Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TREE FOR ALL, Pt. 2: Councilman explains controversial land decision

COLUMBIA, 3/27/11  (Beat Byte) --  A project to extend sewer lines near the Upper Hinkson Creek approved by Columbia City Council members last month has concerned parties crying foul over massive tree clearing proposed to accomodate the new lines, and a potential conflict of interest that makes City Hall look too cozy with local engineering firm Allstate Consultants. 
Local Sierra Club advocate Ken Midkiff and Bruce Alspaugh -- whose family owns property in the proposed sewer's path -- subsequently told Columbia City Council members that City Hall is hurrying the sewer extension to accomodate Ewing Industrial Park investors that include Chad Sayre's Grindstone Investments. 
Sayre is an Allstate Consultants vice president and the city's design consultant for the project.   He did not respond to Heart Beat requests for comment. 

"The Ewing property is collateral for a multi-million dollar loan to Grindstone Investments," Alspaugh explained.  "The Columbia Business Times reported that Callaway Bank has already foreclosed on another parcel they own.  Is it really the responsibility of the City to speed up multi-million dollar infrastructure projects to prevent real-estate speculators from going bankrupt?"

Midkiff asked First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz (above) why he voted for the project given the environmental and ethical dilemmas it poses, including destabilizing the Hinkson Creek and causing yet another EPA meltdown.   "Please explain these things to me, Midkiff asked.  "I am truly mystified." 

"I don't have the best justification," Sturtz replied.  "I should have put up more of a fight on this one, you're right.  We had already voted for this sewer project...not going forward with acquiring easements for an approved project didn't seem possible, even with our concerns about the amount of [tree] clearing that would need to be done.

Sturtz explained his position in greater detail to the Columbia Heart Beat, noting that Council members had previously approved the sewer extension, raising questions about it at earlier meetings.   
At that time, "the city manager said it was necessary to prevent sanitary sewer overflows on the Bear Creek, where sewage is being sent," Sturtz explained.  The latest Council action was merely a hearing about "acquiring Right of Way, and that kind of vote is usually more straightforward." 
What isn't straightforward is the requirement to cut down so many trees, which could seriously destabilize the creek banks, sending sediment and waste into the water. 
"The most troubling aspect of the project is the wide swath of forest land that is supposedly needed to traverse the creek," Sturtz explained.  "As Ken Midkiff has pointed out, that's contrary to the desire to prevent earth disturbance near the creek."

Given the sewer extension's primary driver -- high hopes for the Ewing Industrial Park, most recently as home to a new data processing center -- Bruce Alspaugh can't help but be skeptical.  Ewing investors are drowning in public incentives as it is.  What more can they possibly need to get going? 
"It seems odd that Regional Economic Development (REDI) has been saying for years that a data center could show up any day now, but it never seems to happen," Alspaugh told the Heart Beat.  "They certainly have enough incentives:  A 100% tax abatement on the real property, a 50% tax abatement on the personal property, Chapter 100 bonds, and cut-rate electricity." 
Perhaps all the incentives could offset the cost of creek preservation. 
"I am hopeful that with enough public pressure, there would be a less impactful method used to lay the pipes, especially with the EPA requirements," Sturtz told the Heart Beat.  "It will be more expensive, but that added expense would seem to be justified."


1 comment:

  1. Mike,
    How is this different from the Council voting to annex the Atkins Tract east of town. The council said this would be working model of how things should be done; however, they ingored the County Planning and Zoning request to avoid development on steep slopes? The "model development company" was revealed to be bankrupt at the same time the annexation was passed. This was not revealed by Scott Atkins or attorney Hollis at the time of approval. Evidently this whole bankruptcy situation was known by many...yet the city annexed it anyway. Now, ultimately, it will be developed piecemeal with minimum oversight. Has this lying, pushing, and shoving become the Developer's Protocol....and why does the Council continue to accept it?