Second windmill ordinance ready to go to public hearings

Sussex County could make additional changes to its ordinances regarding windmills and other wind-power devices in the coming weeks, with amendments to the recently approved policy coming before the council in draft form this week.

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, council members heard from outgoing County Administrator David Baker and Planning Director Lawrence Lank about the draft language created as a result of the council’s discussion at their last meeting, as well as from wind-power experts who advised them to make further changes before adopting the new set of regulations.

Baker said the new draft language would increase the allowance for windmills and other such devices from one per parcel of less than 5 acres to up to three windmills on a parcel of less than 5 acres, so long as each windmill is less than 50 feet in height. That change was recommended by experts in the field during prior discussions, when it was noted that some residential wind-power installations these days are using multiple, often smaller, device that may be erected at roof height, for instance.

The draft ordinance, Baker said, also includes other restrictions that are already in state law on wind-power devices, such as prohibiting advertising or decorative items on turbines or their supports, requiring new electric lines (not including a disconnect) be put underground, and requiring that devices erected within 200 feet of a building on the national register of historic places be buffered with shrubbery and such.

The other major change proposed in the draft ordinance applies to parcels of greater than 5 acres in size. The ordinance would aim to clarify that there is a limit on the number of windmills that can be erected on a larger parcel, closing the door on the possibility of wind farms being erected without direct county approval.

Under the draft language, there would be a stated limit of one windmill per 5 acres or five windmills for larger parcels, no matter their size. If a property owner wanted to erect more than five wind-power devices on a given parcel, they would have to apply to the county for a variance to the ordinance, or for a special or conditional use from the county council that would approve use of the parcel as a power-generation utility. Whether the county would use one or both of those approval processes was unclear this week.

The limit of five windmills is intended to permit such uses as wind-powered electricity for individual chicken houses or barns on an agricultural property, while preventing someone from erecting windmills primarily for generating electricity for off-site use without county approval. Baker said there had been some concerns that it might not be clear in the ordinance that there was a limit on the number of smaller windmills – those less than 50 feet tall, including the height of the tower plus the length of one blade.

The draft ordinance also seeks to address such concerns in the county’s industrial districts, particularly dealing with windmills that might be 200 feet tall or higher, so the language limiting larger parcels to five windmills was to be mirrored in that section of code, as well.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver asked Lank about the point at which an application would be categorized as a utility. He said it would be based on the number of wind-power devices being requested.

“We could add another section of code to reference a public utility,” he said, noting that water, sewer and electric installations are already defined as utilities under county code, “and we could also include utility/wind-farm and even utility/solar-farm.”

Councilman George Cole said he would consider a use a utility if it was providing power for use off-site, as opposed to use on-site, for example, on a chicken farm, “where it’s mostly used on the farm. A utility has a public benefit,” he said, adding that it would likely be used by a number of users, as opposed to just one.

“I’d be hard-pressed to believe a utility would put up five,” Council President Michael Vincent noted, saying he believed a real utility would put up more than just five windmills.

Cole said he was satisfied with requiring approval for more than five windmills per parcel. “The ordinance still provides for a public hearing where people can speak out,” he said. “We’ll have enough of a chance to look at it if it is more than five.”

Lank also pointed out that the existing state law appears to be intended only to address residential properties. Adding a county-wide limit of five windmills per parcel on larger parcels – and two or three for smaller ones – would address concerns about the number of windmills on non-residential parcels, he said.

Despite the increasing trend toward renewable energy sources and increasing demand for wind-power devices in the area, Councilman Sam Wilson predicted the trend wouldn’t last.

“I think they’re going to find out that wind [farms] aren’t going to be very profitable,” he said. “It’s been proven these windmills are not profitable, as private citizens. Anyone who buys one will soon find they’ve had enough of them. It won’t be profitable. They’re losers,” he said.

“They will be [profitable] if oil is $400 a barrel,” put in Councilman Vance Phillips.

Asked by Wilson about the previous generation of windmills installed in the county, Lank said they had generally been up for six to eight years and had then been taken down.

“Keep in mind, Mr. Wilson’s opinions are his opinions,” Cole cautioned.

Greg Minoche of Dagsboro, who works in the wind-power field, said he didn’t take offense at Wilson’s viewpoints, though he did disagree. He also had advice for the council as work begins to fine-tune the new ordinance through public hearings.

“We’re trying to capture as much wind as possible,” he said, noting concerns about the 50-foot height limit for multiple wind-power devices on a given parcel. “The smallest tower I can purchase now is 45 feet, with a 6-foot blade. … By the time you add the foundation, you’ve already exceeded 50 feet.

“We were all trying to get this through,” he said of the recent change in county code that eliminated the need for a variance approval for parcels smaller than 5 acres. “It had put a total stop to my business. Now, you’re going to limit my business by putting in a 50-foot limit.”

Minoche pointed out the wind turbine at Delaware Tech’s Georgetown campus, which he said has a 60-foot tower.

“Usually, with a residential installation, you’re looking at a 45-foot system,” he said. “At 57 feet, you’re still under 60 feet, and that would allow the industry to use what’s out there to try to capture as much wind as possible.”

Cole asked if changing the limit from 50 to 60 feet would cover most residential uses. Minoche said it would.

“My manufacturer realized that a 35-foot pole wasn’t capturing enough. By changing to 45 feet, you capture that much more energy,” he said.

The council on Tuesday also considered the issue of how it handles changes in ordinances once they are introduced, since the day’s discussion – as well as the public hearing process – is likely to yield changes in what had been drafted and proposed for introduction this week.

County Attorney Everett Moore said his interpretation of state law – “a strict reading” – would allow the council to make any changes that do not require a change to the “short title” of the ordinance as advertised. That could include changing the heights specified in the draft ordinance.

“It gives people public notice so they can come and discuss amendments to those sections,” he said of the short title.

Moore said the council’s prior policy of not making changes to ordinances after their introduction that would make them more restrictive had been “a very conservative approach.” He said he had discussed it with the council’s prior legal counsel but had determined that, as long as the final ordinance remained “within the scope” of the short title advertised, the changes could be made after introduction.

Phillips said that, with that legal advice, he was comfortable introducing the ordinance and expecting changes might be made during the public hearing process. No date was set for such hearings as of mid-week.

Redistricting ordinance set to go to hearings

Also set to go to public hearings in the near future is the county’s redistricting plan. Moore told council members on Tuesday that he had completed work on the ordinance that puts the proposed district maps into written language for potential adoption, and that it could, if they wish, be introduced by the council and moved forward into public hearings.

Cole asked Moore about what he had learned about areas of Millville and Ocean View that were annexed into the towns in recent years and had not been included in the respective Millville- and Ocean View-area voting districts under the proposed zoning, something which Cole had previously expressed concern about.

Moore said no changes were being recommended to those areas, though the issue Cole had noted was, in fact, the case.

“It’s creating a problem with the election districts,” he explained, saying the changes could not be made because of how the county districts overlap with state voting districts. “It created a pocket in an election district,” Moore said of the changes that would have been needed to address Cole’s concern, and that of Deaver about a section of Ellendale, where the same phenomenon occurred under proposed redistricting.

Public hearings on the maps and ordinance are also planned for the near future.

Housing rehab grant process begins

Community Development Director Bill Lecates was joined by staff member Brad Whaley on Tuesday to report on the county’s community development and housing rehabilitation grant program for the 2012 funding cycle.

Lecates, who recently received an award honoring his work with the program, said public hearings on the annual community development block grants program (CDBG) were due to begin in the next few months. The program, he said, has been used to assist low- and moderate-income home owners with rehabilitation work, to help them keep their homes up to code, since the 1980s.

The program averages about $1 million in funding each year and, along with home rehabilitation, can also be used to fund sewer and water hookups. The properties funded must be owner-occupied, and the county holds a lien on them for either five or 10 years after the grant, depending on the age of the owner, to ensure that the program gets repaid for the remaining value of the grant if the owner sells the property during that period.

The grant application process begins each October, with the County sending out letters to Sussex County’s municipalities, asking them “if they would like our assistance,” Lecates said. “We do it as a service to the towns and small community pockets throughout the county.”

Public hearings will be held in December and January, with any public comments being taken at that time. The grant applications will be written in January and February, choosing areas to target for the funding. In May, the state housing authority reviews the applications with a panel and decides which towns will get funding, and how much.

“We will do 15 to 17 applications, but not all will get funded,” he noted, adding that the final awards will be made in June.

Lecates said the 2012 process had a few new guidelines, formally giving applying entities “bonus points” for projects planned in certain Census tracts, which Lecates said were generally in areas with minority populations. He said Sussex County had managed to get those bonus points in the past, but the system was being formally instituted for the coming year.

Another change, he said, is that there will be no liens on properties receiving funds for water or sewer projects (most of which are already County projects) or for emergency home repairs when those grants are less than $3,500 – up from $2,500 in prior years, with the increase due to the increasing cost of the work.

Also changed this year is the way in which the program deals with manufactured housing. Rather than upgrading substandard manufactured homes for up to $15,000, and have them still not meet code, Lecates said the program would look to finance the purchase of newer models that had been lightly used as replacements for the dilapidated ones.

Whaley said the program mainly addresses substandard homes, which is a significant issue in Sussex County. He said there were more than 6,000 homes believed to be in need of repair, with more than 1,100 on a list for potential CDBG funding – 708 across the county and 400 more within municipalities. That’s a 32 percent increase in need since 2007, he noted, while funding for the program hasn’t grown much.

“We try to do the best we can,” he said.

Whaley said the age of housing stock – particularly of manufactured homes – was a primary reason for the need, while snow storms in recent years had also contributed a lot of damage. He said about 10 of the manufactured homes impacted by snow had collapsed completely, while more than 100 more had been damaged. Snow has also caused damage to a significant number of roofs, he noted, some of which was not seen immediately after the storms but was revealed later in leaks and other damage.

“The economy has caused a lot of the problems,” Whaley added. “It’s less likely that families are able to help family members out.” He noted that some applicants were also being kept from applying for the funding because they owe property taxes, which must be paid off before the projects can go forward.

The grants are doing rehabilitation work throughout the county, Whaley said, with significant portions of the funds going to Ellendale, Coverdale Crossroads, West Rehoboth, Pinetown and the Polly Branch community near Selbyville in recent years.

“It’s been done in every single town throughout the county,” he noted.

Funding ran about $1.3 million this year, across Sussex, and Whaley said 45 percent of those funds were already under contract or in progress.

Typical projects, Whaley said, included a new roof for the home of a single mother. “The home had been in the family for quite some time,” he noted. “Another, her grandfather had built the house in the 1940s, and trying to live in it in the state it was in was very hard. The contractors rehabbed it and now it’s very livable.”

Whaley also noted the county council’s contribution to the work, with money cleared in 2004 to use as emergency backup for the CDBG. That funding was increased to $60,000 – up from $30,000 last year. The council has designated $595,000 in direct funding and matching funding from administration of the projects since the program’s start, funding improvements for 108 households. The program has funded $16 million in projects in Sussex over the last 10 years.

Cole expressed his concerns about foreclosed properties in the county that are being allowed to deteriorate under bank ownership.

“Banks are letting them just sit there, and they’re deteriorating,” Lecates said.

“It’s just a Band-Aid on a huge problem,” Cole said of the effort.

“It’s definitely going to create more work. Costs will be higher in the future,” Lecates said of the impacts of foreclosures.

Deaver asked about the funding of septic projects through DNREC, noting a significant need in pockets of more than one parcel.

Lecates said the State of Delaware had historically advised the county to go to DNREC first for funding, but that funding comes through loans, which he said most of the CDBG applicants can’t afford. Doing all those projects with CDBG funding would wipe out all the funding available, he said, noting that one home alone had cost $25,000 to address the septic needs. That home, he said, was probably one of the last houses in Sussex County that didn’t have indoor plumbing.

Baker pointed out that the county does supplement such costs through its projects, but he said the county funds are limited and primarily go to major septic system repairs, on the basis of the home owners’ incomes.

“But if it’s a whole area, it makes more sense for us to apply for that whole area,” he acknowledged, asking Deaver for information on which communities she believed might need a larger solution.

Property owners in need of help with bringing their homes up to code can contact their town administration or, for residents of unincorporated areas, Lecates’ office, to get more information on whether they might qualify for CDBG funding.