Open or closed space?

When is open space really not open space?

At a recent meeting, Sussex County Council touched on that question, and came up with a split decision.

And if you follow county government, you know that a split decision means “no.”

The council could not agree to limit its land preservation funds for next fiscal year to lands with public access, as Councilman George Cole pushed for. The vote was 2-2 with farmer Councilman Sam Wilson not voting.

The farmland preservation program is a good one because the county’s money can be leveraged with matches from state and federal money, and the Sussex Land Trust kicks in funds as well. This year, the feds are matching every local $1 with $3. The county spent $300,000 this year to help preserve 220 acres, and since 2003 has helped preserve more than 2,600 acres.

For years Cole has complained that farmland preservation may look and feel good but it’s not the best way to spend taxpayers’ money because they get limited benefit from it.

He says county money should be used to preserve land, like the Cannon house near Seaford and the James Farm near Bethany Beach, with direct public access for outdoor, cultural or historic activities.

That argument can be debated two ways. Although taxpayers don’t get direct benefit from preserved farmland, they still get assurance the farmland vista will remain and houses or stores will not take the place of corn or soybeans.

It all depends on which side of the fence you are on.

And here is a bit of trivia most would be surprised about: $4.7 million of the $7 million of Sussex taxpayers’ money spent on open space has been for acres with full or limited public access in partnerships with groups like the Sussex County Land Trust and Nature Conservancy.

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