County considering inspection rules for turbines

With recently adopted state legislation removing much of local and county governments’ and home owners’ associations’ ability to prohibit the installation of wind turbines for power generation, even those who support wind power have been left wondering who — if anyone — is now enforcing requirements to keep those installations safe, and what exactly those requirements should be.

Sussex County Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin told county council members at their Aug. 11 meeting that he had spoken recently with Bob Light, CEO of Flexera — a solar- and wind-energy company based in Harbeson — about the county’s inspection procedures and the impact of the new state legislation on inspections.

Godwin said Light had called him because he had concerns about windmills being installed in the area that he thought might not be as well secured in the ground as manufacturers’ specifications call for.

“I explained that the state took away our regulatory power but that we still have an approval process. But we don’t have the manufacturers specifications or other regulations,” Godwin reported.

He said Light had recommended to him that the county should have something in its code that would specify what county officials overseeing wind-power installations would be inspecting for, particularly in regards to foundations.

Prior to the new state law, the Sussex County Board of Adjustments had been hearing a bevy of variance applications to permit property owners in non-incorporated areas of Sussex County to install wind turbines for power generation.

The state law enacted last month prohibits any new laws or rules that would prohibit free-standing installations on properties 1 acre or larger. The county, municipal and home owner association rules cannot be any more stringent in those cases then the state’s own.

“The Board of Adjustments is allowing them everywhere,” put in Councilman George Cole, “I guess, because it feels good to be allowing windmills.”

Godwin noted that while the ability to install a wind turbine on a property of at least an acre in size is now by-right as long as state regulations are followed, the requirements are even less stringent if the turbine is installed as part of a roof.

“We don’t have the ability to say no to someone who wants to build a windmill,” Godwin said of the instances involving an acre or more. “What we do have the responsibility for is an inspection. We do have a permit process, but we don’t have any requirements for the inspection.”

That issue, Godwin said, led to Light’s call.

“He said there was one near Rehoboth he suspected might not have enough footer under it and might blow over into traffic,” Godwin related.

Cole said he was concerned that might also be a risk for those living in residential areas where the wind turbines are affixed to roofs — spots with even lesser requirements.

“There was a rooftop one near me that didn’t stay fixed to the house — and, again, no inspection,” Cole said. “A lot of people aren’t going to appreciate this state law saying you have to have them in these tightly-knit communities.” (The county council voted to oppose the new law, on the grounds that it too severely limited local oversight.)

Godwin said the county could rely upon or refer to manufacturers’ specifications for installation of wind turbines to create detailed inspection requirements, but that may also entail the county writing an entire new chapter of its code, just to detail those requirements.

Council President Vance Phillips said he felt there was a consensus from the council on Tuesday that such code be developed.

Godwin emphasized that Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Colin O’Mara had made it clear in speaking about the new state law that Delaware’s county governments would still have the responsibility to inspect and permit wind-turbine installations but would not have control of zoning issues.

What is not yet clear, county officials said, is whether the county’s existing variance process under the Board of Adjustment, which has frequently been used to permit wind-turbine installation in residential areas, is still needed or even permitted.

The county solicitor said the county still needs clarification as to whether the BoA can still offer a waiver for properties of less than an acre. He said county officials would be meeting with legislators to get that clarification.

Also on Aug. 11:

• The council introduced legislation to approve the issuance of $10.5 million in general obligation bonds to finance a portion of the cost of construction of the Johnson’s Corner Sewer District. The debt service on the bonds will be paid from revenues of the district, which is being financed with UDSA grants, stimulus funds, developer contributions and county bonds.

Finance Director Susan Webb said that, “from all indications” (under finalized contracts and with federal stimulus funding), the cost to sewer district customers would come in below an estimate given prior to a referendum establishing the district. The county will now schedule public hearings on approval of the bonds.

• The county council voted unanimously to approve the purchase of two ambulance chassis to replace two older ones in the county fleet. They will cost about $36,000 each.

• The council also voted unanimously to approve a public works agreement with the Town of Millsboro regarding the Woodlands of Millsboro sewer expansion. The county already has similar agreements with Georgetown, Rehoboth and other towns to treat some of the wastewater from areas in and near those towns.

• Cole reported receiving a call from a Millville-area resident who was concerned with how the county assesses sewer costs, since they are not metered. Cole said the sewer customer had compared his metered water bill with his sewer bill and felt the county charge was not fair. “I told him I think it is fair, because we treat everyone the same, because we can’t have different rates for everybody,” said Cole.

County Engineer Mike Izzo said he was aware of the complaint and had agreed to go out and reassess the property. He said the formal appeal process for such concerns goes through a working group that meets annually in March, but that, in his experience, the board bases decisions on county code.

“My concern would be that, yes, this person does have a water meter, but we have a lot of customers who don’t have water meters. We could be opening Pandora’s box,” said Izzo.

• County officials agreed to look into the case of a Millsboro-area farmer whose five-car garage has become a source of conflict between him and the county. Henry James Johnson said he had been seeking a certificate of compliance and was told his property should be zoned as commercial because the garage has more than four doors. He said he had also been assessed an additional fee due to the size of the structure and had issues with a requirement for a flood certification when the property is listed as being 24 feet above sea level.

• The county council voted unanimously to write a letter in support of the Fenwick Island Police Department’s efforts to garner federal grants for a marine unit to help the police patrol the bay side of areas within their jurisdiction.

• The council also voted unanimously to give grants totaling $1,000 to each of two animal rescue groups. The Sussex County Animal Association, based in Seaford, rescues pets such as cats and dogs, while Whimsical Equine Rescue, which has three facilities in the county — including a site in Roxana — takes in horses.

Both groups attempt to adopt out the rescued animals and said they have seen an increase in the number of animals being surrendered by their owners as the recession makes it more difficult to afford their care.