New education building planned at James Farm

Sussex County, Center for the Inland Bays partnership helps preserve 150 acres
March 12, 2024

A long-awaited project to add new education and maintenance buildings at James Farm Ecological Preserve near Ocean View has moved a step closer to fruition.

At its March 5 meeting, Sussex County Council voted 5-0 to award a contract of $2 million to Bancroft Construction Inc. for the project.

The 150-acre nature preserve is owned by Sussex County and was donated by Mary Lighthipe, whose family had farmed the property for generations. The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays has been the operating partner since 1998. The preserve, along the shores of Indian River Bay, includes an amphitheater, information kiosk, rest areas, three miles of trails, three observation platforms, a boardwalk beach crossing, wildflower garden and 4,000 trees planted in a forest restoration project.

Under a master plan approved in 2016, phases of work were outlined. In Phase 1, completed in spring 2019, the entrance at Cedar Neck Road was improved, additional on-site parking was added complete with space for school buses, and a multipurpose lawn area was created to offer more space for gatherings and events.

Phase 2 projects include a three-season education building, a larger amphitheater, ADA-compliant restrooms, ecotour concession storage building, upgrades to trails, boardwalk extension, and replacement and improved signage. The county and CIB have used State Outdoors Recreation and Parks and Trails grants for the project.

In 2021, CIB secured three grants totaling $220,000; the county added $100,000 to kickstart the upgrades.

Currently, the preserve offers only primitive shelter and facilities, which can mean disruptions to outdoor learning experiences when bad weather hits. When the preserve was initially developed in 1998, facilities were not built to accommodate the rapid population growth Sussex County is undergoing.

In 2020, visitation at the preserve grew drastically with about 40,000 visitors, a nearly 400% increase since 2012.

The preserve offers a natural collection of diverse coastal ecosystems like freshwater wetlands, salt marshes and maritime forests. The preserve supports osprey, shorebirds, horseshoe crabs and a plethora of other wildlife.

The preserve also offers environmental education to underserved local students. The Day on the Bay program, which has served more than 19,000 students with fully immersive, curriculum-aligned STEM education since it was established 20 years ago, will benefit from the planned improvements. The new education building will not only allow for more students and continued programming in inclement weather, but will also create an immersive learning experience.

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