Funding questions remain amid new effort to preserve open space in northern Delaware

Increasing development has long been an issue in Delaware’s most populous county. Now New Castle County leaders have new guidance on how to better preserve open space.

T.S. Smith & Sons farm in Bridgeville, Delaware is one of nearly 1,000 farms preserved from development throughout the state. (Courtesy of the Delaware Department of Agriculture)

T.S. Smith & Sons farm in Bridgeville, Delaware is one of nearly 1,000 farms preserved from development throughout the state. (Courtesy of the Delaware Department of Agriculture)

About 40% of New Castle County’s 250,000 acres has been developed for housing, commercial and industrial uses. It’s generally true that once land has been built on, it rarely returns to open space. That’s why decisions made about land use today will affect the future of the county and its land for decades.

Open space accounts for about 25% of all land in the county. That includes park land, private open space, agricultural easements and conservation easements.

A new report presented recently to County Council aims to better direct the county’s efforts to preserve more open space. The Land Preservation Task Force report lists 28 recommendations to guide the council.

“The County has had limited involvement in land preservation in the past,” the report said. “However, with land as a finite resource and continued pressure from development, there is a recognized need for a more intentional approach to identifying, protecting, and managing certain lands for the good of the County and its residents.”

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The report focused on three areas: preserving open space, preserving farmland and funding those two efforts.

“What we were trying to do is articulate a process for the county to pursue open space land preservation in a strategic and organized way,” said Sherri Evans-Stanton, who chaired the task force’s open space subcommittee. She added the county should “leverage existing programs in funding by working with partners in the conservation community to protect our vital natural and agricultural resources.”

The funding question sparked the most debate among County Council members.

The task force recommended the county explore the option of having residents approve a referendum to increase taxes to pay for open space preservation. That method would be similar to how local school districts raise capital to pay for school construction projects.

“It is a tax, but it’s not a tax imposed by elected officials,” Evans-Stanton said. “It’s a tax where the public says, ‘we will pay more.’”

The idea didn’t sit well with Councilman George Smiley.

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“Are you going to give the people in my district the opportunity to opt-out, those that can’t afford it?” he asked. “Bottom line is you are increasing taxes … It does increase the tax liability of the property owner.”

Currently, the county doesn’t have authority under state law to issue such a referendum as school districts do. The General Assembly would have to give its approval to give the county the power to hold such a vote.

The county is considering adding a survey to sewer bills that go out in February to get more input from residents on funding preservation.

The task force conducted a similar survey on a smaller scale of about 1,000 residents. About 85% of those surveyed supported an increase in taxes to fund preservation efforts with nearly 40% saying they’d be willing to pay 3% more on their county tax bills.

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