James Farm master plan to improve and protect preserve

Special to the Coastal Point • Center for the Inland Bays: This rendering shows some of the plans that organizers hope to accomplish with the James Farm Ecological PreserveSpecial to the Coastal Point • Center for the Inland Bays: This rendering shows some of the plans that organizers hope to accomplish with the James Farm Ecological PreserveChris Bason, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays (CIB) spoke to the Sussex County Council earlier this month about their master plan for James Farm Ecological Preserve.

The CIB’s mission is “to promote the wise use and enhancement of the Inland Bays and their watersheds,” in a variety of ways, including restoration, scientific research and educational outreach.

“A big part of our educational program is the James Farm,” said Bason.

James Farm covers 150 acres, located on both sides of Cedar Neck Road, just outside of Ocean View. Bason said it’s a unique preserve in that it has a wide variety of ecosystems that are characteristic to the area.

“It has beautiful upland forests. it has a coastal-plain pond. It has beautiful salt marshes and freshwater wetlands. It has warm-season grasslands, a large tidal flatland on the estuary, and perhaps one of the most beautiful bay beaches of all the inland bays.”

Mary Lighthipe donated the farm to the people of Sussex County in 1992, to be a place of natural recreation and education. In 1998, the CIB entered into an occupancy agreement with the County to manage the preserve.

“Mary’s vision, I think, was second-to-none. She knew that this area would rapidly develop. And now the farm is one of the last undeveloped places in this part of the county,” Bason noted.

In 2003, the CIB partnered with the Indian River School District to use the farm as an educational center for area students.

“Every year, 1,000 seventh- and eighth-graders have a full day of curriculum-aligned education outdoors at the farm… They learn about water quality, and they learn about how they can, in their own lives, protect their inland bays. For a lot of kids in this area, it’s one of the only times they get to go and see the water, just because their families don’t have the means to get there.”

Bason said the farm sees more than 10,000 of visitors each year who come there for recreation, to enjoy the bay beach, to walk the trails and bird-watch.

“Ten thousand visits a year — that’s 40 percent more than Holts Landing State Park has received.”

Bason said there are challenges when it comes to the preserve.

“With the population growth of the area, our facilities have outgrown their capacity for the people that are coming. Since we started managing the property, the county’s population has grown by 35 percent, and it’s projected another 35 percent by 2030. So, this growth is projected to continue.”

Other challenges are the age of the existing facilities, as well as their location in relationship to other aspects of the preserve.

“Last year, we decided to address this and were very fortunate to receive the support of a number of agencies, including Sussex County Council, University of Delaware, the State of Delaware and the EPA, to contract with OASIS Design — a consultant firm out of Baltimore — to develop a master plan for the farm.”

Bason said the purpose of the plan is to accommodate the increased visitation, while protecting the environment and enhancing visitors’ experiences, as well as education opportunities at the preserve.

“The farm is for the public,” said Bason of the importance of getting public input. “We wanted to let the people who use it the most offer their ideas of what the farm should look like.”

For the most part, said Bason, people wanted the preserve to stay wild, and kept for recreation and nature.

“The plan covers everything from how to manage all these ecosystems on the site to how to handle the increased growth that the preserve will experience.”

The details of the master plan include a new gateway that will house a 27-space parking lot and a special spot for school buses to park when student groups visit.

“We moved our event lawn into the woods so that it would be protected from the winds that blow off the coast oftentimes,” he said.

Bason said the plan also includes a permanent compostable toilet facility to replace the temporary portable toilet and will have the storage structures for maintenance equipment built to a local agricultural aesthetic.

“We’ve also been recommended to have some gateway elements on the east side of the road of the farm, to introduce visitors to come and explore the warm-season grasslands and salt marshes. Right now, people don’t go over to the east side too much. We want to show them that and disperse the visitation around.”

There will also be an educational signage plan, in which 18 signs will be placed throughout the preserve to inform visitors about the different plants, animals and ecosystems.

The trail system will be redefined, to be “more user-friendly,” in a series of three loops.

“There’s also provisions made to replace boardwalks damaged by Hurricane Sandy and add new boardwalk to places that have gotten wetter over time.”

Bason said the master plan will be implemented in three phases. Currently, they are working on construction design and permitting for the entire site.

“We hope to have that done by the fall and winter of 2016,” he said. “And we’ll go into Phase I construction next year, in 2016. We’re doing our fundraising for that right now.”

He said the CIB is looking to work with the private community, as well as governmental agencies, to raise the funds needed.

Bason said the goal for the project is to “maintain the most well-managed preserve in the state of Delaware, where the natural environment is protected and explained through unique educational signage and the programming that we offer.

“We want this plan to develop the resources in advance of their needs, so we’re not having a rundown preserve but one that we can be proud of at all times for the county.”

He thanked the council for their continued support of such a special place in Sussex County.

“I can tell you, as someone who lives in Ocean View, it’s a special place. It is a community at the preserve. It’s place where people can learn about nature and appreciate it. And it’s also a community asset. It’s an economic asset, and it’s an environmental asset.”

For more information about the master plan, visit http://www.inlandbays.org/wp-content/documents/James_Farm_Master%20Plan_.... To donate to the Center for the Inland Bays or to learn more about the nonprofit, visit www.inlandbays.org. James Farm Ecological Preserve is located at 30048 Cedar Neck Road in Ocean View.