Sussex County's Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended approval of a conditional use for botanic gardens along Piney Neck Road near Dagsboro. But among the conditions placed on the project is one that final approval by county council does not commit county funds to the proposal.
The Sept. 12 vote in support of the project was unanimous, in contrast to the reception the project received during an Aug. 6 county council public hearing. Council will have final say on the application; a vote will take place at a future meeting.
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.
Councilmen Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, and Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, questioned whether the project was in line with the goals of the land trust to preserve open space. Council also gave the applicant 30 days to submit a business plan for the proposed gardens.
Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, a member of the land trust, said the organization voted in support of the project.
In making the motion in support of the proposed project, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Rodney Smith said the gardens were compatible with the agricultural zoning of the parcel with little or no impact on area traffic. Among the conditions placed on the application is the construction of a vegetated berm to serve as a buffer around the perimeter of the property. Hours of operation would be 8 a.m. to dusk Monday though Sunday with later hours to 11 p.m. for special events. Road improvements would be required as outlined by the Delaware Department of Transportation.
Project would be built in phases
During testimony, Michael Zajic of Lewes, botanic gardens board president, said the total build out of Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek would take about a decade and cost as much as $50 million.
If approved, the project would be built in phases, with the first phase opening in June 2016, he said.
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 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.
The proposed project would feature a large canal complete with waterfalls, bridges and boat rides. Dirt removed to dig out 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, visitor 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 adults' and children's educational programs. He said the 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.
More than 190 letters and emails from people in support of the proposed project are on file. No one spoke in opposition to the proposed project at either public hearing.