Sussex council wants legal definition of open space

Fate of botanic gardens project on hold for one more week
A site plan of the proposed Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek sits against the wall at the Oct. 1 Sussex County Council meeting. BY RON MACARTHUR
October 1, 2013

Supporters of the proposed Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek will have to wait at least one more week to see if they can proceed with their project.

At its Oct. 1 meeting, Sussex County Council voted 4-1 to defer on a decision to allow the county's attorney time to formulate an opinion on whether the project fits into the Sussex County Land Trust's definition of open space.

The 37-acre parcel was donated to the land trust by the county as part of the county's open-space preservation program. The land trust, as landlord, plans to lease the land to Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens Inc. for $1.

On Sept. 12, the county's planning and zoning commission voted unanimously in support of the organization's conditional-use application.

Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, questioned whether the proposed project conformed to the land trust's vision and mission. He asked council to delay a vote for a week to get more information. “We need to make sure we can go forward without legal risks,” Phillips said. “The land trust charter has specific uses, and I'm asking our attorney if this fits.”

“We need a legal opinion. Is this open space or not?” asked Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford.

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, who voted against the motion, said dragging out the vote was a waste of county resources. “Two council members sat on the land trust board and supported this; it fits into the classification of open space,” Cole said. “It's odd that you are questioning it now.”

Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, said she would support the motion allowing one week to get a legal opinion. “I look at this project as a gift to Sussex County and the economy,” she said.

“We trust them [the land trust] to use the land for open space,” said Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown. “When we give the land to them, it's to remain as open space.”

Sussex County purchased the property through the Dagsboro-Frankford sewer district. The county used general-fund money to reimburse the district, and then conveyed the property by deed to the land trust, said county spokesman Chip Guy.

At council's Aug. 6 public hearing, Phillips requested the public record remain open for the organization to submit a business plan, which it did on Aug. 30. “I have significant concerns with this plan,” he said.

Council attorney J. Everett Moore reminded Phillips that council makes decisions based on land-use regulations and not business plans.

“We don't want to micro-manage this, but this is unique,” Phillips said. “Land purchased by the county given to the land trust comes with certain assumptions. I think we have a responsibility to the taxpayers to see if this project can succeed.”

Build out of gardens would take a decade

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, on Piney Neck Road east of Dagsboro, 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.

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.

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