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Sussex County Council introduces stricter wetlands buffer ordinance

Delaware Public Media

Sussex County Council introduced a new wetlands buffer ordinance Tuesday, one that adds significantly more protections.


Sussex County has looked at changing its wetlands buffer requirements for a while now, and county staff finally put together a plan they believe balances environmental protections with developers’ rights.


Existing requirements establish a 50-foot buffer for all tidal waters, streams and wetlands. That buffer is doubled to 100 feet — and the ordinance adds new, smaller buffers for non-tidal rivers, streams and wetlands.


That buffer is divided in half, with one half becoming rigid in it’s width, and the other more flexible.


Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson says that a flexible zone gives developers the incentive to protect other sensitive habitats on their land.


“So with the averaging and incentives, we gave a developer or their design team and then planning and zoning and the council the ability to create flexibility so that more important features will be preserved rather than just some number of feet on a plan that doesn’t really serve any specific purpose,” Robertson said.


He adds for example, if a developer chooses to preserve a nearby forest, something more beneficial to nearby wildlife than empty land, then the flexible zone can shrink.


“If you have a forest on a subdivision that’s next to the buffer and you’re gonna preserve that, let’s have you preserve that and maybe shrink your buffer along the resource,” Robertson said.


Developers may also choose to preserve a section of forest that isn’t even on the subdivision itself, but nearby. Robertson says the intent is to protect as much sensitive land as possible.


The planning and zoning commission will also have the discretion to change the size of the flexible buffer zone on a case-by-case basis, but the ordinance outlines specific requirements the commission must meet to do so, and the rigid zone, the half closest to the resource, cannot be modified for any reason.


Developers are also required to submit a plan with their application on the short and long-term maintenance of the wetlands, rivers, and the associated buffers on the property.


This new buffer ordinance matches the same width requirements that New Castle and Kent counties already have in place. The city of Lewes adopted a new 50-foot buffer ordinance last year, which was criticized at the time for not going far enough to protect wetlands.


Some county council members had initial concerns over the strict requirements the ordinance contains. The ordinance now faces a public hearing with the Planning Zoning Commission on November 4th.


Roman Battaglia is a corps member withReport for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.