Wednesday, July 11, 2001
In Tyrone, who regulates the regulators?
By DENNIS CHASE
Irony comes in many forms and all too often at the expense of taxpayers. That is exactly what is happening with recent events in Tyrone. The city of Tyrone, long known for being a very nice place to live, has a problem. Actually, they have several problems, and I have not been shy about passing this message along to them directly and bluntly. Telephone calls, fax messages and statements at their city council meetings have proven to be useless. They prefer to believe their city manager and now well, now comes the irony.
My part in this began last December when I visited the construction site for their new ball fields on the East side of Tyrone. The area had been filled and leveled as one might expect for creation of ball fields. However, part of the fill was on top of wetlands, and the fifteen feet of fill over the wetlands had no control of erosion so additional damage was taking place to wetlands on their neighbors' property.
The history of the wetlands goes back to an earlier development attempt on the very same property. At the request of an agent for the developer, I visited the area and advised them to obtain the services of a certified consultant to delineate the wetlands which I had located on the property. Ironic but true, the developer also agreed with my recommendation to alter part of his plans for a subdivision which resulted in protection of the same wetlands that the city just buried.
Later, and for a variety of reasons, the proposed development was turned down by the city. Shortly after the developer lost his option on the property, Tyrone purchased the northern portion, including some wetlands which the consultant had flagged. The existence of the wetlands was very obvious nobody could miss them. However, this didn't deter ball field development and filling of the wetlands took place.
Once the apparent violation had been reported to the regulatory agencies, Tyrone began using the same consultant to try to get out of their violation of the Clean Water Act.
Normally, I wouldn't use such a decisive phrase to label an action a "violation," but it qualifies here since the consultant prepared a request to the Corps of Engineers for an "after-the-fact" permit and indicated they were working on a mitigation plan. That means they are requesting a permit for wetlands already destroyed, recognize that a loss took place and are hoping that mitigation will get them past the destruction.
I made my presentation regarding the issues at the Tyrone City Council meeting on Jan. 18, 2001. I told them that it was my belief that they had violated the Clean Water Act as well as the Georgia Sedimentation and Erosion Control Act. I told them that I was going to record a complaint with the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Their response was anger, even to the point the next day they were asking me for an apology. To make things worse, at least in my view, they accelerated work to complete the ball fields. It would be easy to assume that the purpose was to make it as difficult as possible for the regulatory agencies to take an adverse action against the city. They would point out that it would be an expensive action for this small city to dig the wetlands out and restore them to their previous condition. And, of course, all of this would delay the field completion and the children would not have the benefit of new ball fields.
Here is more of the irony. The city hired the consultant to find out if I knew what I was talking about, and when they concluded that wetlands had been destroyed, they set about finding mitigation to make it OK. But mitigation costs money, and most of their funds were already spent, so what were they to do?
Well, it was simple. Ask the Fayette County taxpayers to come up with the money. Neat, huh?
Tyrone could expect to spend $50,000 to $75,000 for the mitigation so why not ask the Fayette County Commissioners for some of that $65 million county budget? After all, why should Tyrone have to pay for mistakes made by the city manager? Let someone else pay. In fact, Tyrone just requested $48,500 from the county to help finish the remaining three ball fields.
But the irony of this situation doesn't end here. During construction, there was next to nothing in place to prevent erosion and, at times, the new fill eroded quickly. Guess who has the legal responsibility to ensure that Georgia erosion laws are enforced. Yes!
In addition to the direct damage from the fill, the city of Tyrone was also responsible for destroying downhill wetlands and streams. And their response to my complaints on this issue? They just dropped two bales of straw in the stream and walked away.
Of course they didn't put up a stop work order against themselves. They just let it happen!
I would bet that there are a lot of developers in the Tyrone area who don't enjoy the irony of having to implement sediment and erosion control measures while the city finds their own work acceptable.
Who protects us from the government which is supposed to protect us? Perhaps this little editorial should have been titled, "Tragic Irony."
[Dennis Chase, now retired, was a fish and wildlife biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 26 years. Since retiring, he has worked as a consultant for Fayette County on environmental concerns, is a volunteer with the Southern Conservation Trust Inc., and has published numerous newspaper columns.]