As we wait for health and economic ramifications of COVID-19 to play out, Sussex County officials will be considering a proposal to protect the health and viability of our local waterways and wetlands.

Still open for business, Sussex County Council and the Planning & Zoning Commission are scheduling teleconference meetings for discussing a new wetlands and buffer ordinance that will address the shortcomings of current regulations. The League of Women Voters of Sussex County applauds the efforts of the Wetlands & Buffer Working Group (WBWG) and urges concerned citizens to voice their support for the WBWG recommendations.

As Sussex County continues to grow, the common practice of building to the water’s edge creates ever-increasing problems of erosion, flooding and pollution. Most tributaries and canals in Sussex County are unsafe for swimming or for the harvest of shellfish. Removal of vegetation and extant forest along wetland borders also contributes to the progressive loss of habitat for migratory birds and native wildlife.

Retaining buffers of old-growth trees and indigenous plants will help protect our waterways from pollution, offset erosion, and control flooding, as well as remove carbon from the air. According to the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays’ 2016 report, forested buffers can remove over 80 percent of nutrient pollution from waters on their way to the bays. The WBWG’s Summary Report likewise affirms that the buffers in their proposed ordinance will help preserve water quality.

While neighboring states have far more stringent regulations, the current Sussex County ordinance only requires a 50-foot buffer for tidal waterways, and non-tidal wetlands are not subject to any protective border at all. In contrast, New Castle and Kent counties require 100-foot buffers for tidal waterways and 50-buffers for non-tidal wetlands.

The WBWG recommends that buffers for tidal wetlands and waters be increased from 50 to 100 feet, and that 30-foot buffers be required for non-tidal wetlands and intermittent streams. The new ordinance would also include a clear mechanism to ensure the updated code is both applied and enforced.

Acknowledging that development will continue, the WBWG has clearly worked to strike a balance between concern for environmental protection and respect for landowner rights. Not only do borders of preserved forest and natural vegetation tend to increase the market value of land and homes, but protected waterways are also an obvious economic benefit for the county’s tourist industry.

Initiated by Councilman I.G. Burton, the WBWG consists of members of Sussex government, community businesses (including agriculture), environmental leaders, concerned citizens and a consultant group. A summary of the WBWG’s recommendations is available to the public at https://sussexcountyde.gov/sites/default/files/PDFs/wetlands/SussexCoWBWG_Summary%20Paper_Final_9.10.2019.pdf.

While many among us would favor wider buffers, such as those recommended by the Center for the Inland Bays, the League of Women Voters of Sussex County wholeheartedly supports this critical effort to protect our waterways and wetlands. 

Gwendolyn Miller, President

League of Women Voters of Sussex County, Delaware