Two years ago, Bulloch County paid almost $210,000 for credits representing wetlands to be restored and protected elsewhere in order to fill 8.98 acres of wetland in the Interstate 16 industrial park being created adjacent to the U.S. Highway 301 interchange. So far, only a fraction of the credits have been used, but more work is ahead.
The wetland mitigation is a relatively small part of a Tax Allocation District plan with a $13.25 million predicted “short-term” price tag in public funds. With water and natural gas lines installed, sewer lines under construction and road work not begun, the TAD and industrial park has yet to receive a single new industry or commercial business.
In an interview last week, Alton Brown Jr., a principal owner of environmental consulting firm Resource & Land Consultants, or RLC, said that wetlands are almost unavoidable in industrial-size developments in southeast Georgia.
“We have permitted many, many industrial projects up and down the coast of Georgia for probably every development authority,” Brown said, “and it’s just impossible to avoid on projects of that size because every site is going to have a wetland issue of some sort. You’re not going to be able to find a 400- or 500-acre tract that doesn’t have wetlands. It just doesn’t exist.”
The 204-acre industrial park, just south of I-16 and east of U.S. Highway 301, is a key element of the 1,700-acre Tax Allocation District, or TAD, surrounding the interchange.
The Development Authority of Bulloch County led in the creation and will do oversee eventual operation of the industrial park, but both the Bulloch County government and the city of Statesboro are helping to fund the overall project.
The county does so in anticipation of projected growth in property tax revenue within the TAD when new businesses and residents arrive in the district, while the city would receive new water, sewer and natural gas customers from pipelines extended all the way to the interstate.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, landowners that fill or disrupt wetlands must mitigate the damage, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees the program. In 2012, Brown and his firm, RLC identified 17.55 acres of wetland and open water within the site for an application submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the Development Authority of Bulloch County.
The Development Authority proposed to leave 8.57 acres of wetland and open water undisturbed, but potentially to fill 8.98 acres, including 1.25 acres in a pond, 7.38 acres of wetland to be permanently filled, and 0.35 acre to be temporarily filled during the installation of the pipelines.
To offset this, the Development Authority proposed to buy 67.3 wetland mitigation credits. Brown identified three wetland mitigation banks “whose primary service area is the Ogeechee River Watershed” in the application.
The Corps of Engineers approved the permit, and on Feb. 18, 2014, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners approved the purchase from one of the wetland banks, Margin Bay LLC, “in the approximate amount of $ 210,000,” as shown in the minutes. A county invoice shows that Margin Bay requested a check for $208,630 for the 67.3 wetland mitigation credits.
Restoring other wetlands
What the mitigation banks actually do, Brown said in last week’s interview, is restore and protect wetlands somewhere else in the watershed, offsetting those filled or degraded in a development project. This is meant to fulfill a federal “no net loss” requirement.
“Essentially what they do is they take wetlands and streams that are in a degraded condition, and they restore, enhance and preserve those wetlands and streams in perpetuity,” Brown said.
The government requires that the offsetting wetlands be in the same watershed as those affected by development, he said, so in this case Margin Bay is protecting or restoring wetlands within the Ogeechee River watershed, Brown said. Margin Bay was not contacted for this story.
The Corps of Engineers, Brown said, monitors the activities of the mitigation banks and must release the available credits annually.
Buying 67 credits to offset nine acres suggests a ratio of more than seven credits per acre. However, that doesn’t mean that seven acres of wetland are being restored for every acre filled. The Corps of Engineers works with the banks to determine the number of credits awarded for their work.
“It’s much more complex than that,” Brown said. “But I can tell you this, the number of credits that are required for a project is higher; the acreage that is impacted is less than the acreage that is restored, enhanced, et cetera.”
Not all used yet
So far, the county has filled about 2.66 acres of wetlands at the site, Development Authority of Bulloch County CEO Benjy Thompson said last week. He answered some specific questions by email after a brief phone interview.
“At this time, we don’t know if additional impacts will occur. …,” Thompson wrote. “The Development Authority and county are working to maximize the investment that the community has made at the site. The mitigation credits give us the ability to maximize the usable acres as potential projects require, while also providing mitigation for wetlands impacts that may occur.”
On the phone, he also said that sites near interstate highways are in high demand for obvious reasons, limiting the sites available.
“So I believe that the Development Authority, back in 2010 before I started, along with the county made a good decision about the property that was purchased, because most of that was upland property, land that was not environmentally challenged or had any wetlands impact,” Thompson said.
Plans for the industrial park include access roads, storm water management facilities, and 2.3 million square feet of building area. The site already has a million-gallon water tower connected to a city of Statesboro water line. A city natural gas line to the site is completed, and city officials have told Thompson the sewer main should be available within three or four months, he said.
The $13.25 million “short term” projection of costs for initial public infrastructure is from the September 2012 Tax Allocation District redevelopment plan.
The TAD, which encompasses 1,700 acres of mostly private land on all four quadrants of the interchange, took effect at the beginning of 2013. Projecting that growth from new construction and rising property values in the district could eventually help pay for $49 million worth of improvements, the redevelopment plan speculates that 1,400 housing units will be built there in the next 30-40 years, in addition to millions of square feet of industrial buildings and commercial businesses.
With no new revenue coming from the TAD yet, the county has been paying the larger share of the projected $9 million to $10 million extension of city water and sewer lines, using $6 million of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The city of Statesboro is paying the remainder and funded the extension of its natural gas system.
Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, in a recent interview, said he figures the project’s cost to local governments at this point at about $10 million. But the county will apply again for a $5.6 million federal grant and has applied for a similar size state transportation grant and loan package, but requiring a one-third local contribution, to build a short entrance road into the industrial park and fund highway access improvements, he said.
Meanwhile, Couch said the county staff is stepping up efforts to bring commercial development to the interchange, and the Development Authority is seeking industrial prospects for the new industrial park.
“We’re planning to turn a lot of attention to I-16 this year, even more than we have in the past, in terms of trying to attract industry to that site,” Thompson said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.