Two Sussex County Council members question a proposed deal that would pave the way to develop a multimillion dollar botanic garden near Dagsboro.
The property for the proposed 37-acre gardens, known as the Cannon Tract, was purchased in 2006 for $1.3 million by the Sussex County Land Trust using county open-space funding. Under the proposed deal, the land trust would lease the property for 99 years to Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens Inc.
After a detailed presentation during the Aug. 6 council meeting, Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, said the proposed project goes against the goals of the land trust. “We gave this money to a land trust, and the reason we gave to the land trust is so it would stay clear land,” he said. “You are talking about buildings and putting blacktop down; this is not what a land trust is all about. I think we took taxpayers' money to buy a piece of land for nondevelopment, and this is development.”
Although Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, was not as outspoken about the proposed project, he agreed with Wilson that the project does not meet the land trust's goal of preserving open space.
Countering Wilson and Phillips, Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said, “They are not going to grow houses; they are growing trees,” said
Cole asked Wilson if he was anti-development. “I'm not saying that,” Wilson replied. “But this is totally going against the grain of the land trust's open-space idea.”
Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, a member of the land trust, said the organization voted in support of the project.
Project would be built over a decade
The project is an ambitious one. SDBG Board President Michael Zajic of Lewes said the total build out of Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek would take about a decade and cost as much as $50 million. Zajic said the core area of gardens would be about the size of planting areas at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.
If approved, the project would be built in phases with the first phase opening in June 2016, he said.
SDBG is seeking a conditional use for gardens on a 37-acre parcel along Piney Neck Road about one mile east of Dagsboro. Planning and zoning and county council have both deferred on a decision.
The group aims to plant 8,000 shrubs, 2,000 trees, 150,000 perennials, 600,000 bulbs and 100,000 native plants.
Many types of gardens are planned such as historic, vegetable, children's, meadow, water lily, forest and sand gardens as well as bogs and vernal ponds. Zajic said bogs and vernal ponds are the most endangered habitats on the Eastern Shore.
“The idea is to create the first flagship botanic gardens in the state,” said Mark Davidson, land planner and consultant with Pennoni Associates in Milton.
Zajic said the gardens could attract as much as $27 million annually in tourism dollars, not including $9 million in garden-generated fees and $3 million to the local economy for services and vendors.
“Garden tourism is one of the biggest types of tourism in the country,” Zajic said. “Garden and garden touring have a bigger economic impact than all of sports put together.”
The proposed project would feature a large canal complete with waterfalls, bridges and boat rides. Dirt removed from the canal would be used to create a 7-foot high berm around the perimeter of the gardens to create a noise buffer, Zajic said. Also planned is an amphitheater, conservatory, greenhouse, farm, garden cafe and gift shop, nature center, visitors center and a pier adjoining Pepper Creek for eco-tours.
Zajic, who served as horticulture supervisor for Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Md., said the gardens would be on the cutting edge, providing accessibility and up to six classrooms for adult's and children's educational programs. 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, seasonal and desert gardens planted inside a four-chamber conservatory.
Davidson said estimates 84,000 people would visit the gardens each year and the project would create 100 full- and part-time jobs. Davidson said more than 190 letters and emails from people in support of the proposed project are on file.
Council wants a business plan
On a request by Phillips, council voted 4-1 to leave the public record open for 30 days to allow SDBG to provide a business plan. County attorney J. Everett Moore advised council to focus on the land-use questions and not business plan matters. Deaver, who agreed with the attorney, voted against leaving the record open. “What does this have to do with land use?” she asked.
Zajic said portions of a business plan are being compiled, but without county approval for the project, the board is hesitant to do a complete plan.
Lawrence Lank, director of planning and zoning, said requesting a business plan is not normally part of the process. "I'm sure that some project booklets have included a business plan, but very seldom," he said following the meeting.
Deaver and Phillips wanted to know where support for the project was coming from. Zajic said board members have donated numerous hours and personal resources, and several companies are donating professional services. In addition, meetings with benefactors have taken place or have been scheduled.
“You are catching us at a point where we've not gone public, so we don't have pockets that are already full,” he said. “We are waiting for approval, and then we will make it happen.”
Zajic said supporters would have opportunities to purchase numerous memorial items, including bricks for a large walkway within the gardens.
He said the project is based on a successful model used to develop Norfolk Botanical Gardens in Norfolk, Va., opened in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration project.
Phillips, who checked out the gardens on his computer during the hearing, noted that the Norfolk gardens started with a $76,000 donation from a state legislator, an amount he said was worth about $1 million in 2013 dollars.
“Are you likely to go to the state and ask for money to get started?” Phillips asked.
Zajic said the state was on a long list of potential donors for the project. He said local, state and federal officials have voiced support for the proposed project.
“You are not thinking of coming to county are you?” Phillips asked.
“We hope so because it's in the county's interest; we expect help from a lot of people,” Zajic answered.
Phillips said the county had already chipped in by purchasing the land.