County needs more protection for trees and open space

March 24, 2023

Among possible amendments to Sussex County code being discussed by county officials are buffers, tree preservation and superior-design elements required for cluster subdivisions, which represent the vast majority of subdivisions in the county. Developers can build on smaller lots if they adhere to all of the superior-design standards.

Although the county went through a laborious process of updating its buffers ordinance, there are still ambiguities to be addressed.

At the top of the list is forest preservation in buffers, including perimeter buffers. There are no regulations in county code preventing a developer from clear-cutting every tree to the property line, as long as a 20- to 30-foot perimeter buffer is replanted.

There are also no regulations prohibiting a developer from clear-cutting every tree on a parcel before starting site work and construction.

Although it seems obvious that rules should be in place to stop this practice, property rights have to be considered.

If regulations are adopted, officials fear property owners will harvest timber before selling their land for development, which is a right every county property owner has.

While an ordinance dealing with parcel clear-cutting will be a challenge, instituting a better-defined perimeter buffer ordinance could be addressed quickly. In wooded areas, it should be mandated that mature trees cannot be cut down, and enforcement policies and penalties should be adopted.

Calculation of open space in cluster subdivisions is another issue council must address. Currently, amenities such as pools and clubhouses, stormwater management areas and ponds, and perimeter buffers can be used to calculate the required minimum 30% open space. The county code is a contradiction because it prohibits buildings in open-space areas, yet pools and clubhouses are counted as open space.

Passive and active open space are treated the same. That needs to change. While there is some validity to counting amenities as open space, development features such as stormwater ponds should not be part of the equation.

Open space should be defined as land available for use by residents.

The goal of the cluster ordinance is to preserve the most environmentally sensitive areas on a parcel and cluster housing in other areas all connected by open space, which are among the superior-design standards.

These design standards are supposed to lead to better developments with minimal impact on the environment.

Now, county council and planning and zoning members need to institute ordinances designed to make that happen.

  • 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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