Public weighs in on county’s subdivision buffers

The Sussex County Council held a public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 11, regarding forested and/or landscaped buffers within the County’s jurisdiction.

“I have introduced this ordinance, so I’ll give my synopsis on why I feel this ordinance should be adopted,” said Councilman I.G. Burton. “The County currently has a 20-foot buffer that surrounds all subdivision. This changes that 20 to 40.”

Burton said the open-space calculation would continue to include the buffer, as would the calculation of the subdivision’s density.

“This ordinance encourages the preservation of the existing trees by allowing them to be used in the planning calculation,” he added. “The ordinance adds to the planning calculations the additional 20 feet.”

Burton said that, with the additional 20-foot buffer, the quality of life in the county will improve.

“Buffers do a myriad of things. It’s not just one thing that makes this a needed ordinance, it’s the combination of all things that buffers do and create. The treelines create a rural look and feel to the area. They give our natural habitat a place to live, and the air quality and natural beauty adds to the quality of development, adds to the pervious surface… The list really goes on. Buffers do a lot.”

Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson noted that the proposed ordinance would bump up the number of trees required to be in the buffer, from 15 to 25, and that it promotes the maintenance of existing vegetation.

Rich Holtkamp of Milton said he supported the ordinance, noting that it would add value to land and home ownership.

“This ordinance will make such a significant, positive difference that we and future residents will say, ‘We did the right thing,’” he predicted. “We all place our trust in you to make the right decision.”

James LaBella of Lewes said he, too, was in favor of increasing buffers within the county.

“Other counties are doing very well with a larger buffer,” he said. “I think the residents are looking to council to slow down things.”

Karen Connelly of Rehoboth Beach said she thinks the proposed 40-foot buffer is “too small,” noting what she feels is the need for more trees.

“You guys are asked to be the visionaries — to look at the longer view,” said Selbyville resident Anna von Lindenberg. “I don’t want us to be myopic here.”

Robert Harris, a developer who resides in Ocean View, said he was not in favor of the proposed ordinance, adding that he is not against trees or buffers.

“We’re talking about a 40-foot buffer — one each side of a subdivision — so, in reality, what we’re talking about is an 80-foot buffer. I see no evidence that an 80-foot buffer is any better than a 40-foot buffer… If you’re going to take or choose to require buffers from individual property owners for the benefit of all, I think you should compensate that property owner,” he added.

Robert Tunnell III of the Tunnell Companies noted that the definition of a buffer within the proposed ordinances seemed to him to be “very restrictive.”

“It doesn’t account for either stormwater runoff from the buffer… This doesn’t even allow for a catch basin or any kind of drainage in those buffers to collect stormwater. That would have to be outside the buffer, and I think that’s an issue.”

Tunnell called into question the requirement that all planted trees shall “include a mix of 70 percent deciduous shade trees and 30 percent evergreen trees.”

“There are soil conditions, water conditions, etc., that would require potentially a different mix, and there should be more flexibility allowed in the design of these buffers to have a wider variety of trees or a different mix, if need be, based on the professionals’ opinions…

“The way this ordinance is written, it’s almost looking at buffers as a static thing… A buffer is going to change over time,” Tunnell said. “Certain species are going to take over. It seems a little ridiculous to me, that when a plan is certified and approved, when a tree dies, that exact same tree has to be put back in that exact same spot. That tree died for a reason. Maybe that species of tree got too much water or not enough sun. Why are you putting the same tree back in the exact same spot? A buffer is a dynamic ecosystem, and it should change over time.”

Merritt Burke IV, CEO of the Sussex County Association of Realtors, said he opposed the proposed ordinance.

Bobby Horsey of Laurel said he questioned the timing of the ordinance being discussed.

“We’re in the fall season; it’s harvest time. We can’t fill the room with farmers because everyone is out there trying to get crops out of the fields,” said Horsey. “Farmers are seven-days-a-week people, and right now it’s our harvest time.

“I strongly ask you, if you want to make an ordinance that is going to impact our land and our land values, do it in the winter months, when the farming community has time to come up here and let their voices be heard… It’s not fair right now, because they’re out there right now trying to make a living.”

Dave Carey of Lewes suggested a working group be created of interested parties, to potentially give “more shape and more detail” to the proposed ordinance.

James Baxter IV, a Georgetown-area farmer, spoke representing the 2,000 members of the Sussex County Farm Bureau.

“All of its membership is against these added buffers,” he said. “We feel it takes away from our valuable equity in our land. None of us want to sell our land, but we do business by using our land as equity to be able to operate from year to year.”

He agreed with Horsey, noting the timing of the proposed ordinance is “pretty poor.”

“I should be on a combine, I should be trying to pick corn before this monster out there in the Atlantic comes and mows all my corn flat and I have to pick it up by hand,” he said of the looming Hurricane Florence.

Baxter addressed those stating that buffers will add to the “rural look” of their development.

“I encourage you to keep my livelihood viable, and by keeping my livelihood viable, will make the ‘rural look’ they’re after, and no one will have to plant trees.”

The council chose to leave the record open to allow for written comment between Sept. 11 and the next council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 10 a.m. At that time, those who did not speak on the issue will have the opportunity to add to the record.

To read the proposed ordinance in its entirety, visit

By Maria Counts

Staff Reporter