Action needed on Inland Bays Buffers

Foundation urges action on Inland Bays buffers

PGA director says request based on emotion, not fact

By Ron MacArthur | May 18, 2012
Cape Gazette, May 18.
Photo by: Ron MacArthur Development around the Inland Bays has slowed since 2008 after a decade of fast-paced growth.

Georgetown — The Inland Bays Foundation says time has come for Sussex County Council to upgrade its buffer ordinance to improve water quality in the Inland Bays.
Rich Collins, executive director of the Positive Growth Alliance, says action is not needed for several reasons, including the fact that water quality in the area is improving.

At least one council member says the county should act on the foundation's request, but he is not sure he could muster three votes in that regard. “I have no problem with enacting stringent buffers,” said Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View. “But it's an election year and politicians are afraid to offend anyone.”

He said the county should respond to the foundation by providing a schedule and an action plan. “This could occur during our update of our comprehensive plan and possibly when we bring on a planner,” Cole said.

Speaking to council at its May 15 meeting, foundation president Harry Haon said officials need to address an ordinance put into place 20 years ago. In December, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that county officials – and not the state – have authority when it comes to buffer regulations. Those regulations within the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control's Pollution Control Strategy were effectively stricken from the document.

“With this authority the county has the responsibility to quickly enact an updated buffer ordinance,” he said.

There is good news about the Inland Bays

In 1990, there were 13 point sources discharging into the Inland Bays; today there are three, including Lewes, Millsboro and Rehoboth Beach waste treatment plants. Millsboro town officials have announced plans to switch to land application; Rehoboth officials plan to convert to ocean outfall by 2014; and although Lewes officials will continue to discharge a small amount of nutrients into the watershed, they will fund nutrient management projects elsewhere in the watershed.

There are approximately 14,000 individual septic systems in the watershed; Sussex County has doubled the number of residences on central sewer systems to more than 67,000 over the past decade. Ninety-five percent of farms have nutrient management programs.

Populations of eagles and osprey are growing, but populations of some ducks – including black ducks and brants – are in decline.

More than 300,000 fishing trips are made each year in the waters of the Inland Bays with populations of flounder and striped bass increasing.

Source: Center for the Inland Bays annual report

Haon said the county's 50-foot waterways buffer requirement should be more in line with the recommended 100-foot buffer included in state regulations for areas around the Inland Bays. “In addition, the county ordinance does not address tributaries, which are the largest source of pollution, and does not address what type of vegetation should be included in buffers,” he said.

Cole said he would support residential buffers up to 100 feet. “I could agree to that because it's much better than what we have today, and it would only affect new subdivisions,” Cole said.

Haon said the foundation is not asking for specifics but is urging county officials to not ignore its request. “They need to do something,” he said after the meeting. “They can't stand on a 20-year-old ordinance that doesn’t represent good science.”

He said county officials have 10 years' worth of testimony with updated scientific information to pen an upgraded ordinance. “We urge you to have this completed by the fall and request a written response to our proposal,” he told council.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, said they did not anticipate any action by council on the request.

Haon said foundation members, as well as members of five supporting groups, are available to assist council. Those organizations include Citizen's Coalition, Sierra Club of Delaware, AARP Environmental Committee, League of Women Voters of Sussex County and Vicki York Realtor.

Collins said an amended ordinance is not needed. A survey of planning and zoning applications from 2008 to 2011 shows that no projects in the Inland Bays would have required a buffer as suggested by the foundation, he said. “There are no new subdivisions, and with the number of lots waiting for construction, there won't be any for years to come,” he said. “If they want to protect the environment they need to find technology now and not something an infinite number of years in the future.”

Collins said the presentation to council was based on emotion and not fact. “Somebody really needs to present the other side of the story, but many environmentalists don't want to hear it because it might disturb their world view. They will not talk about what is being done.”

Collins said a number of factors are contributing to improvements in the Inland Bays, including less farming in the area, modern stormwater practices to deal with runoff and higher standards for septic systems.

The state of the Inland Bays

The 2011 State of the Inland Bays report, compiled by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, shows overall water quality has improved slightly. Still, water quality remains fair to poor with better quality in the open waters near Indian River Inlet and worse quality in Inland Bays tributaries.

The report also noted a significant reduction in nutrients as a result of improvements in nutrient management. However, scientists reported overall conditions in the Inland Bays watershed have not improved. The report found low dissolved oxygen conditions remain widespread with few bay grass meadows, which are key to life in the Inland Bays. Seaweed growth is decreasing, but is still limiting bay grass restoration in many areas.

In 2008, DNREC created a Pollution Control Strategy designed to protect the Inland Bays watershed from nutrient runoff and other contaminants. The PCS set 100-foot buffers for properties that abut primary waterways. A group of developers filed a lawsuit against DNREC and its PCS resulting in Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves' ruling that invalidated two sections of the PCS relating to buffers. DNREC appealed that ruling to the state's high court.

The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Graves' decision to strike the two sections of the PCS regarding buffer widths along waterways, giving the power to enact buffer regulations to the county, not a state agency.