Wet Lands

A World Bank/ United Nations study to be released in September, 2000, reports that half the planet’s wetlands and forests were lost during the 20th century, and 20 percent of freshwater fish are extinct, threatened or endangered. According to the EPA, one of the worst areas for wetlands loss in the U.S. is a part of Virginia that includes Culpeper.

Is everyone aware of this? Surely our local governments are aware and doing everything they can to prevent further destruction.

Actually, no. At the May Town Council meeting, Town Engineer Chuck Stephenson presented proposed amendments to the town’s Watershed Protection Overlay District. He said that the proposal would allow twice the density of construction, by permitting 50 percent of the underlying zoning rather than one building per acre as currently allowed. Special requirements on density near stream buffers would be removed. The new law would change the restriction on disturbing more than 50 percent of the land to prohibit disturbing more than 50 percent of the land at any one time. The whole area can be paved as long as it’s done one half at a time. Restrictions on “impervious surface,” Stephenson said, would now become “the responsibility of the developer.” This new law would “allow the development community a more flexible style of development.”

More? yes. Flexible? Hardly. Developers are being relieved of their responsibility to protect public resources. And the town is relieving itself of the responsibility to enforce laws. Making developers responsible for regulating paving is like making sludge-dumpers responsible for regulating sludge. Council Member Jane Walker asked who would enforce this law. Stephenson said the zoning administrator would.

Town resident Chuck Stinnett addressed the Council from the audience: “Did the developers know what the density plan was when they bought the land? Remember that….Six or seven years ago the low-density plan was voted for in this chamber. The town had water experts in here.”

Walker said that other localities have found the low-density controls ineffective. Stephenson proposed using swales, vegetative buffers, pocket wetlands, dry ponds and wet ponds instead of density restrictions. He claimed these were new technologies. No one said what effect the density restriction has had on Mountain Run.

Has a density restriction prevented worse pollution of Mountain Run than the illegal levels currently existing? Nobody asked that question. If this control is insufficient, we could certainly add some of the long-tested techniques that Stephenson described as new technologies. But why choose between one and the other? Why not have both? The reason is the interests of developers. But why do the interests of developers outweigh those of residents, water and sewer users, nature lovers, grandchildren, distant descendants, and plant and animal life?

On a motion from Duke DuFrane, Council passed these destructive amendments after very little discussion, and presumably in full awareness that the town zoning administrator is a single person with a lot of work to do already. If this law is enforced Mountain Run will suffer. If – as seems likely – it is not, Mountain Run will suffer even worse.

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