Sunday, December 14, 2008

Corps Near Decision on Epps Bridge Centre Permit

A Mitigation Permit for the Holidays?

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers expects to reach its decision in the next three to four weeks on the request by the developer for a permit to destroy streams and wetlands for the construction of the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway.

I received an e-mail message on Dec. 10, 2008, from Billy E. Birdwell, chief of public affairs for the Savannah District of the Corps, confirming that as of that date no final permit had been issued for the shopping center.

"We are currently working on the Environmental Assessment and should come to a permit decision within the next 30 days," an attachment to Birdwell’s e-mail said. The attachment was from the Regulatory Division of the Corps, Birdwell reported.

Frank Bishop, developer of the proposed shopping center, also needs the state to sign a contract for construction of the $26 million Oconee County Extension, which will provide access to Bishop’s shopping center, before he can begin work on the site.

Alan Therialt, Oconee County administrative officer, told me on Dec. 12 that bids for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension were submitted to the state at 11 a.m. that day. Theriault said he did not know how long it would take for the state to decide on the contract.

Oconee County already has put up more than $5 million to purchase right of way for the roadway and is waiting on the state for reimbursement.

Bishop also will need a variance to the state’s buffer for the streams on the site, but he cannot obtain that variance until he has the Corps of Engineer permit.

The Corps of Engineers already has granted a permit for the mitigation bank Bishop plans to build in Greene County. That bank is designed to provide credits to offset putting 2,678 linear feet of perennial streams into underground pipes and filling and paving over wetlands and natural drainage areas on the Oconee County site.

The state is reviewing Bishop’s request for a variance to allow him to do the mitigation work in Greene County. The Environmental Protection Division of the state issued a public advisory regarding this variance request on Oct. 20, 2008.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, when it approved the rezone for the shopping center on Oct. 7, 2008, said the county will not issue any permits for construction work on the site until the state signs the contract for the Oconee Connector Extension.

"The USACE (Corps of Engineers) is on the last step of developing the Environmental Assessment and Case Document for the final permit decision. The next step will be to issue or deny the permit application," the document I received from Birdwell at the Corps said.

"The USACE approved the (Greensboro) mitigation bank on 6 June 2008. The USACE received copy of recorded restrictive covenants for the site on 7 July 2008. The USACE issued the NWP 27 verification letter for construction work on bank 23 September 2008," according to the document.

Because Bishop wants to pipe the streams and fill wetlands under the jurisdiction of the federal government at the Oconee County site, he must "migitate" that damage by obtaining credits for fixing a stream and wetlands elsewhere.

Bishop said he considered purchasing land in Oconee County for that mitigation but opted for the Greene County land because the Oconee land was not "affordable."

On Feb. 4, 2008, Justin A. Hammonds, project manager at the Savannah District of the Corps of Engineers, told Bishop that the Epps Bridge Centre project as proposed did not meet federal guidelines.

I contacted Hammonds on Nov. 17, 2008, to ask for an update on the permit, but Hammonds told me he was not authorized to talk to me and that I had to work through Birdwell to get information about the project.

In a letter to Hammonds on Sept. 15, 2008, Kendall W. Cochran, a senior biologist at Wildlands Environmental Inc., wrote that Bishop was revising his originally submitted plans to include 0.5 acres of wetlands "avoidance" on the property. The original plan called for filling and paving over 1.06 acres of wetlands.

"This avoidance will be accomplished by placing an arch pipe culvert at a road crossing and utilizing underground detention to achieve the require (error in original) storage capacity for the site," Cochran wrote.

Cochran concluded by saying that the application now meets all the federal requirements and "Therefore, we request that the Individual Permit be authorized."

He should learn soon if he will get what he requested.

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