Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens received approval Tuesday to utilize a piece of property in Sussex County for construction of what they say will be a major tourist attraction.

Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens received approval Tuesday to utilize a piece of property in Sussex County for construction of what they say will be a major tourist attraction.

The Sussex County Council voted 4-1 to approve a conditional use application filed by the non-profit organization regarding a 37-acre piece of property in Dagsboro owned by the Sussex County Land Trust and located in an agricultural residential district.

"It's a rare opportunity, the only one I've seen since I've been in office, where people have put together their volunteer hours, their expertise and their own money to improve our county," said Councilwoman Joan Deaver.

The application was slated for a vote at the Oct. 1 council meeting, however Councilman Vance Phillips raised a question regarding whether the proposed botanic garden, which will include several structures, coincides with the land trust's mission of preserving open space. The vote was delayed for one week pending a legal opinion from the county's attorneys.

At Tuesday's meeting, Assistant County Attorney David N. Rutt said the property was transferred from the county to the land trust in May 2006 and a review of the deed did not reveal any specific restrictions on the use of the parcel.

"Looking then at the issue [of whether] the mission of the land trust is consistent with the proposed uses of the property as a botanic garden and related visitors' center, conservatory, theater, nature center and parking, it's our opinion that the land trust mission is broadly stated and would include protection of natural and cultural recreational resources, and thus is consistent with the proposed uses," Rutt said.

Councilman Sam Wilson, the lone opposing vote, said the county handed over the property under the assumption the land trust would use it for open space and "putting structures on a piece of land is not open space."

Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens formed about two years ago with the goal to create a public garden in Sussex County. The group has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the land trust regarding the property, which is situated a mile east of Dagsboro on Piney Neck Road, with tidal waterfront on Pepper Creek. Now that the group has received conditional use approval, they will draft a 99-year lease with the land trust for a nominal rent, according to Michael Zajic, president of Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens.

Zajic said the garden would preserve and showcase Delaware's native plants, animals and habitat, as well as promote ecological appreciation and provide year-round colorful garden displays, public education and enjoyment. He said the garden will grow over the years to include a visitors' center, nature center, conservatory with four chambers, a children's garden, a waterfront café, eco-boat tourism, several historic gardens, a labyrinth for meditation and exercise, a bog garden for rare species, an arboretum and more.

Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens has estimated the garden will attract more than 225,000 tourists per year, creating 110 public garden jobs and 394 regional tourism jobs. The group has also estimated the garden will have a local economic impact of about $27 million annually.

Zajic said state, county and private grants will build roads, paths, the entrance, a deer fence and temporary structures. Planting and permanent buildings, he said, will be underwritten by public and private donors.

"The money a community invests in its enhancement will come back many fold," he said. "People think the arts and such things are extras, but they aren't. They're the things people will move here for. They're the things people visit for. If we want business, we must make an investment."

The group has estimated it will take $50 million and 10 years before the garden is completed. However, Zajic said Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens only needs between $5 million and $7 million to become operational and self-sustaining.

Ray Sander, a member of the group's board of directors, said the garden will sustain itself on admission prices, which have not been determined but will fall in line with those currently charged by national parks.

"This is our legacy for Sussex County," Sander said. "The objective is to give this gift to Sussex County and our fellow Sussex County residents."

For more information on the garden, visit