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Wednesday, 04 July 2007 00:00

Preserve’s sediment woes pre-date dam break

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Balsam Mountain Preserve, a 4,500-acre development in Jackson County, has been fined $300,000 for ongoing sediment and erosion control violations by the county.

The fine comes on the heels of a dam break that sent hundreds of tons of mud downstream, clogging creeks with a miles-long mudflow and wiping out fish. Surprisingly, the fines have nothing to do with the dam break. Instead, they are a result of erosion from golf course construction.

Balsam Mountain Preserve received four warnings over four months to fix the erosion problems at the golf course, but failed to do so adequately, according to the Jackson County sediment and erosion control officer Robbie Shelton.

“They had been making some progress as far as getting in compliance, but it wasn’t progressing enough,” Shelton said. “It never did get to where it needed to be.”

The fines appear to have taken Balsam Mountain Preserve off-guard.

“We had been proactive in instituting the measures they had asked us to institute,” said Chris Crouch, project manager at Balsam Mountain Preserve. “Erosion control is an ever-moving thing. It is a constant process. We felt we had been very proactive addressing everything.”

Balsam Mountain Preserve has appealed the fines.

The violations stem from a 59-acre section of the golf course currently under construction and a 10-acre practice range. Constructing a golf course in the mountains requires a tremendous amount of grading and reshaping of the land to make way for the holes and fairways. Shelton said some erosion is going to be the nature of the beast.

“You can’t build a golf course without having problems, not in the mountains,” Shelton said.

In fact, the same could be said of any development where the ground is torn up.

“Nobody is totally innocent. If you bother Mother Nature, you are going to have some problems. There are just different degrees of severity,” Shelton said.

That said, Balsam Mountain Preserve did not make an adequate effort, Shelton said. This marks the third phase of its golf course. The first two phases did not have these problems, Shelton said.

Balsam Mountain Preserve submitted an erosion control plan to the county but failed to follow it, Shelton said.

Erosion control plans, Shelton admitted, aren’t perfect.

“If they had followed the approved plan there is no guarantee they would not have lost sediment into the creek,” Shelton said.

But, if the plan had been followed, they would not be facing fines for violations.

Many developers in Jackson County have been issued erosion warnings, but few actually result in fines. Usually, developers will correct the problems in a timely fashion after receiving the warnings. Only three other developments have been fined for erosion violations in the past two years.

Shelton said fines are a last resort when they are unable to get the developer moving toward compliance fast enough, when they aren’t taking the warnings seriously, or aren’t making their best effort.

“At some point you have to say, ‘You are making progress, but it is just not fast enough,’” Shelton said.

Crouch said he thought they had been making adequate progress.

“When they first came out, we stopped work for a week to address those issues,” Crouch said. “On one of the follow-up inspections, they said they felt like they could lift the notice of violation very soon because we had been proactive.”

One charge against Balsam Mountain Preserve is leaving freshly graded land exposed for too long. Exposed soil is supposed to be covered within three weeks.

“There was a tremendous amount of exposed land all through the winter,” Shelton said. The 10-acre practice range has been exposed for more than seven months, Shelton said.

Crouch said they hope to have the exposed soil covered soon.

“We are doing as much as we can as fast as we can,” Crouch said. “We are working to get the golf course completed as fast as we can so we can get those uncovered areas grassed in.”

In other places, erosion control measures that could have stopped runoff and were included in the erosion plan are missing or were done improperly, according to the citations. Balsam Mountain Preserve was cited for violating five different erosion laws. The county charged $500 per violation per day, accrued daily for four months. The fine is the biggest ever assessed by the county. It falls far short of the maximum fine, however, which could be as steep as $5,000 per violation per day.

The fines, like the dam break, seem incongruous with Balsam Mountain Preserve’s philosophy toward eco-development. Balsam Mountain Preserve has been a leader in responsible development, placing over half its 4,500 acres in conservation easements and employing three staff naturalists to care for the environment on the property, from collecting plant specimens to monitoring endangered species. Balsam Mountain Preserve has even been involved in pilot research projects to develop new best management practices for sediment control.

In terms of the dam break, the Balsam Mountain Preserve will be funding an expensive clean-up. The earthen dam held back an irrigation pond for the golf course. The sediment that washed downstream is primarily from the earthen dam itself, along with some extra sediment scoured off the creek banks as the mud flow passed.

Balsam Mountain Preserve will be responsible for sediment removal, streambank restoration and even species reintroduction as a result of the dam break. Doug Hoffman, vice president of the Preserve, said it will leave the environment better than it was before.

“We are committed to doing what is right,” Hoffman said. “We are working with all the federal, state and local agencies to make it right.”

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