Sunday, September 21, 2008

Greene County Site Picked for Oconee County Mitigation

Oconee Options Exist

The developer planning to build the $76 million shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway expects to mitigate the damage to wetlands and streams on that site by restoring streams and wetlands in Greene County, but at least two options now exist for mitigation here in Oconee County.

The developer, The Bishop Company, has received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the Greene County site to compensate for the damage in Oconee County, according to the Oconee County Planning Department Staff Report.

Frank Bishop, representing the company, told the Oconee County Planning Commission at its Aug. 18 meeting that his company had searched for mitigation sites in Clarke County without success and could not find "affordable" land in Oconee County for this purpose.

Planning Commission member Bruce MacPherson questioned Bishop about that decision, noting that the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center (NEGRDC) criticized the project because it did not mitigate damages in the local geographic area impacted by the development.

NEGRDC concluded that the shopping mall project was "not in the best interest of the region and therefore the state" and that "the negative impacts of the project outweighed the positive economic impacts and job creation."

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners postponed a public hearing on the proposal and its required zoning change at its Sept. 2 meeting and has rescheduled that hearing for 7 p.m. on Oct. 7.

During the time the proposed Epps Bridge Centre shopping mall project has been under review, two new mitigation opportunities in Oconee County have become available.

Corps of Engineers regulations were changed in early March of this year, and the Georgia Environmental Policy Institute in Athens has been authorized to calculate a fee to be paid to compensate for the damage to "jurisdictional wetlands" on development sites. The Center then could use those monies to purchase and preserve sensitive land in Oconee County.

Atkel Development Company of Watkinsville, in collaboration with by Sligh Environmental Consultants of Savannah, has developed a mitigation site on Rose Creek in southern Oconee County that has credits available for purchase to mitigate stream and wetland damage.

The Bishop Company and land owner Oconee 316 Associates propose to fill, pave over or otherwise modify 2,421 linear feet of stream and a little more than an acre of wetlands on the 68-acre site that will become the Epps Bridge Centre. The site is located on Epps Bridge Parkway between the Lowe’s and SR Loop 10.

Streams and their associated wetlands are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, though their protection also is the responsibility of state and local authorities. The federal Clean Water Act stipulates that damage to streams and wetlands is to be avoided and minimized to the extent possible.

The law requires that anyone who wants to place fill materials in, ditch, drain or dam, or pave over streams and wetlands must get a permit from the Corps of Engineers.

When the Corps concludes that destruction of the streams and wetlands is unavoidable, it can issue a permit and require compensatory mitigation.

In March of this year, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a new rule "to clarify how to provide compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts to the nation’s wetlands and streams."

The rule created a hierarchy that requires those seeking compensation to turn first to an approved mitigation bank, then to an in-lieu fee program and next to other alternatives, including mitigation by the permittee. Mitigation banks are usually commercially operated and sell credits for both stream and wetland compensation.

Bishop told the NEGRDC that he planned to restore 981 linear feet of stream and two acres of wetlands along an unnamed tributary of Town Creek in Green County to generate 17,412 stream credits and 7.2 wetland credits.

In an email message to Brad Callender of the Oconee County Planning department of Sept. 17, 2008, responding to the NEGRDC criticism, Bishop said he has searched all the existing mitigation banks in the area and determined that there were insufficient credits available for purchase. I found a copy of the email when I reviewed the Planning Department files on Sept. 19.

As a result of the lack of available banks, Bishop wrote in his email, he decided "to establish our own mitigation bank" and "searched for available sites" within the affected Upper Oconee River watershed. That is when he found and purchased the property in Greene County, he wrote.

I searched the Greene County government tax site and located two properties located between SR 15 and Boswell Road in Green County owned by Bishop Farms LLC.

Bishop Farms LLC, Oconee 316 Associates, The Bishop Company and a fourth company, Greensboro MB LLC all list their principal office address as 6425 Powers Ferry Road in the Georgia Secretary of State databank.

Bob Lord, who handles wetlands review permits for the federal Environmental Protection Agency out of his office in Atlanta, informed me via email on Sept. 15 that Greensboro Mitigation Bank is one of six approved banks in the Upper Oconee River watershed. Two others are in Jackson County, one is in Barrow County, and another is Hall County. The final is the Rose Creek Mitigation Bank in Oconee County.

The Rose Creek MB consists of 60 acres from a total of 160 acres owned by Atkel Development Company. The property formerly was sold to Atkel by Carl Lavender in 2003, according to Oconee County tax records, and is on the west side of SR15 just north of the Green County line.

Mike Kelly, who with Wayne Atkinson, owns the bank, told me in a telephone conversation on Sept. 19 that the bank has been approved by the Corps of Engineers but he has not yet taken the final step in setting it up–recording the restrictive deed that would keep it from ever being farmed or developed once the stream and wetlands on the site are restored.

Kelly also told me he was interested in selling all 160 acres.

Lord from EPA told me that at least four other mitigation banks have been proposed in the Upper Oconee watershed, and one of those is in Oconee County, called Goat Farm MB.

Lord confirmed that Clarke County has no mitigation bank. The Georgia Land Trust Service Center in Athens, a program of the Georgia Environmental Policy Institute, however, provides an in-lieu fee option.

Hans Neuhauser, director of the Georgia Land Trust Service Center, said his organization has not been approached by Oconee 316 Associates or The Frank Bishop Company. I talked with Neuhauser by telephone on Sept. 8.

Neuhauser told me that his organization would be interested in working with groups in Oconee County to identify and preserve streams and wetlands, including sections of Rose Creek around Elder Bridge. This land remains in private hands and is under development pressure.

The NEGRDC also criticized the Epps Bridge Centre project for the amount of impervious surface in the project and its potential effects on stormwater runoff and for the reduction in tree canopy and vegetation due to land clearing for the project.

Bishop, in his response in his email message to Callender at the Oconee planning department, said the development will meet or "exceed the stormwater best management practices" prescribed for Georgia and that the site, at tree maturity, "will exceed the canopy of the existing trees and will have enhanced vegetation."

I have not yet been able to review the materials Bishop and Oconee 316 Associates filed in support of the application for the Corps of Engineers permit to disturb the wetlands. I have submitted an open records request under the federal Freedom of Information Act to see those records.

The federal government allows itself 20 business days to respond to FOIA requests, and the deadline for a response is Oct. 9.

I have asked for an expeditious response because of the Oct. 7 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, but I’ve been told it is up to the office that handles the permit to make a decision on the amount of time needed.

I also was informed I will not be told which office is handling the permit until that office provides me the files.

1 comment:

Oconee Democrat said...

Well done research Lee. Keep up the good fight.