Letter to the Editor: Profits, politics weaken proposed wetland buffer ordinance

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For decades, Sussex County has experienced severe wetland loss, deforestation and overdevelopment from the impact of large residential subdivisions, resulting in such high levels of pollution that our waterways are unsafe for swimming and fishing.

A county-appointed workgroup reached consensus on key principles and recommended changes to improve the existing failed buffer ordinance. I was an active participant in that original buffer workgroup.

Over the past year, hours of public hearings heard citizens like you and me, as well as topic experts, offer their thoughts and concerns; then, council discussions resulted in proposed amendments, some of which strengthen — but others that weaken — current regulations, as well as the proposed ordinance.

The proposed amendments do provide clarification of the purpose and function of buffers; stronger language on permitted and nonpermitted uses adjacent to waterways and wetlands, as well as enforcement and penalties for violations; and a modest increase in buffer areas.

Unfortunately, the latest proposal, despite strong public opposition, includes “buffer options.” Buffer options allow for actual reductions of buffers for large subdivisions in exchange for creating alternative buffers potentially miles away from the proposed development.

Buffer options were never presented to, considered by or recommended by the buffer workgroup, and their use would result in decreases in buffer protections on Sussex County rivers and streams. County officials failed to show any scientific evidence or best practices demonstrating the ability of buffer options to provide equal or better protection that would justify reducing buffer protection at the development. Their use would allow increased impact from home, street, driveway and sidewalk runoff, plus reduced open space and increased flooding.

Some claim buffer options were included to provide for “flexibility” for site design. However, a provision that provides for site flexibility is in the proposed amendment, as “buffer averaging.” Created and recommended by the original wetland buffer group and supported by the majority who spoke on the matter, buffer averaging provides for ample flexibility in site design. Although buffer averaging may reduce buffer widths along parts of the water resource, it guarantees that the total calculated buffer area is within the new subdivision. Problematically, the latest revision allows for buffer averaging and buffer options in a subdivision, greenlighting developers to double dip.

Buffer options are an effort to appease the developers by allowing lots closer to waterways, generating premium prices, greater profit and increased return on investment for the developer. This would benefit the developer but degrades the purpose and function of the buffer. Is it the county’s responsibility to ensure a greater rate of return for the developer? Buffer options are a false equivalent and should be categorically denied for all tidal and nontidal wetlands, streams and rivers.

Too often during this debate, we have heard that buffer options are a political consideration. The council must represent the needs of all of their constituents, not just special interests or influencers.

Their vote on specific amendments, especially on buffer options, requires a clear explanation for their decision. A councilperson’s vote up or down will speak volumes regarding their concern for the health, safety, welfare and quality of life of their citizens. This is especially paramount for those incumbents who, over the next several months, will be asking voters to judge their time on council and their suitability to serve again.

Rich Borrasso

Sussex Alliance for Responsible Growth

Milton