16 north Georgia counties unify to gain relief from mandatory stream buffers…

COUNTY-BY-COUNTY REPORTS:
NO. 2: UNION COUNTY, GA

Union County’s Lamar Paris unifies 16 north Georgia counties to gain relief from mandatory 150-foot stream buffers

The Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition aids in Georgia’s historic shift to a series of options that call for increasingly tough Best Management Practices, as builders creep nearer the water’s edge

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

Blairsville, Ga., July 2, 2007 – Actual day-by-day compliance with the state Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) rules for the protection of public drinking water supplies in the Georgia mountains, where lie the headwaters of the Hiwassee River, seems nearer to becoming a reality today.

Lamar Paris, sole commissioner of Union County, has led 16 mountain counties to successfully lobby DNR for the revision of a rule that he and others abhorred. Most north Georgia counties had never adopted the buffer requirements in their ordinances, according to Callie Moore, executive director of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition. Yet it loomed on the horizon as Dr. Carol Couch, director of the Environmental Protection Division, began tougher enforcement of state environmental planning criteria. That’s what Lamar Paris told me in my interview with him today.

It represented a big victory for Paris’ “Extreme North Georgia Coalition” (which reflects those commissioners’ geography, and probably not their political views) when the DNR board voted June 27 at a meeting in Atlanta to endorse “proposed amendments to Criteria for Water Supply Watersheds.” These include adding alternatives to the state’s requirement for 150-foot buffers on both sides of streams.

The alternatives were described by Debbie Gilbert in the Gainesville, Ga., Times after a special April 24 meeting of the DNR board in Gainesville. According to Gilbert’s article, the local governments “have the option of choosing a 50-, 75- or 100-foot buffer as long as they agree to adopt various ‘best management practices’ for protecting water quality.”

(Lamar Paris pointed out to me today that a 150-foot buffer “also remains an option.” Yet for the life of me, I can’t imagine any North Georgia county choosing that one.)

You can download the water supply watershed amendments endorsed by the Georgia DNR board. The best management practices required include: implementing a public education program; re-planting the 50-ft buffer with native trees and shrubs; adopting a stormwater ordinance; inspecting septic tanks every seven years; disclosing development restrictions on survey plats and deeds; and gaining/maintaining certification as a Local Issuing Authority. The Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition believes that any of the options offered by the new rule will protect water quality in north Georgia’s streams and lakes better than the 150-foot setback – IF the requirements are properly implemented and enforced. Callie Moore plans to work with Towns and Union counties to make sure the rules are effective in the upper Hiwassee River watershed.

Fully a fourth of the 16 mountain counties in Lamar Paris’ coalition lack the all-important Local Issuing Authority status. While commissioners in this minority of counties may earn praise from grizzled old-timers on the local scene for making a show of distaste for big government, the fact is that those counties miss out on grants. Would-be builders in them have to apply to the state Environmental Protection Division for permits and variances, according to a table on the web site of the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission. As you can imagine, these permits and variances take time to process. [On April 12, I visited the Watershed Protection Branch near Hartsfield Jackson International Airport where this work is done by Georgia EPD. I asked to see variance applications for 25- and 50-foot vegetative buffer enforcement for the last five years They brought me 20 boxes, and I wrote madly in my notebook for hours. I will summarize what I learned about the non-LIA entity of Towns County, Ga., in a later article for this web site.]

In addition to narrower buffers, at least four other aspects of the June 27 Georgia DNR rules changes are not without controversy. Here they are:

  • A perennial stream isn’t one that flows throughout the whole year. Rather, it has “base flow and direct runoff during any period of the year”. This verbiage endorsed in Georgia on June 27 contradicts the perennial stream definition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which anyone could Google. [While Paris does not agree with this definition, he and the coalition believe that EPD will use common sense regarding enforcement of these stream segments.] Recently, the Corps lost a case with a similar issue dealing with “waters of the state”, where a judge determined that drainage ditches and intermittent streams did not fall under the purview of the Corps.
  • As soon as a county adopts an ordinance with these new rules, it can grandfather in “those structures existing, under construction, or for which a complete application for a land disturbance permit, building permit, or similar government approval has been submitted as of the effective date of the ordinance.” (I don’t see anywhere the words “anyone contemplating building a house,” which must have been in a draft version because Gil Rogers of the Southern Environmental Law Center pointed out to the DNR board April 22 that the proposed rule revisions could grandfather in any person thinking of building along a stream “50 years from now.”)
  • Perennial stream corridors within a seven-mile radius upstream of a governmentally owned public drinking water supply intake or water supply reservoir are covered by the rules. Some of those involved wanted more; some wanted less.
  • ‘Effective impervious cover” is limited to 10 percent for large developments (greater than 5000 square feet of impervious surface) under the 50-foot buffer options. (An example of impervious cover is asphalt parking lots that strip-mall builders routinely pave from their store step-offs to the streets.)

This action, helped along by Lamar Paris, came four days before Carol Couch’s Georgia Water Council published its draft Statewide Comprehensive Water Management Plan on July 1. The latter was mandated by a 2004 law to help the legislature get ready to debate water management in 2008. I don’t see anywhere in the draft plan any language saying rules are set in stone, so a year of work by Lamar Paris and his coalition may or may not be wiped out by some statute next year. He is third vice president of Association County Commissioners of Georgia, so will be president in 2010, which may be when the General Assembly achieves what really is intended to be a write-through of the 1989 Planning Act. The Water Council document is nine megabytes and you better have a lot of printer paper on hand once you find it at www.georgiawatercouncil.org

“Our buffers need to be fair and enforceable,” Paris testified at an earlier DNR board meeting Dec. 6, 2006 in Atlanta, according to Norman Cooper’s coverage more than a month later in the North Georgia News. That was one carefully prepared story.

Paris “further stated that the extreme size of buffers (in the previous rule) takes away thousands of acres from productive use, which could erode billions of dollars in tax funds and result in a potential economic disaster”, according to the Dec.6 board minutes.

“He added that the North Georgia counties have 275,000 acres of non-taxable green space (National Forests). He said green space protects water quality. Placing 150-foot buffers on thousands of miles of streams running through un-forested farmland would not improve water quality. The anti-degradation of water quality could be achieved by maintaining and enhancing existing riparian buffers.”

‘THE BATTLE BEGAN IN DAHLONEGA’

Any environmental initiative is a tangle of rules, statutes, court cases and public hearings dating back over decades. I asked Callie Moore to put this struggle over buffers in perspective for me.

“The whole real battle began in Dahlonega, Ga.,” she told me in a March 2007 interview. “My impression is that it was about eight years ago. Lumpkin County dammed Yahoola Creek to make a drinking water reservoir, and applied for a water intake. They realized the lake was going to have to have 150-foot buffers, but I’m not sure they were thinking about the streams. Few counties had adopted the rules, and the state never had enforced them. But now the state has begun holding up grants. That’s when Lamar Paris of Union County got involved.”

Georgia is the last state in the nation with sole-commissioner counties; 11 of them, according to the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C. So there are 148 counties in Georgia with multi-member commissions. I asked Lamar Paris, what is the most amusing thing ever said to you at an ACCG convention? He thought for a minute and then replied, “It was: ‘I wish I could be like you.’”

“I have a different take on government,” Paris continued. “Hopefully, most people here in Union County know that the sole-commissioner form of government is the most accessible, efficient and responsible form of government.”

A Blairsville native, Paris played fullback and linebacker for Union County High. Those are two positions where you put your hardest-nosed player. He graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in business administration. He returned home to take over a small-loan business his father had started in the 50’s and “develop a little land.” He coached youth football, served as chairman of the county recreation authority, and worked with his neighbor, Bill Meeks, to offer land south of town he owned that now is Meeks Park, with its verdant ball fields and hiking trails. When the previous Union County commissioner decided to try to sell some of the Meeks land for a Wal-Mart, an upset Lamar Paris decided to get into politics. He is now in his second four-year term as sole Commissioner.

A COMMISSIONER’S ENVIRONMENTAL EVOLUTION

“I’ve gone through being strictly a property-rights oriented person to becoming more environmentally minded and realizing there must be compromises on both sides of this issue,” Paris told me. That process surely was aided when he turned to Callie Moore of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition for expertise as he faced taking on Georgia DNR establishment over 150-foot buffers.

“Callie Moore is an unusual environmentalist in that she is practical and wants to cooperate with local government instead of fight with them,” Paris said. “She served on both the main and the technical committee. The technical one provided guidance and common sense to an otherwise typically not common-sense environmental community. The other commissioners and attorney on our committee were vital, but without a doubt, Callie was the most valuable member of the team.”

Union County is an anomaly among counties in the Deep South because it willingly adopted model state ordinances to protect land and water. It has these documents on its website and you could download and read them even if you were in Rangoon. [Dear website reader, if you can identify five other counties in Georgia (outside of the Atlanta metro area) that have gone this far to assert environmental protection in their jurisdictions, then I will write an article about it for this site.] The ordinances (among others) on www.unioncountyga.gov are as follows:

“Animal Control; Building Regulations; Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control; Water Supply Watershed Protection; River Corridor Protection; Mountain Protection; Wetland Protection; Flood Damage & Hazard Protection; Junkyard Restrictions; Parks for Recreational Vehicles; Requirements for Subdivisions and a Billboard Ordinance that provides restrictions on the number and location of billboards”

Commissioner Paris decided that his building inspectors would be in the best position to attend to environmental and soil and erosion issues, since they are in all the subdivisions on almost a daily basis. With their cooperation, he hired an additional inspector and all are Soil and Erosion certified performing the dual function of inspecting homes and providing environmental enforcement. “We are not aware of another county doing this, but it is working great and gives the inspectors a diversion from only dealing with home construction, Paris said.”

“Union is by far the best county that we have in the upper Hiwassee River watershed,” Callie Moore told me. “I give them high marks. They are a Local Issuing Authority, so they get star status for receiving funding. They have a plan for subdivision roads, a building ordinance, a local sediment control program, and a mountain protection ordinance. You can see the difference when you drive through Union County.”

OTHER COUNTY-BY-COUNTY REPORTS:

April 7, 2008 – Clay County, NC

Feb. 27, 2007 – Cherokee County, NC

Aug. 31, 2007 – Towns County, GA

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer/donor and recipient of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. E-mail him at farblumtn07@gmail.com