County adopts stronger buffer ordinances to protect land uses

The lines between properties and what features can separate them are far less blurry than before, thanks to Sussex County Council’s adoption of a new buffer ordinance amendment.

County Council, at its Tuesday, July 29, 2008, meeting, approved a forested buffer ordinance amendment to clear up language, strengthen requirements and broaden the scope within the County Code as it relates to buffers — the strips of land that separate properties held by different owners.

The new amendment will require 20-foot buffers, except in limited circumstances, to be included on the outer perimeter of all new residential subdivisions bordering other lands, regardless of use. In the case of adjoining subdivisions, a combined 40-foot buffer — 20 feet on each side of a property line — would separate homes on the outer edges of the developments. A 30-foot buffer would remain a requirement for cluster subdivisions that adjoin farms.

Properties bordering public roads would not have to include a forested buffer on the side with road frontage, but could be required by the County’s Planning & Zoning Commission to include certain landscaped elements along the roadway.

The amendment also specifies the type and amount of vegetation that must be present in buffers and stipulates what features, including storm water ponds and streets, cannot be in those zones. And it requires that final site plans bear a signature from the Sussex Conservation District for location, dimension and type of storm water systems planned for a subdivision.

County officials made the changes in reaction to a loophole in County Code discovered last year, when legal staff interpreted the existing buffer ordinance — adopted in the 1990s and originally intended to shield agriculture and residential properties — as permitting storm water management ponds.

“It was never the intent of the County to allow forested buffers to be anything other than what the name suggests – forested,” County Administrator David B. Baker said. “With this ordinance amendment, the County has clarified the original intent of the ordinance. Along the way, because of the changing landscape in our county, we have broadened it to apply to major residential subdivisions bordering other properties, whether residential, agriculture or commercial. We believe these steps will provide the necessary and important tools to shield lands of differing use.”

The ordinance amendment takes effect immediately. A copy of the legislation can be found on the County’s Web site,

Council’s approval of the ordinance amendment gives Sussex County an early start on one of the goals set in the 2007 Comprehensive Plan Update, adopted in June and now awaiting State certification. That document calls for the County to adopt a tighter forested buffer ordinance to further protect differing land uses from one another.

Council President Finley B. Jones Jr. said Council’s action to adopt the new forested buffer ordinance amendment is an example of the County’s willingness to work in the best interest of residents, and to carry out the concepts set forth in the comprehensive plan.

“Sussex County is serious about doing what we’ve said we’ll do,” Jones said. “We’re ready to get down to business, and do what’s best for Sussex County and its citizens. I think our actions today say that loud and clear.”