Corps Hearings Begin Monday on Nantucket Sound Wind Farm

By IAN FEIN

Vineyard residents who want to weigh in on the controversial wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound will have their best chance when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its entourage arrive on-Island Monday for the first of four regional public hearings.

The Vineyard hearing will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center. Registration for those who want to speak begins at 5 p.m.

Supporters and opponents of the proposal - which aims to build 130 turbines over 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal - have spent the last few weeks rallying turnout for the event, which is expected to attract media coverage from across the region and possibly even abroad.

"It's an important moment for public participation," said Mark Rodgers, communications director for the developer, Cape Wind Associates. "It's an opportunity for the folks on the Island, regardless of what their take on the project is, to be able to speak out and offer their thoughts and suggestions to the regulatory agencies," he added.

"We're putting the action alert out," said Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a Cape-based nonprofit that formed in response to the wind farm proposal. "It's time for people that are worried about this project to make their concerns heard. The Army Corps has really just one opportunity for public comment, and that time is now."

The Army Corps will accept written comments through Feb. 24, but Monday's forum offers an opportunity for Island residents to voice their opinions before some of the project's biggest players. Cape Wind president James Gordon is expected to attend, as well as Army Corps district commander Col. Thomas Konig, who will make the final permitting decision. Because the proposed location is in federal waters more than three miles offshore, the Army Corps is the lead regulatory authority for the project.

"If you want to say something right to their face, here's your opportunity," Army Corps spokesman Tim Dugan said this week. "You can talk to some of the key people before or after the hearing - the people who are making the decisions."

If approved, the $700 million project would be the nation's first offshore wind farm. The closest turbine to the Island would be about five and a half miles northeast of Cape Pogue and nine miles from Edgartown. Cape Wind estimates the wind farm would produce an average annual output of about 170 megawatts, enough electricity to power roughly three-quarters of the Cape and Islands.

Debate intensified following the long-awaited release of the Army Corps' draft environmental impact statement on Nov. 9. After nearly three years of review, the draft found that the project would have air quality and economic benefits and little or no long-term negative environmental effects aside from marring some scenic views.

The draft's release triggered the upcoming hearings and public review period, when people are encouraged to point out things that the Army Corps may have overlooked in its draft statement. After the comment period closes on Feb. 24, the Army Corps and its 16 cooperating agencies will conduct any further review they deem necessary and then prepare a final impact statement. The final statement will be followed by a 30-day review period before the Army Corps can decide whether to issue a permit, though additional public hearings are not required.

"We're still in the middle of the process, and this is not necessarily the last chance, but it's a good opportunity to weigh in on any significant concern," Mr. Dugan said. "You don't want to wait until the last day to say, ‘Hey, you forgot about this.'"

Mr. Dugan said written and oral comments will be incorporated equally into the Army Corps' formal record, but he noted that people often prefer to make their comments at the public hearing and to listen to what other people have to say.

He stressed that Monday's hearing will not be an opportunity for debate or discussion. Speakers will be held to a two-to-five minute time limit, depending on how many people register, and questions will be entered into the record, but not answered at the hearing.

"It's basically a one-way hearing; we just take testimony," Mr. Dugan explained. "It's not a two-way street with questions back and forth. The panel is not there to answer questions."

Moderated by Army Corps chief of public affairs Larry Rosenberg, the hearing will begin with a quick overview of the proposed project, as well as explanations of the Army Corps and state jurisdictions, before the floor is opened to public comment.

According to Army Corps protocol, oral testimony will be heard in a specific order: beginning with members of Congress, followed by the state governor, other elected state officials, local elected officials, and then representatives of federal, state and local agencies before the general public.

Members of the general public will speak in the order in which they register. If time runs out before all of those registered have a chance to speak, the Army Corps will provide another opportunity for them to make oral testimony.

The Army Corps encourages people to speak at only one event, freeing up the floor for local residents. Mr. Dugan said he does not expect Monday's hearing to be as crowded as the one on the Cape the following day. Others think the Vineyard forum may attract a lot of attention because it is the first public hearing.

"It's hard to gauge turnout," Ms. Nickerson said. "This is the most significant chance people will have to speak out, so we're hoping they pick up on the urgency. But it's hard to predict what the outcome will be."

The Army Corps will hold additional public hearings Tuesday in West Yarmouth and Wednesday on Nantucket. The fourth and final hearing will be held in Cambridge the following week.

Written comments may be e-mailed to wind.energy@usace.army.mil or mailed to Cape Wind Energy Project EIS manager Karen K. Adams, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District, Regulatory Division, 696 Virginia Road, Concord, MA 01742-2751.