Surfriders support county buffer ordinance

January 25, 2022

The Delaware Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation urges Sussex County Council to adopt a buffer ordinance intended to better protect waterways from surface runoff in general and more specifically from the impacts of new development on our waterways.

Preserving natural buffers between waterways and land-disturbing activities is highly effective at controlling pollution and protecting essential habitat for fish and wildlife. Establishing buffers between development and freshwater wetlands and small streams within new major subdivisions is critical. We agree with increasing the width of buffers on tidal wetlands and waters from 50 to 100 feet. Although these proposed widths are less than the minimum recommended by scientists and remain less than what nearby jurisdictions require, this is a step in the right direction.

The current proposed buffer ordinance has provisions that concern us. Forests provide the best protection against pollution and are essential for wildlife habitat. The current ordinance allows forests to be cut down without being replanted in the buffer area when the site is developed, and the buffer can be maintained as grass. Conversion of forested buffer to grass will significantly reduce the effectiveness in preventing pollution from reaching Delaware’s wetlands and waterways. It will also unnecessarily eliminate wildlife habitat.

We urge council to eliminate the “width averaging” provisions. While buffering a waterway by 25 feet in places and 75 feet in others might average 50 feet, it will allow more pollution to enter the waterway than if a minimum of 50 feet is preserved because pollutant runoff to waterways increases exponentially where buffers are narrow. Sussex County has general variance provisions that can be considered in those rare instances when adherence to the minimum uniform buffer width would create undue hardship. Including buffer width flexibility into the ordinance itself will make it harder for Sussex County’s Planning & Zoning Commission and council to ensure that decreased buffer widths will be rare and only approved when necessary.

These issues can be resolved so that the ordinance fulfills its purposes. Key points: First, if a buffer is not forested at the time the development application is submitted, it must be replanted to a forest before construction is complete. This provides an economic incentive for developers to keep the trees, and it is what other nearby jurisdictions have required for a long time. Second, buffer widths must be maintained at their newly increased widths, plain and simple, and options to reduce buffer width or allow width averaging dropped. Finally, clear language on how the ordinance will be enforced by the county needs to be added to ensure buffers will be maintained in a functioning condition.

Sussex County’s wetlands and waterways are critical to its economy and the well-being of its residents. Delaware Surfrider supports efforts to reduce runoff into our waters, protect our wildlife, and reduce the impacts of surface water runoff and contaminants to our residents.

Brian Moran
Surfrider Foundation Delaware Chapter


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