County required by plan to protect land

Sussex County officials currently updating the county’s growth plan will likely look to protect thousands of acres of county land by imposing restrictions on development there.
State maps drawn in September identified more than 38,000 acres of unprotected environmentally sensitive lands, including large blocks of forests, rare-species habitats and wetlands.

Protecting resources
Protected state resource areas: 77,831 acres

Not protected state resources areas: 38,129

Heeding state requirements, county officials will likely impose measures through this year’s comprehensive plan update and its supporting ordinances to protect the environmentally sensitive land not already protected, which includes large forest blocks, rare-species habitats and wetlands. The more than 38,000 acres not yet protected accounts for roughly 6 percent of the county’s total land. Already protected areas include federally- and state- owned conservancies.

If the county’s comprehensive plan hopes to garner state support and likely its approval, those lands must be protected by placing stringent requirements on developers building there, Secretary John Hughes of the Department of Natural Resouces and Environmental Control said Tuesday. Implementing such measures would require the passage of supporting ordinances after submitting the comprehensive plan later this year.

“We require” action, Hughes said, adding that development should not be prohibited in the state resource areas. “We have no intention of walking away. We believe we’ve identified areas of great importance.”

The Delaware Land Protection Act of 1990 called on DNREC to approve state resource area maps to identify sensitive lands across the state and for counties to approve measures to protect those lands.

“Each county government shall adopt and incorporate overlay zoning ordinances, guidelines and specific technically based environmental performance standards, design criteria and mitigation requirements, where appropriate, that shall apply to significant ecological functions and identified historic and archeological sites on these lands,” Chapter 75 of the Delaware code reads.

State officials approved the first set of resource area maps in 1990 but have not, until now, required county action. Hughes said his department will “require” such action through the Sussex County comprehensive plan and its supporting ordinances.

Hughes and Office of State Planning Coordination Director Constance Holland co-authored a Jan. 19 letter to council President Dale Dukes, essentially informing the county of its duties. DNREC and the state planning office have reached out to the three Delaware counties in the last 18 months. New Castle County has already taken steps to protect land there, but they do not yet have any regulations on the books.

Asked why state officials waited so long to impose action, Hughes said, “It crossed my desk is why.”

Sussex County councilmen, in the precarious position of being dictated to by the state on Tuesday, seemed wary of the negative economic effects such restrictions may place on county property owners. Some agricultural lands — many of which were included simply because of their location in the middle of densely forested or other sensitive areas — are identified in the maps. DNREC has made roughly 7,000 calls to inform property owners that their land is included.

“How do we assure the farm community that their equity is not being taken?” Lynn Rogers (D-1st) asked Hughes Tuesday. “I think the fear is there.”

Hughes estimated that protecting valuable lands will eventually make the land more valuable and the future would not bring “constant expansion of the state resource areas.”

“We’ll make more money off the land by preserving the best parts,” Hughes said. “It enhances the value.”

Some 67 percent of the state resource areas in Sussex — more than 77,000 acres — have already been protected. They include federally owned conservancies and state owned lands, which include the Delaware Seashore and Cape Henlopen State Parks. The 38,129 acres of state resources areas currently unprotected represent roughly 6 percent of the total land mass of the county.

The county’s environmentally sensitive overlay zone, implemented to protect areas around the Sussex County’s inland bays, has been criticized for failing to protect land in that it has still allowed significant large-scale development there. More than 1,000 homes were approved adjacent to the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge in the overlay zone late last year.