowski sat in the audience during the discussion, but did not comment.
Deepwater has proposed a 30-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Block Island. It proposes to send excess capacity to the mainland via a transmission line that would land near Town Beach and run overhead from the Pier up Narragansett Avenue and Kingstown Road, through Sprague Park, to a switch yard north of the town’s Public Works maintenance garage. To do so, the company needs an easement from the town.
Mannix said issues associated with the proposed offshore wind farm have been raised since he joined the council, including potential impact on fishing habitats, the cost of utility rates and a lack of public openness.
“We have to show the voters that preserving and protecting the town is sometimes very difficult. We talk about the Gilbane fiasco, and Marie [Younkin-Waldman] had to form a group, Where Is the Town?” he said. “Twenty years from now, from what we’re hearing about Deepwater, I don’t want us to have a group that says, ‘Where is the beach?’”
Councilman Douglas McLaughlin asked Mannix what suspending the negotiations accomplishes. Mannix said each of the council members would have time to complete independent research and decide whether the project is beneficial to the town. McLaughlin said questions about the project’s logistics have already been answered, and only one detail remains.
“The only question now is how much are they going to pay us to come through our town and disrupt our town,” McLaughlin said. “Before we make that decision, everyone in this community is going to know what that package is. If I had my way – and I probably won’t – it would all go out to a referendum.”
Some residents applauded this remark, and Mannix said he agreed.
“By suspending we don’t have the opportunity to have the dialogue of what type of money, what type of wiring, what type of route,” Councilwoman Susan Cicilline-Buonanno said. “If we negotiate whatever the deal is and we don’t like it, we can walk away.”
Councilwoman Glenna Hagopian echoed Cicilline-Buonanno’s objections and said it appears the state has a vested interest in approving the project.
“These guys seem to have a lot of pump up from the State House with what they pulled with the [R.I. Public Utilities Commission],” Hagopian said. “I don’t want to be on the short end of that and not get anything in return.”
In March 2010, after National Grid agreed to purchase the excess energy from the wind farm, the PUC rejected the agreement unanimously because it was not “commercially reasonable.”
In the wake of the denial, the General Assembly passed amended laws to authorize National Grid and Deepwater to enter into a new purchase agreement. This agreement set a provision that if Deepwater’s “total facility costs” are less than “a current projection of $205,403,512,” the savings would be used to reduce National Grid’s cost to purchase the electricity. Recent projections put construction costs at $250 million. The amendments also changed the definition of “commercially reasonable.”
In its second – favorable – ruling, the PUC said, “[T]he General Assembly has instructed this Commission to accept the high cost of offshore wind technology for a project with limited economies of scale, so long as the slated costs, and [the power purchase agreement] pricing, terms and conditions, duly reflect those costs.” The PUC approved the agreement on a 2-1 vote in August 2010.
During public comment, former R.I. Attorney General James O’Neil, an opponent of the project, warned against negotiating with Deepwater in executive session.
“I would strongly urge you to involve the citizens in that discussion. This outfit plays for keeps,” O’Neil said. “It’s not about the green movement, it’s about the green buck movement.”
O’Neil and resident Robert Shields also addressed the contents of a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dated Feb. 8, during the Army Corps public comment period on the project.
Associate Regional Director Maryanne Gerbauckas, the letter’s author, said the park service has the responsibility “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” She cited concerns about impacts to the South East Lighthouse National Historical Landmark and other historic properties and districts.
Before any decisions are made or construction begins, the National Environmental Policy Act mandates environmental information is available to public officials and citizens, Gerbauckas wrote. She also called for a public hearing to solicit feedback impacts to National Register listed and eligible properties under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
Both O’Neil and Shields cited the emergence of this letter as evidence that information continues to be made public and must be considered before the council decides to grant Deepwater an easement.
O’Neil said their decision has state-wide ramifications.
“It means a lot, not just to the future of this town, but it means a lot to the credibility of this council and to the state of Rhode Island,” O’Neil said. “You have a chance to stand up and be counted, when others have just stood to the wayside.”
Reporter Derek Gomes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.