Windmills discussed in South Bethany

After an absence of several months and with discussion brewing throughout the state on the subject, the proposal for a wind farm off the coast of southern Delaware returned to the agenda of the South Bethany Town Council on March 9, with additional information and perspective from Councilwoman Bonnie Lambertson.

“This topic is heating up,” Lambertson observed, at a time when a report comparing the proposed wind farm of Bluewater Wind, the proposed “clean coal” plant at the existing Indian River location and a NRG natural-gas plant near Wilmington has generated ramped-up debates over the costs and benefits of each and how they were evaluated for the Public Service Commission.

Lambertson noted that the town council had previously decided not to take a stand on the issue of the wind farm. The town’s property owners association had since requested input from its citizens, and with the 62 responses it had received essentially equal in comments on both sides of the issue — just four more people opposed than in favor of the plan.

Since that council vote, Lambertson said she had continued to collect articles regarding wind power, most of which she said detailed the benefits of the environmentally-friendly alternative power source. She acknowledged that it was a clean energy source, noting that while initial costs were high, the costs did fall over time.

But Lambertson, noting she herself had taken no concrete position for or against the wind turbines, said she believed from her research that the area’s coal-fired power plants would never be shut down in favor of wind power, due to the lack of stable energy supply that coal could better provide.

With that negative previously stated, Lambertson said she’d been asked by many what her personal stance was on the issue, most believing that she opposed a wind farm. The councilwoman said her stance for or against an offshore wind farm was related to a number of unanswered questions and concerns.

“With 200 windmills at a half-mile apart, that’s 65 acres. That’s a big piece of property,” she said. She noted that her research had indicated that at 6 miles from the shore, beachgoers would “barely see them. But if you do see them, you will see a bunch of sticks or a thin wall,” she said.

“I want to see a model,” she added, that would depict how the turbines would be anchored and how they would react in a strong hurricane, “to our wind and waves. Bluewater doesn’t have a model,” she said, noting that only “photovisualizations” of the anticipated view from points along the coast and depictions of wind turbines immediately off the Denmark coast have been publicized by the company, which has only participated in the development of land-based wind farms so far.

“It would be very difficult for us to come to a stance,” she said of the council. “Some are for it, some are against it, and some are on the fence. It needs more study,” she added, noting that the existing Denmark project was so close to shore as to be overwhelming. “I don’t want that on our beach,” she emphasized. “Three miles would be awful,” she added, suggesting 6 miles offshore might be pushing the limits.

Lambertson also referenced an article on the business aspects of offshore wind power, noting the cost of putting in deep-water windmills that would need to be sunk into the sea floor. She said a cable-stayed design borrowed from the ocean petroleum industry might prove to be viable for larger windmills, or even the standard, by the time Bluewater got its existing design out of the study phase.

Safety concerns were a bottom line for her. “Bluewater Wind said they were safe to a Category 4 (hurricane),” she said. “But they haven’t shown any studies or models to the public.”

Citizens present at the March 9 council meeting had some similar concerns, still mainly focused on aesthetics from their beach. “If they pushed it to the other side of the shipping channel,” opined former council member Lloyd Hughes, “people would have no objections.”

“Why should it be 7 miles here, if it’s 11 there?” Lambertson asked, referencing the closer proximity of the planned southern Delaware site to the more distant northern –shore site.

Resident George Junket and Councilman Richard Ronan agreed with Lambertson that the town council couldn’t reasonably take a position on the issue of the wind farm with the council members and the town’s citizenry divided roughly 50-50. Lambertson said she felt a University of Delaware study on public opinion on wind farms had strongly favored it because the survey hadn’t been weighted to favor those most affected — those living at the coast.

In light of Lambertson’s statement about inquiries into her position on the issue, Junket noted that he’d been asked about his own stance on the issue, with some mistakenly under the impression that he opposed the project when he, in fact, supports it.

The discussion indicated nothing less than the degree of importance personal opinion has taken on in the debate. And, despite her statement that she was on the fence about the project overall, Lambertson was ready to declare opposition in the absence of what she considers vital facts.

“Until they give us more information, I will never vote for it, and I will fight tooth-and-nail against it,” Lambertson stated.

Tax assessments, election board set

Also on March 9, council members voted unanimously to accept the tax assessments of Sussex County as the basis for town property taxes. The town has done so for many years, sparing it the expense of a separate assessor.

A unanimous vote also appointed the town’s election board for 2007, with Martha Lowe, Elsa Klass and Frank Fay to observe and run the upcoming council vote.

Councilman Jay Headman reported that the town’s tidal pump study is still on track, with a report from Oceaneering due April 9, complete with a study of the town’s model of the project and an estimated cost. Headman noted that the committee overseeing the project had put in extensive work, with mostly engineers serving on that committee. He said he hoped to have a final draft of their report after the committee’s next meeting.

Councilwoman Marge Gassinger reported ongoing progress on the new town hall and police department. Site work has been done and pavement at the site stripped, while two of three drainage swales are also done. She said ground work was ongoing for the building’s foundation, with a few weather delays having been endured.

“There are miracles,” Councilman John Rubinsohn reported last Friday, the day the Delaware Supreme Court cleared the way for continued dredging of the Assawoman Canal with the rejection of a Sierra Club appeal to stop the project. He said the case had often been described as “a never-ending legal battle,” after more than a decade of litigation.

The canal dredge is expected to be done within two years, but Rubinsohn acknowledged that many are hesitant to consider the matter closed, in recognition of the persistence of the project’s opponents.

Rubinsohn also reported some $52,000 in revenue for the town in February, part of a seasonal lull before rental and property taxes start coming in. The town had $132,000 in expenses for the month, leaving $2.69 million in the bank.

In property owners’ participation, resident Tom Rocha noted problems with ongoing violations of the town’s building code. He said restrictions on work hours were being routinely violated and asked that the town’s code enforcement officer check all sites regularly for such violations.

Mayor Gary Jayne noted that the town has stepped up to refine its code to clarify that “staging” prior to actual construction work is also not permitted during the prohibited work hours. Currently, he said, the issue was open to interpretation, though the intent had not been to allow it.

Resident Ed Nazarian also expressed concern about the town’s costs for lawsuits, noting a number of recent successful cases for the town. Nazarian asked if the town couldn’t recoup its legal costs in the case of a decision in its favor.

Town Manager Mel Cusick said the town’s previous attorney had advised them that it was not generally able to collect its legal costs, but he said their current attorney had advised them on a case-by-case basis whether seeking the costs from the losing party would be worthwhile. The intent to collect those costs must be stated at the outset of the legal process, Cusick said, and the effort to do so can cost more than the costs being sought.