Imagine land set aside in Sussex County for lush gardens with more than a million flowers and plants bordering ponds, waterfalls and canals. A dedicated group of volunteers is doing more than thinking about such a place; they are taking action to make it a reality. They want to transform a soybean field into a major tourist attraction.
Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens Inc. is seeking a conditional use for gardens on a 37-acre parcel along Piney Neck Road about one mile east of Dagsboro. The organization is working out a long-term lease with the current owner of the property, Sussex County Land Trust, said Michael Zajic, president of SDBG.
During a July 11 presentation to Sussex County Planning and Zoning, Zajic and land planner Mark Davidson of Pennoni Associates of Milton laid out plans for the project. Planning to phase in the work over several years, the group aims to plant 8,000 shrubs, 2,000 trees, 150,000 perennials, 600,000 bulbs and 100,000 native plants.
A variety of areas are planned including historic, vegetable, children's, meadow, water lily, forest and sand gardens as well as bogs and vernal ponds. Zajic said bogs are the most endangered habitat on the Eastern Shore.
“The idea is to create the first flagship botanic gardens in the state,” Davidson said, adding Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek would be built in phases over a period of five to eight years.
The projected economic impact as a tourist attraction would be about $33 million per year, Davidson said.
One of the main features of the proposed project is a large canal complete with waterfalls, bridges and boat rides. Also planned is an amphitheater, conservatory, greenhouse, farm, garden cafe and gift shop, nature center, visitors center and a pier along adjoining Pepper's Creek to provide eco-tours of the area.
Zajic, who served as horticulture supervisor for Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Md., said the gardens would be on the cutting edge providing accessibility and education with six classrooms included in the plans. He said even the large parking lot would be constructed in a circular fashion using landscaping to minimize the visual impact.
The gardens would be open all year with jungle and desert gardens planted inside the conservatory.
Davidson said estimates 84,000 people would visit the gardens each year and the project would create more than 100 full- and part-time jobs. No estimate was given on the cost of the project, but Davidson said the organization is prepared to apply for grants and seek donations from individuals and businesses and schedule fund-raising events.
Zajic said the group has met with local, state and federal officials as well as garden clubs. More than 180 people have signed letters of support for the project. No letters in opposition are on the record.
Commissioner Marty Ross said he was concerned that the plan did not include enough parking spaces for the square footage of the many buildings in the project. “At some point, I think you might hit a brick wall with parking regulations,” he said. “My gut reaction is your projection will be low.”
The plan includes 340 parking spaces with about 160,000 square feet of buildings.
Assistant county attorney Vince Robertson reminded the applicants that if the conditional-use application is approved by county council, they have three years to get the project substantially underway before the application is voided.
Planning and zoning commissioners deferred on a vote. A public hearing has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6, before county council.