Special allowances for wind-energy systems might seem like a no-brainer in an overtly “green” town like Fenwick Island has been in recent years, but town council members paused this week to really delve into the logistics of wind turbines in a residential area.
The Town of Fenwick Island, known for its Environmental Committee and ahead-of the-curve residents who are outspoken on everything from recycling to the Indian River power plant’s coal-ash pile, put its collective foot down on tall wind turbines at their public hearing and council meeting on Friday, Aug. 28, capping the town’s allowable height for turbines at a firm 33 feet – just 3 feet higher than the town’s overall maximum building height.
There were six exasperated “aye” votes to pass the ordinance and one very unhappy “nope.”
Todd Smallwood, the lone dissenter, said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for the ordinance, even with a cap of 33 feet. In its original state, the ordinance had the height limit for wind turbines set at 40 feet. By way of comparison, the newly erected wind turbine and tower at Nantucket’s restaurant, which is just outside of town limits, is 53 feet high.
“I’ll take the arrow here,” said Smallwood, a member of the town’s Environmental Committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Center for the Inland Bays, and an avid recycler.
“I don’t want to act anti-green,” he emphasized. “But we have kept the 30-foot height limits as sacred. And the one at Nantucket’s is an eyesore. I don’t like it. It’s a visual blight on our town.”
Citing the state’s recently enacted, albeit vague, law that states that municipalities, county government and home owners’ associations cannot enact new bans on wind- and solar-energy systems, Smallwood said, “We can certainly hold our ground on the 30-foot height limit.
“And it’s not our fault if they don’t work” at that height,” he said. “It’s not our problem.”
The standard for residential wind turbines is that they be installed 6 to 8 feet above nearby structures in order to catch winds and work efficiently.
Smallwood noted that he has also called four manufacturers about the systems’ requirements, and all recommended a lot size of at least a half-acre.
During discussion of the ordinance, Mayor Audrey Serio mentioned the exception for solar panels that had been made to the town’s height limit. They can be 36 inches, or 3 feet, above the 30-foot building height restriction, and she asked why the town might disallow turbines if they made an exception for the panels.
“It’s two totally different things,” countered Smallwood. “It’s 3 feet on a flat-panel roof to a free-standing 40-foot windmill.”
As written, the ordinance specifies that the base of a wind turbine’s tower has to be set back from all property lines, public rights-of-way and public utility lines at least a distance equal to 1.1 times the total height of the tower, in addition to the 33-foot height cap. As it stands, there a only a handful of lots in the town that would be able to meet all those requirements.
Serio said the purpose of the ordinance was to have something on the books.
“We had to start somewhere,” she said.
Former Mayor Pete Frederick brought up several points during the public hearing, which was held right before the monthly council meeting. He asked if the Sussex County Association of Towns was responding to the state law in some way, and he encouraged Fenwick Island to be “a part of that.” Frederick said he questioned whether the state had the right to “dictate to municipalities regarding the safety of their residents.”
He also brought up a proposed communications tower that, if it had been built, would have exceeded the town’s height limit and was ultimately scrapped for other reasons. And he asked about chimney height restrictions.
“If 1.1,” he asked, citing the distance a tower must be from property lines, rights-of-way and utilities, “why not 2?”
“We are not drafting it to prevent turbines,” emphasized Councilman Bill Weistling Jr. “If we say 2, we might as well not draft it. It would be virtually impossible.”
“Why would we want to do that?” asked Serio.
“To make sure you don’t end up with turbines on every lot,” answered Frederick.
“The whole purpose is to protect property owners, and if they are going to install it, to try to make it work. We need to get something that protects our residents who want to put one up and also protects the neighbors.," said Mayor Serio.
Even though several of the council members talked about changing the height limit from 40 feet to 33 feet, Smallwood was unwavering in his discontent with the ordinance.
“Seems now like we are just passing it to pass it,” he said.
“We need to proceed. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for it,” replied Weistling.
Resident Lynn Andrews spoke on the subject and thanked Smallwood for “taking the arrow.”
Councilwoman Diane Tingle said she had heard lots of positive statements about the turbine at Nantucket’s, adding that people have said to her, “What a beautiful sight.”
“Not everybody’s anti-windmill,” she added.
Ultimately, the council decided to pass the ordinance but changed the maximum height allowed from 40 feet to 33 feet.