No Fight? Vineyard Wind Opponents Ask What's Left In Battle To Stop Offshore Wind Farms

Brian Bushard •

Offshore Wind Farm Kit Noble Photo 1
One of Vineyard Wind's turbines southwest of Nantucket. Photo by Kit Noble

As Vineyard Wind continues to construct its 62 offshore turbines 15 miles southwest of Nantucket, a group of island residents challenging the wind farm in multiple lawsuits and town hearings have turned to a simple question: whether there’s anything left in Nantucket’s arsenal to stop the 800 megawatt project off the island’s south shore.

“It really saddens me to see everybody give up so easily,” Val Oliver, founding director of ACK For Whales, said at a Nantucket Planning & Economic Development Commission (NP&EDC) meeting on Monday. “We’re becoming more and more willing to concede anything we have because that’s the way the government is telling us to do things and they’re not always right.”

The only part of the massive offshore wind farm within Nantucket’s jurisdiction is a sliver of Vineyard Wind’s undersea cable connecting the turbines to the power grid in Barnstable, which the Conservation Commission approved in 2019. While other commissions in other municipalities have voted on small segments of the project, all major decisions have been in the hands of the federal government.

“We are in an unusual spot,” NP&EDC member Nat Lowell said. “You’re just a tiny fish in a huge pond trying to fix this. We can’t extend the geotubes [in Sconset] but we can have this, no problem.”

Oliver’s concern comes just weeks ahead of her citizen petitions for the May 7th Annual Town Meeting calling on town officials to withdraw from the so-called Good Neighbor Agreement with Vineyard Wind and requiring the Select Board to obtain future Town Meeting support from voters before signing any future agreements with offshore wind developers.

The Select Board signed the Good Neighbor Agreement in August 2020 in a first-of-its-kind deal for the island to provide $16 million in funding for preservation initiatives, including the $4 million already doled out as an initial mitigation payment last November. That agreement, which was brokered by the town’s special counsel, Cultural Heritage Partners, and made in partnership with the Nantucket Preservation Trust and Maria Mitchell Association, also required Vineyard Wind to paint its turbines a non-reflective shade of white and install a type of aircraft lighting system that only activates when aircraft are close by—in return for the town’s support for the wind farm.

Select Board Chair Dawn Hill Holdgate, who served on the board when it signed the agreement, defended the deal amid pushback that it would not be enough to offset potential environmental and aesthetic side effects. Holdgate’s argument rests on the fact that the lease site in federal waters where the Vineyard Wind project is located was awarded to the developer at the federal level.

“It was not done under the cover of Covid,” Holdgate told the Current. “It was not done in any way that didn’t put this out to the public at the time that it could be put out. There are some things in this that do tie our hands. Our leverage was about being a historic landmark.”

Since that agreement was signed, Vineyard Wind has faced a gauntlet of legal hurdles.

ACK For Whales, the citizens’ group formerly known as ACK RATs (Residents Against Turbines), filed a lawsuit in 2021 claiming the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management violated the U.S. Environmental Policy Act in its approval of the 62-turbine project, arguing the wind farm would compromise Nantucket’s national designation as a historic landmark, pose an ecological hazard in the waters southwest of Nantucket, and threaten the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

That suit was dismissed last May by a federal judge who claimed the plaintiffs failed to show that federal officials violated environmental law in their approval. ACK For Whales appealed that decision four months later to the First Circuit Court of Appeals where it remains pending.

Opponents’ concern is now not exclusive to Vineyard Wind, but the more than 10 other federal lease sites south of Nantucket that make up a mosaic of offshore wind farms. One of those developments, Avangrid’s New England Wind, received a key federal stamp of approval for a site southeast of Nantucket earlier this month, making it the eighth commercial wind farm approved under President Joe Biden’s administration.

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While on paper the bulk of the opposition has centered on the protection of the North Atlantic right whale, Nantucket residents have also pushed back on the visibility of the turbines themselves. Since the first was installed last October, the 850-foot-tall turbines have become a common sight along many of Nantucket's south shore beaches, where they can be seen clearly with the naked eye. 

Vineyard Wind communications director Andrew Doba told the Current late last year that the Aircraft Detection Lighting System will be set up once construction is finished, and that until then, the project will utilize Federal Aviation Administration-approved lights that he said “operate at low levels and will not be visible from the shore.”

“I know no one likes the answer that we can’t do anything, that it’s a cop out—but we mobilized to get the best decision for the community, the best mitigation we can,” Holdgate said.

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