On Arbor Day, county needs a tree ordinance

April 29, 2022

The famous Dr. Seuss character The Lorax spoke for the trees in his effort to stop environmental destruction. Who speaks for the trees in Sussex County?

More and more residents are speaking out, saying enough is enough. But who is listening?

It's only fitting that on Arbor Day April 29, action should be taken to address a problem caused by the rapid pace of development in the Cape Region. Thousands of acres of trees, including mature forests, have been clear-cut to make way for housing subdivisions.

The facts, as presented at county public hearings, speak for themselves. More than 3,500 acres of woodlands are lost each year in the county, and more than half of forested lands in developments were clear-cut from 2017-19.

In one recently approved subdivision and another pending subdivision, an estimated 177 acres of woods are destined to be cut down.

There is nothing in county code to prevent a developer from cutting down every single tree as site work is done unless those trees are in a wetlands/waterway buffer areas. Tme after time, during the Office of State Planning Coordination's Preliminary Land Use Service process, state environmental officials request that mature trees be spared, but that request is ignored in the vast majority of cases.

Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission members also ask during site-plan reviews that developers prioritize tree preservation. Trees should not be disturbed in buffer areas. But there is no ordinance requiring tree conservation.

That needs to change, and as soon as possible.

A small step in the right direction has been taken by Sussex County Council in the updated wetland buffers and drainage ordinance. Incentives for developers to preserve trees and penalties for cutting down trees in resource buffers are included in the draft ordinance, which council has not yet voted on.

While some Cape Region towns, such as Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, have tree ordinances in place, there is no movement in that direction at the county level. Tree preservation was discussed during a council meeting last year, but no action resulted.

In other jurisdictions, developers are required to either replace cut trees with plantings in other locations or contribute funding to environmental organizations that will plant trees. In some cases, developers are required to preserve a percentage of trees on a parcel.

So, who speaks for the trees at the county level? We are looking for a champion to stand up and take the lead to create a tree ordinance in Sussex County. There will be obstacles to overcome, but aren't Sussex County's vital forests worth the effort?

  • Editorials are considered and written by Cape Gazette Editorial Board members, including Publisher Chris Rausch, Editor Jen Ellingsworth, News Editor Nick Roth and reporters Ron MacArthur and Chris Flood. 

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