Efforts to revamp Sussex’s buffers, wetlands rules move forward

GEORGETOWN — What is hailed as landmark code revision of buffers and wetlands in Sussex County is poised for ordinance creation.

Nine three-hour meetings between February and August 2019 of the 13-member working group, four county staff members and two consultants have produced recommendations presented Sept. 10 to county council.

“This is a landmark moment for the county,” Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said during the presentation. “These recommendations, if enacted, will result in improvements to our land-use designs and have exponential impact on our environmental resources while balancing property rights.

The working group, which represents a variety of interests including academia, agriculture, development, environment, land use, and natural resources, is comprised of David Baird, Chris Bason, Jay Baxter, Rich Borrasso, Jeff Clark, Ed Launay, Steve Marsh, Evelyn Maurmeyer, Danielle Swallow, Robert Tunnell, Bill Ulman, Bob Wheatley and R.C. Willin.

County staff includes Mr. Lawson, Hans Medlarz, Vince Robertson and Janelle Cornwell.

Perhaps most notable in the group’s recommendations: buffers for tidal waters and tidal wetlands would double, from 50 feet to 100 feet, with 30-foot buffers proposed for non-tidal wetlands and intermittent streams.

If approved, this ordinance would only apply to new residential development, major subdivisions, clusters, planned communities and conditional uses.

“It is not every single landowner’s property that these buffers apply to,” said Jim Eisenhardt, one of the consultants with RK&K. “This is about resource protection, and balancing property rights.”

“The group was cognizant on all the recommendations to try to make sure we are not adding administrative burden to the applicant or the county in trying to implement these programs,” said Mr. Eisenhardt. “There may be some areas that might be new, but we are trying to make them part of existing processes.”

The working group also agreed on two buffer zones to give “some flexibility to meet those objectives of resource protections and development rights … and activities permitted,” Mr. Eisenhardt said.

The 50-foot zone closest to the wetland resource would have more restriction than the second 50-foot zone.

“The idea in general is nothing should happen in the buffers or the resources,” Mr. Eisenhardt said. “However, there are some practical things. How do you get a sewer line from side of the property to the other? We may need a road crossing.”

The working group’s list of prohibited activities in the 50-foot Zone A include, among others, walking trails parallel to a resource; sewage disposal facilities, swimming pools, community clubhouses and all non-water-dependent or related improvements not specifically permitted under this section.

“The code today does not have a table like this with this specificity, which is a great benefit because it gives the county as well as those seeking to develop their property a greater understanding of what is and what is not allowed,” said Mr. Lawson.

“Does it matter what exactly is planted in that buffer?” asked county councilman John Rieley. “How will we know when we are approving what is appropriate?”

“Those are the details that we have to put together in the ordinance,” Mr. Eisenhardt said.

The consensus is the group has created with a fair compromise of resource protection and property rights.

“I do think it is a compromise,” said group member Robert Tunnel Jr. of the Tunnell Companies. “We went all over the place on widths. I think it will balance protection of the resource and the ability to still develop and design a nice community and a nice project. It’s good compromise. We came up with very good definitions that match the definitions that are used in other agencies and scientific research. They are easy, industry standard.”

Group member Ed Launay, an environmental consultant, said, “I think I understood some of the goals the council was trying to reach. I think the buffers provided are quite sufficient. Compared to other jurisdictions I think it’s quite progressive.”

Chris Bason, executive director for the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, called the group’s efforts a “positive step forward.”

“We’re doing this because buffers are essential for preventing flooding. They are essential for improving water quality, protecting water quality and protecting the wetlands that protect us from storms, like Dorian, the one that went by,” said Mr. Bason. “The work of working group is really bringing us a lot closer to be aligned with the science in really smart ways. In my opinion the process has been remarkable.”

“I have got to admit, I was a little skeptical coming into this process given some of my past experiences with related topics. But it has really come together, and a lot of that is due to Todd and has staff, and Sari (Rothrock of RK&K) and Jim (Eisenhardt) to herd the cats, so to speak, and come up with a really great product,” Mr. Eisenhardt said.

Among the working group’s agricultural representatives, Jay Baxter said the group’s collaboration was surprisingly eye-opening.

“Who would have thought that a Baxter could get along as well with anybody from the Center for the Inland Bays? We found a lot of common ground in working through this, not to mention land planners and developers. It’s quite a good cross-section,” said Mr. Baxter. “I think Sussex County will become a posterchild to other areas that have unique circumstances like we do in Sussex County, that has ag, that has conservation areas, that has water resources as water features. I think there is a lot of great opportunity in moving forward, if you give us the ability to do so.”

Rich Borasso, a member of Sussex Alliance for Responsible growth, said he “represented a lot of the people in the county who don’t have a good understanding in terms of the resources that we have and what buffers are supposed to do, and what could they do better.”

R.C. Willin, another farmer, said “there was compromise in many areas. We think we have achieved the objective that you asked us to undertake.”

Given the green light, the proposal proceeds to the ordinance writing phase. This will entail more work by group, consultants and the legal team. Once written, an ordinance will go through the regular public hearing process, hopefully sometime this fall, Mr. Lawson said.

“What started as a simple exercise to update the code with better definitions morphed into a larger initiative to provide comprehensive recommendations for how the county implies wetlands and buffers protection,” said Mr. Lawson.

“This is a big deal,” said county council president Michael Vincent. “It is very important to this county to all aspects of the county.”

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment