Changes needed to wetland buffers ordinance
Sussex County Council is in the process of rewriting its outdated wetlands and waterways buffer ordinance. For decades, developers have complied with the current buffer ordinance when they build subdivisions. The current regulations are the least restrictive in the state and the region.
Even with a great deal of work by a dedicated group of stakeholders and county staff to update the ordinance, some more tweaking needs to be done, as pointed out by many residents who testified during the county's public hearings.
There are some major improvements, including increased buffer widths for tidal wetlands and new buffer requirements for nontidal wetlands. A management plan is also required, which ensures the integrity of a buffer.
But there are two glaring provisions that need to be altered or removed.
First, there should be no incentives that allow developers to reduce buffer widths.
Secondly, except in rare cases, buffers should contain forests, which have been scientifically proven as the best alternative.
In the proposed ordinance, if an existing forest in a buffer is maintained, the buffer width can be cut in half. This provision defeats the purpose of the ordinance.
The proposed ordinance provides 100-foot buffers along tidal wetlands and waterways, and 50-foot buffers along nontidal wetlands and most streams. There should be no loopholes to allow those buffers to be diminished in any form.
The ordinance also allows trees in buffer areas to be cut down up to the time an application for a subdivision is filed. The buffer can then be maintained as grass. We agree with Delaware Center for the Inland Bays Executive Director Chris Bason that a clear-cut forest should be replanted. It's a costly undertaking, but the long-term benefits to the environment are worth it.
The debate over the ordinance is not over. County council's Jan. 21 public hearing has been extended to Tuesday, Feb. 22. Those who did not testify last month will get another chance to voice their opinion.
We urge council members to adopt an ordinance with one goal in mind – protection for the most environmentally sensitive areas in Sussex County.