In 24 years, 55,532 acres of open space preserved

June 13, 2014
Lewes resident John Schroeder serves as chairman of Delaware's Open Space Council. SOURCE FILE PHOTO

At the June 4 meeting of Delaware’s Open Space Council, members approved purchase of four private properties including an island surrounded by Delaware Seashore State Park, 11 acres surrounded by Redden State Forest, 58 acres adjacent to the Fork Branch Natural Area in Kent County and 141 acres adjacent to the Augustine Wildlife Area in New Castle County.

These purchases are the latest chapter of an amazing story of open space preservation - for the public - underway in Delaware since 1990. Longtime open space preservation champion John Schroeder, a Lewes resident and former state representative, has been a member of the Open Space Council for the past six years. Three years ago, Gov. Jack Markell asked John to succeed Lynn Williams as chairman of the council. Williams had served as chair from the time former Gov. Tom Carper created the group. “Our state is a real leader in open space preservation,” said Schroeder. The numbers back up his statement.

Since 1990, Delaware, acting through its Open Space Council, has spent $255,018,163 to preserve open lands. “Partnering with other organizations, such as the federal government, private foundations and other state entities like Fish and Wildlife and the Division of Parks, has brought another $74,526,590 for purchases,” said Schroeder. “In all, over the past 24 years, $329,544,753 has been spent to preserve 55,532 acres of open space. We work on the premise that these will be fee simple purchases which in general gives residents and visitors access to these lands for hunting, fishing, hiking, bird-watching and other outdoor activities.”

Schroeder said of those purchases, 60 percent - or 33,509 acres - have been in Sussex County. The council has also purchased 11,907 acres in New Castle County and 10,115 in Kent. Some of the notable purchases in Sussex include an expansion of Cape Henlopen State Park - largely west of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal - by 2,753 acres; 3,682 acres in the Inland Bays area; and 3,940 acres that now constitute the Nanticoke Wildlife Area on either side of the Nanticoke River west of Laurel.

Funded by abandoned accounts

Much of the purchases has been funded from abandoned stock shares, savings accounts and small certificates of deposit associated with the thousands of companies from around the U.S. that have incorporated in Delaware. As the incorporating state, Delaware receives funds from those accounts when they are abandoned. It amounts to millions of dollars each year. In the early years of the Open Space Council, much more money came from the so-called escheat funds. But as the economy and state finances tightened over the years, legislators diverted more and more of those funds to other aspects of state operations. Still, the council has received no less than $2 million per year in recent years. Unless the General Assembly yanks those funds from the FY2015 budget being discussed now in Dover, there will be another $2 million available to the Open Space Council for purchases beginning July 1. “We always have our eyes on a list of properties we’re interested in,” said Schroeder. “We can’t identify them, for obvious reasons, but we’re always trying to maximize our dollars to buy the best properties we can.”

One of the last significant purchases in Sussex County came during Schroeder’s last year as a legislator, in 2002. He pushed for purchase of 260.44 acres in Lewes owned previously by University of Delaware adjacent to its College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. That property came at a price tag of $3.1 million. “I’m a little disappointed in that situation,” said Schroeder. “I would have thought something would have been done with it by now.”

Even as open space land that will never be developed, and which is reverting to nature and all of its beautiful native trees and animals and birds, those 260 acres nonetheless add significantly to the natural landscape of Delaware, as do the other 55,000 acres that have been purchased over the past quarter century.

As the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, if you want the view you have to buy the view.

Delaware, to its great credit, is doing just that.

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