County funds farmland preservation program

Sussex County once again will pool money with a local land trust and the federal government to preserve some of the area’s farmland. The County Council at its Tuesday, July 21, meeting approved using $300,000 in agriculture preservation money not spent in a prior budget year as its contribution to protect five parcels of farmland – nearly 220 acres – that are scattered throughout the county.

The $300,000 from Sussex County, combined with $172,000 in private donations raised by the Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT), will create a local share of $472,000. That money will earn approximately $650,000 in federal matching funds. The cost to the county to preserve the five parcels comes in at about $1,371 per acre. The total cost, with state and federal contributions, comes in at $5,128 per acre.

In total, $1.1 million in funding will come from local, private and federal partners for this year’s preservation easement purchases. Sussex County’s latest contribution brings to $7.2 million the total amount of County funds spent in open-space preservation in the past seven years.

“Sussex County is proud to continue its role as a partner in this worthwhile effort to preserve open space,” County Administrator David B. Baker said. “The County, in partnership with the Sussex County Land Trust, has preserved more than 3,400 acres of land in the county since teaming up in 2003. This cooperative effort has kept farms from disappearing, and allowed these vast, open landscapes to stay in place, benefitting our environment and our economy for decades to come.”

The five parcels are all working farms, located in the Bridgeville, Laurel, Primehook, Great Cypress Swamp and Broadkill areas. The owners of the properties are not selling their lands, just the right to subdivide and develop the parcels, and the purchase of the easements does not include public access to the properties that are being preserved.

That was a sticking point for Councilman George Cole, who said Tuesday, “I don’t like the program. I like open space, but my definition of open space, when it’s taxpayer funded, is that the open space should also provide access. This doesn’t mean that.”

Cole cast the lone council vote on July 21 against authorizing the funding for the farmland preservation program. That could be significant, as approving the funding requires a council supermajority votes – the positive votes of four of the five members of the council.

“You’re only one vote away,” Cole warned County Council President Vance C. Phillips, whom he said he considered a natural vote in favor of the program, since Phillips is himself a farmer, as is Councilman Sam Wilson.

Wendy O. Baker, president and chief executive officer of the non-profit SCLT, said the five properties recommended for preservation by the SCLT and approved for funding by the council this week are valuable to the preservation effort for a variety of reasons, including their proximity to other preserved parcels and the unimpeded, natural views they offer the public.

The easement purchases also aid the SCLT in its mission to help create a Grand Preservation Loop spanning Sussex County. The loop is a string of preserved farms, forests and other natural tracts held by a variety of owners stretching from Slaughter Beach down through the Redden Forrest, southwest to Trap Pond, east through the Great Cypress Swamp, back up along the Inland Bays and ending in the Primehook Wildlife area outside Milton.

“Given the economic times, we understand the position everyone is in, so that is why we’re only requesting $472,000 as the local share for this year. That is lower than in years past,” Wendy Baker said. “Our original request in January at County Council was to spend $1.2 million collectively. That level of spending does not seem prudent at this time.”

Phillips noted on Tuesday that the council had discussed the issue again in June, when the SCLT had recommended the county continue to provide funding for the purchase of development rights. The council deferred a decision at that time due to budget concerns generated at the state level and their potential impact on the county.

“Are you comfortable the state has passed a budget that won’t offer any surprises that affect us?” Phillips asked the county administrator.

David Baker noted that the state budget had meant a drop in paramedic funding from prior years and a shift to the county of responsibilities for dog control, but both of those changes were anticipated by county officials.

Phillips said the purchase of easement rights is a small price to pay now, relatively speaking, to ensure Sussex County and agriculture remain together in the years to come.

“This illustrates the Sussex County Council’s continued commitment to the preservation of agriculture and open space for Sussex County, now and for future generations,” Phillips said.