Commentary: Better buffers needed in Sussex County

By Aimee Isaac

Prior to European settlement, 90% of Delmarva was forested. Imagine, 90% forests. Today, this has been reduced to about 10%, although Delaware fares a bit better, at 30%.

Most of us know that forests provide essential habitat for wildlife and store carbon, which helps combat climate change. Many on my Facebook feed have been enjoying the trails and scenic beauty that forests offer. Indeed, forests have likely helped to stave off depression during the current pandemic.

But forests provide other resources as well. They reduce water pollution, protect wetlands, and prevent flooding.

Picture this: During a heavy rainfall, many deciduous trees open their leaves and catch water, allowing it to drip from the top of the canopy, down twigs, branches, and trunks, where it then hits the ground and is stored near the tree’s roots. The forest floor acts like a sponge and any extra water will slowly be released below ground. (Source: “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben.) In this way, trees help prevent flooding.

And if you want clean water to swim in and fish in and live near, as well as protections for the natural beauty that helps attract tourism, you need trees. Lots of them. Preferably native and old-growth forests. 

Adequately forested buffers are extremely important in a state where flooding is common and 90% of our waterways are polluted. 

Sussex County has an opportunity to make a huge difference with a proposed buffer ordinance that is now being developed by a workgroup. Currently, the county requires 50 feet of buffer space between developments and tidal wetlands. In comparison, Maryland requires 100-200 feet, Kent and New Castle counties 100 feet, and New Jersey 300.

The current proposal would bring us in line with the rest of the state (100 ft) and is a needed improvement. Currently, there are no requirements for buffer space along non tidal wetlands, or intermittent streams. The proposal makes very modest increases and do not yet line up with the recommendations in scientific literature. More information can be found here: https://www.inlandbays.org/projects-and-issues/issues/important-county-ordinances/

Oddly, it is not clear if the proposed ordinance will protect existing forests, nor does it require the replanting of trees. Nor does it clarify a clear mechanism to ensure that the code, if passed, would be applied and enforced. This latter point is important, because we have a history here of not enforcing ordinances that protect the environment. 

I would like to thank my councilman, Irwin IG Burton III, for his leadership on this ordinance, and I would like to request that all Sussex Countians contact their councilman concerning this. Please express support for a buffer ordinance that brings buffer widths in line with surrounding counties and states, and request that the buffers include only native trees, that no trees be removed and replaced with grasses for drainage purposes, that buffers be planted where they don’t exist, that the ordinance be enforceable, and that existing forests be protected. You can do that at https://sussexcountyde.gov/county-council

I know these are uncertain times, but protecting our land and waterways is something we can all help control.

Aimee Isaac is an environmental advocate who lives in Rehoboth Beach.