NEWPORT — The Newport Cliff Walk, meandering 3½ miles along the Rhode Island coast, draws more than 1.2 million visitors each year, according to the city of Newport. This scenic trail links the city’s Gilded Age mansions on one side, and on the other, seafaring ships gracefully navigate rows of tall whitecaps.
The spot is perfect for unforgettable snapshots, but those memories could soon include clusters of offshore wind turbines.
On Nov. 22, Cultural Heritage Partners filed four separate federal complaints alleging that the industrialization of the ocean near Newport and Block Island could cost the communities billions of dollars in lost tourism revenue during the wind farms’ 30-year project life.
The municipalities of Newport and New Shoreham, where the preservation groups are located, are not part of the legal action.
The lawsuits were filed just two days after full federal approval was granted to the 100-turbine Revolution Wind Farm to build 100 turbines 12.7 miles from Little Compton, R.I., and 15 miles from Block island.
The South Fork Wind Farm, approved in January 2022, will add 12 turbines 15 miles southeast of Block Island, and supply power to New York. It will be built near the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind farm in the United States.
Revolution Wind will have an estimated capacity of 704 megawatts of clean energy, capable of powering nearly 250,000 homes in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
These wind farms off Rhode Island’s coast were developed by Danish-owned multinational energy company Ørsted, which plans to build close to 500 offshore farms over the next three decades.
Cultural Heritage Partners says that Ørsted’s own study shows that coastal communities in view of wind farms could see a 15 percent reduction in tourism. That could mean tourism losses of $5.17 billion for Newport and $1.51 billion for Block Island, according to the law firm.
The projected economic impacts don’t account for inflation, property value, taxes, or permanent job losses, according to Greg Werkheiser, Cultural Heritage Partners’ attorney.
Claire O’Brien, Cultural Heritage Partners’ preservation practice coordinator, said in an email that the Preservation Society of Newport County and Southeast Lighthouse Foundation “support offshore wind,” but Ørsted’s latest projects were designed without adequately considering community losses.
O’Brien said the complaints are needed to restart the permitting process.
As part of the Block Island Wind Farm proposal, expensive broadband fiber was negotiated to deliver high-speed internet to the Town of New Shoreham, and the island was able to replace an old diesel-burning power station with wind energy.
While some island residents are thrilled over the new benefits, the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation’s enthusiasm has waned in the last six months due to concerns over wind farms cluttering views of the ocean from the lighthouse.
After filing the complaints, Cultural Heritage Partners said it received numerous questions about the preservation groups’ appeals and developed web page to answer frequently asked questions.
The FAQ page, along with the complaints, allege that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management fast-tracked wind farm permits under “intense political pressure,” and skipped steps without considering requirements for development impacts.
BOEM has not responded to the Globe’s request for comment.
Giovanni Rocco, an Interior Department spokesperson, said the agency had “nothing” to say about the federal complaint.
Unlike the Block Island Wind Farm, the Revolution Wind and South Fork are not offering any big-ticket benefits for affected communities. The lawsuits allege that “nonsensical” measures such as “weed-whacking the Lighthouse parking lot,” were offered.
O’Brien said it is not uncommon for conditions to be developed during the environmental review process. Examples include the $91 million offered by Dominion Energy to mitigate visual impacts of massive transmission lines across the James River near a National Historic Landmark in Jamestown, Virginia.
“If Dominion had to mitigate $91 million for just a few transmission towers and no economic impacts, what should Orsted and other developers pay for 457 turbines — 599 for Block Island — for both views and economic impacts,” asked Werkheiser, Cultural Heritage Partners’ attorney.
One option the preservation groups’ complaint suggests is reducing the number of turbines nearest to Newport County, or creating a mitigation fund for Block Island to address economic impacts of the expected loss of tourism, on which more than 8,000 local jobs depend, according to Cultural Heritage Partners.