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Mass. Unveils Landmark Ocean-Management Plan

Tue January 12, 2010 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) Massachusetts has released the final version of a landmark ocean-management plan, creating a vast regulatory map for the state’s coastal waters and setting new limits for offshore wind farms.

The plan allows up to 266 wind turbines in state waters — 166 in two designated commercial wind farm areas and 100 more turbines scattered up and down the coast in smaller “community” projects — as the state tries to ramp up its renewable energy output.

Authorized by the state’s Oceans Act of 2008, the plan is designed to regulate development in state-controlled waters, which extend 3 mi. offshore.

It creates protected areas and prohibits development in state waters near the Cape Cod National Seashore.

The protected habitats include eelgrass beds and submerged rocky areas that provide shelter to some of the greatest marine biodiversity in the coastal waters. The plan also is designed to shield whale migratory paths and the habitats of endangered roseate terns.

Before the map, development in state waters had been handled piecemeal, said state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles.

State officials say the map is the first in the country with such a comprehensive scope. Other states, including California and New York, have adopted measures designed to protect offshore ecosystems. Rhode Island is working on its own coastal management plan.

President Barack Obama last year started a similar effort to draft a regulatory framework for federal waters — beyond the 3 mi. band of state waters.

Although the plan allows up to 266 turbines, Bowles said he doesn’t anticipate many of the community-based wind turbines being built — at least not soon — due to the high costs of siting and construction, although he acknowledged that technological improvements could bring those costs down.

The map parcels out the number of allowed community energy projects to each of the state’s seven regional planning authorities based on the length of shoreline and area of coastal waters. The plan also requires any project be endorsed by its host community.

Bowles said the final version of the map improves on an earlier version released in July in part by creating tougher protections for ecologically sensitive areas, which constitute nearly two-thirds of the state’s waters.

The final version sets a higher regulatory hurdle than the earlier version by requiring developers show that no environmental harm will come from proposed projects in those areas — or prove that the state’s data is wrong.

“It’s a much more difficult standard than was there before,” Bowles said.

Environmental groups praised the plan, saying it balances protection of vulnerable marine wildlife and habitats with responsible ocean uses.

“It’s a real victory for the ocean and everyone who depends on it,” said Priscilla Brooks of the Conservation Law Foundation. “The bar has been set very high.”

The map would do nothing to block the development of the 130-turbine Cape Wind project, the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm, to be located in federal waters off Nantucket Sound.

The plan establishes two new zones for commercial wind-energy projects south of Cuttyhunk Island near the southern end of the Elizabeth Islands and south of Nomans Land, off Martha’s Vineyard.

The plan gives local communities some say over the “appropriate scale” of any commercial wind farm in state waters.

The state also is forming a task force with the U.S. Minerals Management Service to coordinate the planning and review of large-scale wind-energy projects in adjacent federal waters.

The plan also sets out priorities for ocean management-related research over the next five years, including better ways to identify sensitive habitats and monitoring the effects of climate change in Massachusetts waters.

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