State officials recently held the first of three public workshops to gather public comment on how the state’s Open Space Program should move forward in the future.
But the Feb. 9 meeting in Georgetown collected no public input because no one showed up.
Officials are concerned that's because citizens don't realize the role the Open Space Program has played in expanding parks and recreational opportunities in Delaware.
Division of Parks and Recreation Director Ray Bivens said,”If you're coming to a Delaware State Park, a historic site or a state forest, it's thanks to this Open Space Program.”
But people are not connecting parks with the program, he said. “They think it's some place that they never visit.”
Open Space land purchases have nearly doubled the size of Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes and have expanded Delaware Seashore State Park by 1,000 acres. The program was also the leading funding mechanism for the popular Junction and Breakwater Trail linking Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.
Since 1990, when the program began, it has helped state parks grow by 60 percent, state forests by 50 percent and Division of Fish and Wildlife management areas by 38 percent, officials said in a 2016 interview.
Legislation requires new plan
“The open space program is coming up on 27 years, and we believe that it's worked extremely well,” said Open Space Council Chair John Schroeder. However, he said, in 2015, legislation required a program update. “It became apparent we need more public input,” Schroeder said.
The program update includes a new draft plan, which will be only one or two pages long, seeks public input as to what land the program should seek acquire going forward.
The plan will not include specific parcels slated for acquisition or timelines for acquiring property; rather, it may, depending on public input, develop new ways to partner with counties and municipalities or other groups to develop programs for land purchases.
At this point, however, the Open Space Program is mostly at a standstill. The program is supposed to receive $10 million annually in state funds, $1 million of which is placed in a trust. That funding has been eliminated by legislators for the past two years, leaving a program balance of only $400,000.
“We haven't gotten any funding for the last two years, and so we figured that there's some sort of public perception that we're not doing something right, so we want to know what people want us to do,” said Elena Stewart, a land preservation specialist for Delaware State Parks.
“The broad citizenry needs to know that there is an open space program, what it does, what it's trying to do and why it needs more than $400,000 to do it,” said council member Lorraine Fleming. “When times get tough is when individuals with strong conservation ethics will step up to the plate.”
Bivens said public input could result in new ways to think about land preservation, such as new partnerships or tax credit opportunities.
“The game has changed since the Open Space Council started,” he said. “Years ago, it was all about buying one chunk to build a state park or forestry area.
“Now, especially in parks and with the emergence of trails,” he said, “it might be purchasing a small little parcel that would become a trail head. It's not as easy as it used to be in that case.”
More than 1,000 acres in Sussex County are owned by people who are ready to participate in the council’s Open Space Program, but the program doesn't have the funds to purchase them. By not funding the Open Space Program, Delaware also misses out on millions of dollars in matching federal funds to preserve open space for recreation.
“The effect will be felt in future generations,” Bivens said.
Since 1990, the Open Space Program has purchased nearly 60,000 acres statewide, using more than $350 million to secure that land – the majority in Sussex County.
The program is completely voluntary; it depends on landowners willing to sell land at an affordable price to be used for publicly accessible recreational areas or easements.
A second workshop was held in Dover Feb. 16, and the final workshop will be held at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Blue Ball Barn in Alapocas Run State Park in Wilmington. A public hearing on the draft plan will be held Wednesday, March 8, at the Dover Public Library. For more, go to www.dnrec.delaware.gov/OpenSpaces.