Muddy waters

Published 7:06 pm Saturday, June 21, 2014

A residential subdivision taking shape on the banks of the Nansemond River offers water views hard to match.

Near Hillpoint Elementary School, the developers of River Bluff cleared a significant stretch of shoreline, creating a nearly unobstructed view.

But according to the city, Parker Crossing LLC removed the vegetation without required consent. Together with the city’s tepid response, the situation has fueled intense debate over Suffolk’s approach to protecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

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The General Assembly passed the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in 1988 to protect the watershed and improve water quality. Localities were required to create ordinances to enforce it. One of the act’s main components is a ban on clearing vegetation within 100 feet of the shoreline.

In the past two years, Suffolk’s Planning Commission has processed 25 exception requests or encroachment applications for activities inside the buffer. All were conditionally approved with some degree of mitigation required.

Most requests were from private citizens — to build a deck in the backyard, for instance. On the other hand, Walgreens was approved for a driveway and parking lot at its drugstore under construction on West Constance Road.

But other projects were even more ambitious, such as the clearing at Hillpoint, which has become a touchstone for those seeking a more robust level of oversight by the city.

Brad Waitzer, a partner in the Hillpoint development, says permission to clear inside the buffer wasn’t required, as the trees were falling down on the heavily eroded bank.

“The river there flows very quickly, and the erosion compromises the root systems,” Waitzer said. “Over time, the trees fall into the river. Then there’s more erosion, and it just keeps eroding.”

Scott Mills, the city’s planning director, confirmed that certain clearing is allowed inside the buffer. “It includes dead and dying trees, but it says with city approval,” he said.

The Hillpoint developers didn’t seek that approval.

Marketing literature for Hillpoint touts “Virginia’s largest living shoreline,” but according to records and reports, the project required intense scrutiny from the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the city’s Wetlands Board before reaching a point where it could be considered worthy of mitigating the 2,000 feet of cleared shoreline.

The city reportedly required a $300,000 performance bond and regular updates to the Wetlands Board. According to attendees at Thursday’s Wetlands Board meeting, the most recent update was about supply issues for some plant species near the end of the growing season that put the project behind schedule.

Early in the controversy, the alliance took a prominent role in drawing the city’s attention to the issue. Writing to the city manager and City Council members in December 2012, John Eure, then chairman of the Shoreline Committee, was concerned that the clearing “appeared to be in serious violation” of the act. The city’s Planning Department and Wetlands Board — which has jurisdiction only beyond the high-water mark — weren’t coordinating on the issue, Eure wrote.

After reviewing the case in more detail, including meeting with the developer, the stance modified when Eure’s successor, John Newhard, wrote to Waitzer in March 2013.

The living shoreline project was “far more environmentally friendly” than the “fallen trees and eroded banks” before it, Newhard wrote.

Explaining the different tack, Newhard has said it became clear the city didn’t require a tree inventory or erosion and sediment control plan when the clearing occurred. “As the controversy continued … it appeared to us they increased their requirements for replacement,” he said.

According to Executive Director Elizabeth Taraski, the alliance has “no issue with the developer. Our issue is with the city.”

In a white paper on the Hillpoint case, two third-year law students at the College of William and Mary have appealed to Suffolk to create a unified Chesapeake Bay board to deal with issues under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. The students also believe the city should introduce civil penalties for violations of the clearing ban.

The alliance is on board with the students’ call for a new city board with jurisdiction over buffer requests and other act issues.

“If you want to get right with the buffer, you need to consolidate jurisdiction,” Newhard said.

Proponents of change are pointing to James City County as a model of best practice. According to county spokesman Scott Thomas, formal exception requests are decided by the Chesapeake Bay Board, whose five members also serve on the separate Wetlands Board.

“After-the-fact exception issuances are very rare and are not the preferred resolution method by the county,” Thomas stated. Most violations are settled through the “civil charge process,” including agreeing to a mitigation plan and a fine of between $500 and $10,000.

Chesapeake has a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act Committee, with staff from the Development and Permits, Economic Development, Planning and Utilities departments, and authority overseeing certain activities in the 50-foot landward portion of the buffer, for parcels created after March 1, 2002.

A City Council-appointed CBPA Board in Chesapeake hears all land disturbance cases within the 100-foot buffer for newer parcels and can redress violations by imposing restoration and civil penalties, according to city spokesman Heath Covey.

Only one violation, with pending litigation, has been brought before the board, which required restoration and a fine, he added.

Other localities approach the issue similarly to Suffolk. In Portsmouth, for instance, the Planning Commission also considers exception requests, and civil penalties aren’t imposed.

“Enforcement has been effective,” Portsmouth spokesman Robert Baldwin wrote in an email. “We have not needed to resort to legal action to obtain compliance in recent years. No developers have been fined or taken to court.”

Mills said he believes Suffolk has consistently followed its Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act ordinances. Reforming them would be a matter for City Council, he said, adding he is “very comfortable” with the Planning Commission having jurisdiction.

He said he is “very interested in exploring” whether civil penalties would be feasible for Suffolk.

While the city didn’t require an erosion and sediment control plan for Hillpoint, Mills said, it will for all future buffer projects.

“That is not to say we did not monitor and inspect it, and the developer did not employ erosion-control inspectors,” he said.

“There are always areas for improvement,” Mills said. “Certainly we have used this living shoreline project as an area where we have gone back and looked at what we can do better.”

Meanwhile, Waitzer has accused the William and Mary law students of careless scholarship, saying they “accepted as truth the false assertions” of alliance members and a Virginia Institute of Marine Science representative.

Shona Jones, director of the law school’s Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic, responded, “We stand by our work. The report speaks for itself.”

In an email to Jones, Waitzer claimed city inspectors were onsite to supervise the “maintenance activities” on the riverbank “nearly every day.”

“The Public Works Department may have been monitoring them,” Mills responded.

Referencing an email from Danny Day to Brian Alperin, the city’s principal planner on wetlands-related issues, Waitzer also claimed a consultant the city hired to investigate the alliance’s allegation of illegal clearing had found no wrongdoing.

City spokesman Diana Klink stated that a consultant was never hired. Day, a former city employee in the Public Works Department who served as the manager of construction, was  recapping to Alperin “based on a telephone conversation which occurred sometime in March of 2013 of what had transpired at the site to his knowledge.”

Waitzer says the whole thing stems from a misunderstanding.

“I think what really happened here — it was very visible, and people saw trees come down and they got upset,” he said. “What they didn’t understand — sometimes you have to take trees down; it makes it better for the river. I think everybody was happy with the outcome.”