County moves to preserve local farms

Sussex County Council members approved a budget recommendation to earmark another $250,000 toward farmland preservation at the April 5 council meeting.

They’d approved a $125,000 match for state Department of Agriculture efforts, out of funds already allocated to the Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT) just two weeks prior.

At that time, County Administrator Bob Stickels recommended SCLT President/CEO Wendy Baker attend upcoming budget meetings to make sure farmland preservation money made it into the fiscal 2006 budget.

She did, and it did. With the additional funding, the county will have more than $660,000 set aside toward those efforts.

Essentially, the Agricultural Lands Preservation Program gives property owners an option (voluntary) of giving up development rights in exchange for (additional) tax breaks.

After 10 years, if they want to go ahead and sell those rights (the land to become a permanent Ag easement), the state will pay the difference between the value of the land as used for agriculture and full market value.

Landowners typically tack on a discount as well, helping them move toward the head of the applicant list.

According to Stickels, four percent of total Sussex County landmass now lay under permanent Ag easement.

There have always been concerns about development despite the easements, and he addressed that at the April 5 meeting.

“Sometimes the question comes up — we don’t have Ag districts that limit housing in all this,” Stickels said. “The AR-1 (agricultural-residential) district does allow housing.”

He said had been limited to one home per 20 acres per family member traditionally, but changed in the General Assembly last year. Property owners can now build three homes per easement, regardless of relationships.

However as Stickels pointed out, most of these easements were quite large — more than 100 acres apiece.

He also noted state- and federal-owned lands. “We’re starting to get more and more land preservation in the county, and now, (those areas) are more prominent than the development districts,” Stickels said. He estimated total land conservation in the county at more than 10 percent of the whole.

The state has already spent money to set nine properties statewide into Ag easements, and Stickels said six of those had been in Sussex County.

“There’s also a possibility that the state, when they finish negotiating the contracts they have now, may have $1.5 million left over and we were told that would be awarded to Sussex County,” he said.

With federal and state matches, and the six properties already purchased, Stickels said the county’s $660,000 would be leveraged seven times over.

Council unanimously approved the $250,000 expenditure (the other $410,000 already encumbered during prior budget years).

In other business, council unanimously approved a multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan.

According to Director of Emergency Operations Joseph Thomas, adopting such a plan would clear the county for federal mitigation funding prior to natural disasters.

He noted building lifts in the Long Neck area and “blow-out” boards on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk as prior examples.

Council also recognized Sussex County EMS paramedics for their gold medal finish at this year’s Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS) Games.

Paramedic teams from the U.S., Australia and Canada, 18 in all, competed in nine “real-life” scenarios. They were judged on skill and speed.

Local top finishers were Holly Donovan, Paramedic III, Stuart Hensley, Paramedic III, Joseph Hopple, Paramedic II and Robert Mauch, Training Coordinator of Sussex County EMS.