County matches for open land donations

Sussex County Council signed off on a pair of Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT) partnerships at the March 22 council meeting.

SCLT President/CEO Wendy Baker said the trust had acquired or helped acquire 2,500 acres of open space in Sussex County since its inception.

In addition, she said the SCLT had garnered $1.2 million in private donations, plus more than $375,000 in developer pledges (nearly $280,000 received to date).

“It is important to recognize that all along, the board of trustees has felt that development in Sussex County should leverage the purchase of open space,” Baker said. “This is a perfect example of how we make these people work.

According to County Administrator Bob Stickels, “When this program was first established, we were hoping we could get a match from the private sector, and I think the private sector is starting to step up to the plate.”

He said they were considering a $4 million commitment to the SCLT in the fiscal 2006 budget.

Presently, the SCLT is partnering with the Nature Conservancy on the purchase of the 908-acre Gladfelter Pulp Wood Company parcel, near Milton.

“Our plan is to restore it to a mixed hardwood forest — oak, hickory, sweet gum and holly, with some pine,” said Nature Conservancy’s Maria Trabka. “We’re guiding the regeneration of the clear-cut areas, and thinning out the loblolly pine plantation.”

She said there was a hunting club using the land, but they hoped to build in some public access trails and coordinate those activities.

With all the other costs involved in acquisition, it’s almost a $10 million project,” Trabka said. “A project of that scale requires lots of partners.”

To date, the Nature Conservancy has contributed $1 million, private individuals and foundations $2.38 million, state and federal open space programs $4.67 million, and the SCLT $250,000.

Trabka said they would also bring in $94,000 from loblolly pine sales.

“We still need to raise $1.7 million,” she said. “If the council decides to support us at the level requested ($750,000), your money will be leveraged 13 times over by all these other funds.”

As Stickels noted, “This property was prime for development, and I think in buying it, they got it for much less than what the market price would have been.”

The Nature Conservancy paid $8,500 per acre, and he expected the land would have gone for as much as $20,000 per acre on the open market.

Council unanimously approved the SCLT’s increased support, but Council Member Vance Phillips encouraged the Nature Conservancy to look at purchases further south, nearer the heart of Sussex County.

Mark Davis of the Delaware Department of Agriculture also requested additional money for the preservation of farmland, through the SCLT.

Davis’ program involves preservation of development rights (PDR).

Basically, landowners volunteer to give up their development rights for 10 years, in exchange for additional tax breaks. Later, if they want to sell those rights to the state (as a permanent easement), the state will pay the difference between the value of the land as used for agriculture, and the full market value.

Landowners typically tack a discount onto that figure as well. Davis said they put the biggest discounters at the top of the list and worked their way down.

The county had already directed $300,000 toward those efforts this year, through the SCLT. Davis returned before council on March 22 to request an additional match ($125,000) for the $125,000 his program had raised in private donations.

Council unanimously approved the match.

In other business, council members unanimously approved the Muddy Neck development near South Bethany — 38 single-family homes along Double Bridges Road, with 100 additional residential units in a variety of quad-, tri- and duplexes towards the rear of the property.

The application came before council as a change of zone, from agricultural residential (AR) to medium-density residential (MR). At 138 units on 64 acres, project density will be 2.9 per acre.

However, they denied a change of zone from agricultural-residential (AR) to high-density residential (HR) near Rehoboth.

Despite a slew of conditions that would have accompanied the change of zone, Council Member George Cole said those conditions would not transfer if the property changed hands.

Although one of the conditions would have limited density to six units per acre, at the request of the county engineering department (sewer capacity), Cole said that wouldn’t apply to any subsequent owners.

He suggested the application would be more appropriate as a conditional use.

Council Member Lynn Rogers joined him in opposition, citing traffic concerns, especially at Routes 1 and 1A. Council President Finley Jones’ opposition broke the deadlock.