Land preservation key to Sussex’s future

July 1, 2022

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson announced June 21 that the county had purchased more than 150 acres of land in central and eastern Sussex for preservation. The price tag was $5 million. Since 2003, the county has spent $13.5 million to preserve more than 5,200 acres. County officials have also earmarked $7.4 million in the 2023 budget for open space and farmland preservation. 

As evidenced by recent Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission decisions, these steps to preserve land and keep it out of the hands of developers are incredibly important. 

Assistant county attorney Vince Robertson recently cited three key court cases that underscore the importance of land preservation. These cases, solidifying property rights, essentially say a project cannot be denied if it complies with code. Quoting Judge N. Maxson Terry Jr.’s opinion from the 1994 Delaware Superior Court case East Lake Partners v. City of Dover, Robertson said, “The planning commission has no power to reject a site plan because the residents do not want the land used for a project that is a permitted use under the applicable zoning regulations.” 

Robertson encouraged any residents opposed to continued development in Sussex County to work toward amending zoning and subdivision ordinances, and participate in comprehensive plan meetings every 10 years. 

Here’s the problem. Most land in Sussex County is zoned AR-1 agricultural-residential, which allows two homes per acre by right. Very few landowners are likely to upzone their properties to increase density, and county officials likely won’t force a change on a landowner in the comprehensive plan. Less than 10% of all development is high density.

This is why land preservation is so important. We commend Sussex County for its continued efforts to buy land, but more actions are needed. If residents want to curb overdevelopment, they should put their money where their mouth is. Donating to organizations like the Sussex County Land Trust could jump-start the process. More and more residents are objecting to hundreds of houses being built on farmland and woodlands next to their homes, but unless something is done to preserve land from development, there’s little anyone can do about it.

  • 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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