Negotiations Not a Concern for County Officials
The developer of the planned Epps Bridge Centre has told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers he proposes to put 2,678 linear feet of perennial streams–including one that originates offsite--into underground pipes and fill and pave over 1.06 acres of wetlands and natural drainage areas in order to build the $76 million shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway.
The Corps of Engineers, however, has not yet agreed to the plan.
On Feb. 4, 2008, Justin A. Hammonds, project manager at the Savannah District of the Corps of Engineers, wrote to developer Frank Bishop informing him that the project as proposed did not meet federal guidelines.
As recently as Sept. 22, 2008, biologists working for the developer were still providing requested details of the project to the Corps of Engineer. The Oconee County Planning Commission recommended the project for approval after Bishop met with the Board more than a month earlier–on Aug. 18.
According to documents submitted to the Corps on behalf of Bishop in August 2007, the Epps Bridge Parkway site was selected because "Oconee County is willing to rezone the site."
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners made good on that assertion on Oct. 7 when it rezoned the 68-acre site from agricultural and residential use to business to accommodate the 444,000 square foot retail project, which is to include a 16-screen movie theater, space for anchor stores, small retail shops and seven restaurants.
The Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center (NEGRDC) earlier reviewed the project and concluded in July of 2008 that it 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."
NEGRDC criticized the project because of its negative environmental impact and because of its adverse effects on traffic on Epps Bridge Parkway.
The Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, however, was even harsher.
In a letter dated Feb. 12, 2008, Sandra S. Tucker, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said biologists for the Service made site inspections on Jan. 8 and Feb. 7 of 2008 and found that the site "is currently providing ecological benefits and habitat for birds, deer, racoons and other wildlife in a rapidly developing area that will soon have very little habitat or greenspace."
Tucker noted that the project "would result in conversion of approximately 50 acres of forested landscape to impervious surface (roofs, parking lots, roads)" that will result in the loss of habitat and produce "hydrologic changes" to the site by "increasing the amount and decrease the quality of storm water runoff."
According to Tucker’s analysis, even though Bishop proposes to meet the state’s standard’s on storm water, these standards only address "downstream flow rates, flood control, and water quality to an extent." The state standards, she said, "do not adequately address volume control or groundwater recharge."
Bishop is proposing to mitigate the destruction of the streams and wetlands by a restoration project in Greene County.
Tucker, however didn’t like the calculations. "Restoration of 981 linear feet of stream (in Greene County) for loss of 3,074 linear feet of stream impact (in Oconee County) appears to be inadequate," she wrote.
Tucker recommended a variety of changes to the project, including use of "infiltration practices to better replicate the natural hydrology of the site," using porous pavement, preserving green space and reusing water on the site.
Even before that letter, Corps Project Manager Hammonds had written to Bishop informing him that "no discharge of dredged or fill material" can be put into waters under federal jurisdiction "unless appropriate and practicable steps have been taken which will minimize potential adverse impacts of the discharge on the aquatic ecosystem.
"As the project is currently proposed, there has been no effort to avoid and/or minimize impacts to waters of the U.S.," Hammonds continued.
On Sept. 15, Kendall Cochran, a senior biologist at Wildlands Environmental Inc. of Lawrenceville, responded to the letter of Hammonds and proposed that some of the existing wetlands on the site be retained. He also responded to the NEGRDC critique. He did not respond to the Fish and Wildlife Service letter.
On Sept. 22, 2008, however, Cochran submitted a revised calculation of restoration credits.
I received these documents from the Corps of Engineers after the Board of Commissioners voted to approve the rezone on Oct. 7. I had filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request on Sept. 11, 2008, but the final set of documents was not mailed to me until Oct. 7. I received them a few days later.
That Bishop planned to destroy the wetland was clear from the NEGRDC review, but the details of the proposed piping and filling of streams and wetlands has not been made public before.
Bishop had applied for a Corps of Engineer permit to pipe and fill the federally regulated waters on the development site on Epps Bridge Parkway in April of 2007, but he withdrew that permit application after the Corps noted that he did not own all the land covered by the application.
In August of 2007 Bishop submitted a second application, and in December of 2007 the Corps gave Public Notice that it was soliciting response to the application. Tucker’s letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service was submitted in response to that Public Notice.
Bishop also will need a state variance to disturb the 25-foot buffer for streams that the state requires, but that variance cannot be granted until the Corps of Engineers had granted a permit.
Bishop told the Corps that the cost of acquiring the land for the shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway was so great that it is necessary to be able to pave over and build on all of the site rather than preserve the streams and wetlands or "the economic return-on-investment would not justify the acquisition and development costs."
The developer told the Corps he considered eight alternate sites for the development but rejected them all in selecting the site on Epps Bridge Parkway west of the current Lowe’s because the selected site will be served by the proposed Oconee Connector Extension and because the site provided enough land to "accommodate the entire scope of the project."
The state has not yet let the contract for the Oconee Connector Extension. He purchased the land for the right of way for the Connection, and Oconee County then spent $5 million purchasing that right of way for the state.
The State has not yet reimbursed the county for the expenditure.