Delaware’s first wind turbine, built at the University of Delaware’s campus in Lewes, didn’t require a wetlands permit, a subaqueous lands permit or even a Coastal Zone Status Review.
No studies that looked at bats, birds or other wildlife in the vicinity – data that could later be used to determine the impact on wildlife from the rotor sweep zone, noise or habitat fragmentation – were required.
“Everything was done to facilitate the University of Delaware getting that up as quickly as possible without public hearing,” said Gerald A. Lechliter, a retired U.S. Army colonel who lives near the new turbine.
Lechliter is one of several dozen area residents who questioned whether state environmental officials were so intent on seeing a green, wind energy alternative up and running that they didn’t require the university to go through the same permit and review procedures that would have been required for a conventional power-generating facility, Lechliter said.
Some fear the precedent could clear the way for the university to launch a turbine testing center in the area without public or regulator reviews.
The state also allowed construction of the turbine on state-owned land – a move that has prompted a strong objection from the state’s Open Space Council.
Lechliter said the public was effectively shut out of the process. He said that while the university hosted several public meetings where they explained the proposal and answered questions, there was never an open and independent regulatory review or hearing where the public could ask questions, raise concerns or protest the plan.
“Having an informational meeting is just not the same,” Lechliter said.
Visible for miles
The turbine is 256 feet tall and can be seen from as far away as Slaughter Beach and across Delaware Bay in New Jersey. The commercial-grade turbine produces 2 megawatts of electricity – enough at peak capacity to provide all the power at the university’s Lewes campus with some left over to sell to Lewes.
Lechliter is a member of Citizens Advocating a Livable Lewes, which contends that the turbine could negatively impact human health and reduce property values.
Some members and area residents believe the turbine was built too close to residential areas without adequate buffers. In some wind conditions the turbine is noisy – with a sound, some say, that resembles a jet engine preparing for takeoff.
Others worry about the flicker from light and shadows that can result when the blades spin.
David Small, assistant state environmental secretary, said state officials look at the turbine as a test site to see how near-shore turbines perform mechanically. Also, he said, the university’s turbine will be a tool to assess environmental impacts.
Small said he doesn’t believe there was a push by state regulators to fast-track the project.
The university’s plan, in cooperation with turbine manufacturer Gamesa Technology Corp., is to reduce the carbon footprint at the Lewes campus and test materials and the operation of a near-shore, land-based turbine. Construction started last spring, and the turbine was commissioned in June.
“The university took all the steps required with state and federal agencies and acquired all the necessary permits,” said Ronald Ohrel, a spokesman for the university’s College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment, which oversees the Lewes facility.
The university also wants to create a shallow-water turbine test site just off the coast – likely in state waters within 3 miles of shore – where manufacturers could conduct trials of their equipment.
When the concept was first made public in June, state environmental chief Collin O’Mara said the joint project would establish a near-shore research and development park and a rigorous testing facility. O’Mara said the project could have broad economic benefits for Delaware, especially as the state works to increase its alternative-energy technology sector. Typically, he said, companies that test new products want to locate close to their test sites.
If the project within state waters does go forward, Small said, state officials have not yet determined whether a Coastal Zone status decision or permit might be required.
One of the first steps anyone doing business along the coast must take is to determine whether a project requires a Coastal Zone Permit. The university took that step in 1973, requesting a Coastal Zone status decision prior to construction of the current facilities in Lewes.
State regulators determined that development of the campus did not require a Coastal Zone Permit. Since then, the state law has been supplemented by regulations that spell out in more detail what is and isn’t allowed within the coastal zone – an area that encompasses all of Delaware’s coastline and bars new heavy industry and restricts manufacturing.
Solar power facilities, for instance, are exempt. But there is no mention of wind farms.
The university hired a consultant to look at permit requirements for the turbine project, and the consultant never mentioned a Coastal Zone Act review.
After the turbine was up and running last year, Philip J. Cherry, a policy director in the state environmental agency, concluded the project would fall within the regulation’s “research and development” exemption.
Cherry said he made the decision because it was one turbine located on the university’s Lewes campus. Selling power to the city of Lewes was not its primary purpose, he said.
Kenneth A. Kristl, associate professor of law and director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Widener University School of Law, said Cherry’s view, especially given the university’s plans to use the turbine as a test platform in a coastal environment, isn’t out of line.
That the turbine was not built on university property was an issue for the state Open Space Council.
The university looked at a number of sites before settling on the land – a former dredge spoils site – that UD sold to the state in 2006.
Regulators, according to documents prepared for the state Regulatory Advisory Service, preferred the spoils site because it was disturbed land.
Regulators who reviewed the site options pointed out “the difficulty and expense of obtaining federal permits for work in waters and wetland” and advised them that a location that would avoid wetland impacts would “reduce the considerable time and money required to get permits in place.”
The state and university entered into a memorandum of understanding to allow the use of the state land. But the agreement was never approved by the state Open Space Council.
Former Council Chair Lynn Williams, who recently stepped down, said there was concern because state money had been spent to purchase the land as part of a large collection of open space that includes the nearby Great Marsh. And the council was not consulted when state officials decided to allow the use of a part of the land for non-recreational purposes.
The council was especially upset by a proposal – included in the epilogue to last year’s Bond Bill – to sell land, including the turbine site, back to the university. That proposal is no longer on the table, Small said.
Once the land issue and state permitting were taken care of, the university still had go to Lewes officials.
“It’s almost like you’re relying on zoning,” to regulate siting and construction of the turbine, Kristl said.
Lewes officials exempted the university from a 35-foot height limit and said they would not need to seek a variance from the municipal Board of Adjustment.
Lewes Mayor Jim Ford said city officials exempted the project from a variance based on a decision that the turbine was an electrical transmission tower. There was no public hearing.
“What they did is wrong,” Lechliter said. “It’s just wrong.”
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