County allows wind-power devices as permitted use

Sussex County property owners can now apply for a permit to erect a windmill or wind turbine on their properties, even if it’s a piece of land the size of a standard residential lot.

Sussex County Council members voted unanimously on Tuesday, Sept. 13, to change county ordinances that previously required at least 5 acres of land in order to erect a wind-power device without a special-use exception from the county’s Board of Adjustments.

Under state law adopted in 2010, local governments and community associations were no longer allowed to require special approvals in order to allow such installations, as a way to ease the process for property owners aiming to go green or save on their power bills. However, the County held that its existing 5-acre minimum lot size remained in place, and absent changes to state law, they could not continue the prior process of allowing applications for special-use exceptions for smaller parcels.

That left would-be windmill owners and installers in Sussex County in a quandary – they couldn’t get a permit to install a wind turbine on a standard residential parcel without a special-use exception, and they couldn’t even ask for such an exception.

That all changed on Tuesday, when the council adopted a new ordinance that eliminates the minimum parcel size for installing a wind-power device and merely limits property owners to a single such device on any given parcel, provided it is properly installed and maintained.

The change makes the structures a permitted accessory use within residential areas and other zoning districts. Applicants no longer will need board approval, just a county building permit.

The new ordinance also sets new requirements for those installing windmills. The application for a permit must contain an engineering certification for the wind-power device, and the device, once installed, is subject to inspection. Additionally, the device must be installed as far back from each property line as the height of the tower plus the length of one blade – an industry-standard setback.

“This tightens the process and puts the County in sync with State law,” County Administrator David B. Baker said on Tuesday. “We wanted to make sure the County has the appropriate controls in place so those who want windmills can have them, while still taking into consideration the public’s safety and best interests. We believe this new ordinance does that.”

The new rules took effect immediately.

The ordinance saw one minor amendment during discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting, adding examples of different terminology that could be used to refer to wind-power devices, including windmills, wind turbines, wind-power generators, wind-power systems and more.

The council held off on making another change council members appeared to support, citing that it would require the ordinance approval process to begin over again if it was made now. Instead, the council plans to consider amending ordinances at a later date that would separately govern would-be wind-farm installations.

“It wasn’t our intent to create a wind farm,” Planning Director Lawrence Lank said on Sept. 13, “but we may need to reference that a certain number [of turbines] on a given property would be a utility, and would need to go through the process.”

Councilman George Cole asked assistant county attorney Patrick Vanderslice to confirm that the county’s new ordinance wouldn’t override existing deed restrictions within private communities. He said it would not.

While the State prohibited any new ordinances being drafted on the local level or any new deed restrictions limiting property owners’ ability to erect wind-power systems, it did not wipe away existing restrictions. Those communities that already have such restrictions have been allowed to have them remain in place, regardless of the county’s new ordinance.

Cole also asked about how the County will deal with wind-power devices that are abandoned.

“I’m aware of two houses that have windmills and they’re not even working,” Cole noted.

Vanderslice said the ordinance requires property owners who cease using their windmills to generate electricity to remove the above-ground elements within 12 months of ceasing the use. A property owner whose windmill is spotted by county inspectors in an idle condition can be asked to provide proof it is still in operation.

Lank noted that he would have preferred to require property owners to provide certification of proper installation and maintenance from a device’s manufacturer or an engineer, rather than having county staff responsible for inspections, since county staff members are laypersons in the field. Cole suggested the County could have staff take training in the technology to ensure thorough inspections.

The devices must also comply with existing height restrictions and lighting and airport-related regulations. A wind turbine that is not attached to a building must not be climbable for at least the first 12 feet above the ground level, unless it is surrounded by a fence with a minimum height of 6 feet.

Additionally, installations involving more than one turbine or a total turbine height of between 100 and 200 feet, or intended for non-residential use, are still restricted to parcels of at least 5 acres. Those installations also require a professional study to analyze the noise levels generated at nearby residences and the duration of shadow flicker on those neighbors.

To view the ordinance, visit the Ordinances section under Online Services on the County Web site at