Sussex County Council members on Tuesday gave the go-ahead to county staff to begin work on an application for a Delaware Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund grant that could help create a new county park facility at the Salt Pond near Bethany Beach.
County Administrator David Baker told the council that the grant, if awarded to the county, could cover up to 50 percent of the cost of creating a trail or park on county-owned property.
The notion is in its very earliest stages, with council having approved “pre-applying” for the grant now, some four to five months before the DLWCTF would potentially invite the county to apply for the grant for a specific project.
If that invitation comes, the county would then provide more information on exactly what type of park project it would like the grant to fund. The DLWCTF could then consider whether to make the grant for that project.
Baker said he and other county staff had reviewed the properties the county owns that could be used for such a project, and the top suggestion on his list for a location for a potential park was a 5-acre county-owned property fronting on Route 1, adjacent to the Salt Pond, Bluecoast restaurant and a Town of Bethany Beach maintenance facility.
The park, Baker said, could include a walkway to the Salt Pond itself, with water access for kayaks, canoes and rowboats, as well as a small parking lot for users of the park.
Baker noted that the other 50 percent of the cost of the project that would not be covered by a possible grant could come from donations, rather than requiring government funding from the county’s own coffers.
The property, which was donated to the county a number of years ago, Baker said, would need to be scrutinized for potential problems that could shape or eliminate its proposed use as a park, such as deed restrictions and the wetlands delineation.
Baker said the property has some marsh area, which he expected to limit more extensive facilities being built at the site, such as walking or jogging trails.
Councilman George Cole, who represents the area, expressed support for the site among others Baker mentioned as possibilities.
“The exposure there is phenomenal,” Cole said, suggesting the county could possibly charge a fee for use to help maintain it and thereby lessen its ongoing cost to the county. “Some of the other sites, I wonder if we want to encourage any activity, because they’re kind of remote.”
Cole suggested that the park area could be expanded if the county were to secure an agreement to share parking at the neighboring restaurant or maintenance facility.
“We’ve got to sit there and look at the sites we own and see if they’re viable for this kind of activity,” Cole emphasized.
Baker said he and the staff had tried to winnow the list of county-owned properties to the most desirable. He also mentioned as a possible site for a park a piece of county-owned property in the Long Neck area, on Mount Joy Road, where the county currently leases a portion of the property to the Delaware Solid Waste Authority.
But the county council would have to make a decision about which project to consider, as the funding would likely only cover one or two projects, at most.
Cole said he considered the Piney Neck Road location’s access to the Indian River “very desirable.”
“There’s got to be something there that’s going to draw people,” he said, again emphasizing the county’s ability to get the park to pay for itself as much as possible. He pointed out that the State of Delaware leases a concession spot at Fenwick Island State Park’s bayside site to a business that rents kayaks and other small watercraft.
“We do allow limited hunting on some property, and a lot of people are being squeezed out of hunting sites,” Cole also noted.
Council President Vance Phillips, meanwhile, expressed some concern about the potential long-term financial impact of creating a county park.
“The council has recognized in the past that parks and rec departments are a slippery slope,” he said, suggesting that the county move slowly on the possible creation of a park.