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Two Haywood graders cited for wetland violations

fr wetlandsIn two separate incidents, graders in Haywood County bulldozed over wetlands, violating state and federal regulations that protect the environmentally-sensitive areas.

Kyle Edwards encroached on a wetland when grading a 1.3-acre tract in Maggie Valley that he hoped to market for development. Meanwhile, his son Burton Edwards also encroached on wetlands while acting as the hired grading contractor on a 9-acre site in Waynesville.

Both are in the earth-moving business, with each running their own grading companies and heavy-equipment fleets.

Both were cited by the Army Corp of Engineers, but no fines were issued on the condition they restore the wetlands to their original condition.

Kyle Edwards said he didn’t realize the wet spot on his tract was an official wetland.

“When we asked him about it, he said he was trying to fill in some wet areas,” said David Brown, an inspector with the Army Corps’ Asheville office.

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In fact, Kyle still claims it’s not a wetland.

“It’s not wetland but they are calling it wetland. It’s not fair,” Kyle said.

Wetlands aren’t delineated anywhere on a master wetland map. Instead, property owners — and especially graders — who might have a wetland on their hands are supposed to invite the Army Corp out for a look-see. Or they can hire an environmental consulting firm to do an assessment.

But Kyle didn’t do either.

In some cases, the Army Corp would have no way of knowing if wetlands in out-of-the-way hollers get covered up. But the grading in this case was highly visible from the main drag of Maggie Valley, and someone who thought the work looked fishy tipped off environmental regulators. 

“He came out and flagged it and said I couldn’t do anything behind the flagging tape,” Kyle recounted of the inspector’s visit.

After he restored the wetland, it was put in a lockbox, hampering use of the full tract. Technically, Kyle could get a permit to monkey with the wetland — including draining it or covering it up so it can be developed over. But it would cost him.

To offset his own environmental impacts, Kyle would have to pony up for mitigation credits. Money paid in to a mitigation bank is used for environmental restoration projects elsewhere — balancing out the environmental impacts in one place with environmental improvements in another.

But Kyle said he was told he would have to pay $30,000 into the mitigation bank to make up for impacts to the 0.4-acre wetland.

“It really burned me up. It’s blackmail,” Kyle said.

Kyle had covered over about half the 0.4 acres of wetland on his site when work was halted, according to the Army Corp citation. He was cooperative despite disagreeing with the situation.

“He was willing from the get-go to basically restore it,” said Brown.

Brown said wetlands play an important balancing role in the planet’s ecosystem and water movement across the landscape. Wetlands abutting creeks filter out silt and contaminants that would otherwise wash into the creek. And during storms, wetlands slow rain runoff that can otherwise overwhelm streams.

The other property in Haywood with recent wetland violations was more extensive. A 9-acre site between Waynesville and Lake Junaluska behind Bojangle’s had wetlands running through it. Burton Edwards was acting as the hired grading contractor for the property owner, an LLC called Harmon Graham Properties. John Harmon of Laurel Ridge Country Club is named as the manager of the LLC and Burton is listed as the registered agent, according to N.C. Secretary of State filings.

The Army Corp was once again tipped off anonymously and issued a stop-work order on the site until wetlands could be assessed. The 9-acre tract was deemed to have 3 acres of wetlands.

The property owners there also had the option of buying into an environmental mitigation bank — offsetting their own environmental damage by funding environmental improvements somewhere else.

But there’s another catch: they have to demonstrate a specific reason for filling it in. And wanting to make it a more marketable site for prospective developers doesn’t count. Brown said that seemed to be the only goal in this case.

“If they want to make it ready for the possibility of someone who might want to buy the site for a commercial or residential development, we would say that is really not a good purpose and need,” Brown said.

If there was a specific buyer, and a specific plan, that would be a different story.

“They have to have a design in hand of, ‘This is what we want to build.’ They can’t fill it just to fill it,” said Chuck Branford, a state inspector with the Division of Water Quality out of Asheville.


Stream work cited also

Back down the road in Maggie Valley, Kyle Edwards was also cited by the N.C. Division of Water Quality for violations for digging around in a stream bed without a permit.

The stream banks were overgrown and the streambed seemed clogged up — at least to Kyle’s way of thinking — so he decided to scoop out the channel and reshape it some.

“It just meandered around and around. It looks a lot better now. It’s clean and the water is flowing good. It was a place for mosquitoes before,” Kyle said, adding that snakes were probably in there, too.

He also scooted it closer to the edge of the property line where it wouldn’t interfere as much with potential development.

Branford said what Kyle did isn’t unheard of.

“That is historically how people managed their creeks,” Branford said. But, “you can’t just go dig out a stream. It is fish habitat.”

The entire aquatic balance is upturned by the shower of mud, rocks and silt kicked up when excavating in a stream bed.

“We are concerned with digging out a stream as well as filling wetlands because you can’t do either one without approval,” Branford said.

Kyle bought the small tract just above Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie Valley on spec with the hope of grading it and marketing it for a potential development of some sort. He got it for a good deal — $50,000 for 1.3 acres at the edge of a commercial district — but his plans to flip it didn’t go as smoothly as planned.

He had to spend money restoring the creek and wetlands and now has less buildable land to market.

Kyle sees the environmental rules as overbearing.

“Not being able to clean out your own creek on your own property — that was a little more than I could stomach,” Kyle said.

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