Time for Sussex County Council to make real change

September 12, 2023

For anyone concerned about the pace and scope of residential development in Sussex County, a rare opportunity for change may be at hand. 

Sussex County Council and the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission, reacting to an increasingly vocal public, will host a workshop at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 21, at the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center, about possible subdivision code updates. 

Don’t let the word zoning put you off. If you live in a Sussex County neighborhood, drive to work, go to beaches or enjoy all that outdoor Sussex County has to offer, then these changes will affect you. The status quo cannot be sustained. 

Consider this: The population has increased 80% since 1990. We’ve lost 36,000 acres of trees since 1986, a loss of 1,000 acres each year. A state study found 87% of Sussex County’s rivers, streams and bays are polluted. Delaware, the lowest-lying state in the nation at 60 feet above sea level along the coast, is threatened by the impact of changing weather, including increasing flooding and erosion. Our highways are bumper-to-bumper, our utilities are stretched, and our wildlife is threatened. The time for change is now. 

Unfortunately, the county will not allow public input at that time, but the workshop is open to all. Your attendance is a way to show council members that their constituents are interested in these issues. 

Our organizations will make specific recommendations to council at the proper time. However, we stand united behind a set of principles that must be addressed. Our broad framework:

  • As the lowest-lying state in the nation, Delaware is especially vulnerable to flooding and shoreline erosion, which should be reflected in public policy and planning decisions and severe weather
  • The natural resources necessary for wildlife and human health are important to the quality of life in Sussex County, so they must be protected
  • The ecological value of trees and forests is high and important in mitigating severe weather effects, so they much be protected
  • The ecological value of wetlands, waterways and ponds is high and important in mitigating severe weather effects, so they must be protected
  • Usable open spaces, water and wetlands, and woodlands in housing and commercial developments can provide significant economic, ecological and recreational value, which should be a requirement of their design
  • Public input improves public policy, so a process is necessary for reviewing and enacting meaningful changes that include opportunities for public input and a timeframe for action. 

We acknowledge there is a great need for affordable housing within Sussex County, and a need to maintain and support our agricultural heritage. Again, we are united in our support for smart, sustainable growth and livable neighborhoods for all Sussex County. 

So far, modest efforts at smart growth have failed. Even council concedes some provisions are outdated, poorly worded or lack enforcement. 

Here’s an example of just one unintended consequence. The council established wooded buffer zones between new developments and around wetlands. The idea was that builders would leave mature trees in place. Instead, developers clear-cut the entire property before submitting their final building plans, then plant a few small saplings to meet the 20-foot and 30-foot buffer requirements.

Wooded buffers are critical. They improve water quality by slowing erosion and by storing, filtering and releasing clean water into inland waterways and underground aquifers. They improve air quality by capturing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Woodlands protect plant and animal habitats. Canopies help reduce temperatures, critical in this era of heat waves. Mature trees even help developers by making subdivisions more attractive.  

Trees are essential to livable communities. 

We applaud the council and commission for convening this workshop, and we urge the residents to make their voices heard by their mere presence. But we can’t stop there. This review process will take many months, and those who support smart growth must remain vigilant during this long process. We face powerful forces in opposition to meaningful change. We must continually let council members know where we stand. We cannot let this opportunity for change pass us by.    

Jane Gruenebaum is president of the Sussex Preservation Coalition.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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