Local conservation group concerned about wetland damage from the development of the Red Wolves Stadium
A local conservation group fears the construction of the East Ridge Red Wolves football stadium will permanently damage the wetlands in the South Chickamauga Creek watershed after the state pushed ahead with the $ 150 million project.
The Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation this month issued an aquatic resource change permit that will allow 2.4 acres of wetland to be replenished on the 61-acre site despite objections from the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance over wetland and flood concerns.
The property is located on Interstate 75 South near the Interstate 24 interchange, approximately between the interstate and the stadium. Maps show 20 wetlands within the boundaries of the recently approved project and the now operational Red Wolves Stadium.
The President of Star Community Builders and owner of Red Wolves, Robert Martino, applied for permission last summer to build a multi-purpose complex in support of the recently completed Red Wolves Stadium. This is evident from documents submitted to TDEC.
The department approved the company’s application and granted approval on May 18.
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The multi-purpose complex will include two 5-story hotels with 188 rooms, two apartment buildings with 400 apartments and condominiums, a clubhouse, a mixed-use shopping center, a 40,000 square meter convention center and a car park with 1,200 parking spaces. Plans show that there are 900 additional parking spaces on the property, a 40,000 square meter office complex and supporting infrastructure.
Despite the approval, Sandy Kurtz, chairman of the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance, claims the wetland damage will be irreversible. She said she and Allianz had spoken out against building the stadium and associated facilities from the start because of its proximity to wetlands.
“Regardless of the fact that six of the 20 wetlands fail to replenish, the rest of the land is covered in asphalt and buildings that destroy the wetland processes and, over time, lose any remaining wetlands and their free services,” Kurtz said. “Plenty of paved parking spaces on the ground, associated with all aspects of development, will pollute and further deteriorate cars flowing directly into existing wetlands. Building in filled wetlands creates problems with rainwater and flooding . “
Kurtz submitted long letters containing about a dozen additional comments that were submitted to TDEC for public contributions before April 22nd. Those who submitted comments echoed Kurtz’s concerns about the loss of wetlands and other flooding problems.
Lyn Rutherford of Chattanooga said wetlands on the site are vital to flood control and provide valuable service to neighboring landowners.
“As a rainwater professional, I was consistently surprised that the stadium was allowed to be built, given the drastic impact of its construction and the resulting impermeable surfaces on fragile but hard-working wetlands,” said Rutherford, who works for the City of Chattanooga Stadium. “From a purely practical point of view, these wetlands are rainwater infrastructure.”
However, according to Albert Waterhouse, the company’s spokesman, Star Community Builders has claimed the company met all the requirements for the job.
“The project has been and will be designed and built to meet all local, state and federal regulations,” Waterhouse said in a statement Friday. “TDEC has given the necessary approval to modify individual aquatic resources because the developer has met or exceeded the state-required requirements for on-site conservation and federal requirements for off-site compensation.”
At the April 22 hearing about the permit, TDEC officials said the wetlands preserved at the site were of better quality than the populated ones.
“There are about 20 small wetlands,” said Mike Lee of TDEC’s water resources division. “Some wetlands are being avoided and preserved and placed under land use restrictions, and these are higher quality wetlands.”
During the development of the property, the company relocated approximately 54 individual hedge hyssop plants in Florida – making the site an exceptional Tennessee wetland – from one wetland that will be affected by the development to another that is per the permit documents is protected.
Designated as “public recreational opportunities”, various features are incorporated into the site design, including a small lake in the highlands that is surrounded by a hiking trail that is connected to a proposed network of trails on the adjacent northern property. Star Community Builders states that streams impacts are “avoided and impacts on wetlands of the highest quality are minimized or avoided”.
Kurtz is not buying it and believes that what the company calls “highlands” in its plans will actually be land built over the floodplain, similar to the construction of the stadium grounds in the south, for truckloading after trucking. Load of dirt required was drawn in to increase the height of the project. She believes that more studies should be done on affected species, including native Chickamauga crabs, migratory birds, and other plants known to live in the watershed.
“Regardless of how responsible the engineering is or how well the approval parameters are adhered to, the biological diversity of the wetland is permanently lost,” wrote Kurtz in a letter to TDEC on May 6th.
Some wetland damage projects are better mitigated, Kurtz said, citing efforts by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and its contractors to mitigate the wetland damage from the adjacent interstate construction project. The $ 132.6 million wetland damage caused by construction related to the Interstate 75-Interstate 24 interchange improvement project was offset by adding wetlands within the project area and the South Chickamauga Creek watershed, Kurtz said.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, contractors are allowed to purchase wetland bank balances in other areas to offset the damage to wetlands during construction. In the case of the Star Community Builders, these loans can be obtained in Sequatchie County, Tennessee, where landowner Karl Wagner founded the Sequatchie Valley Wetland Mitigation Bank of farmland near Whitwell, Tennessee. The land was converted to wetlands around 2011.
By meeting the requirements of the Wetland Bank Loan Program, Sequatchie Valley Wetland Mitigation Bank provides mitigation loans for projects such as red wolf replacement or development where development damage to wetlands is inevitable. The purchase of loans reimburses sponsors of wetland banks such as Wagner for their investments in wetland restoration and maintenance and the loss of farmland production.
Documents show that Star Community Builders purchased credits from the Sequatchie Valley program to offset damage to wetlands on the project site. Opponents of the project wanted wetland mitigation to take place in the South Chickamauga Creek watershed instead, Kurtz said.
She believes the mitigation was unilateral and resulted in a net loss to wetlands.
According to spokesman Kim Schofinski, the Ministry of the Environment and Nature Conservation will keep an eye on the project and respond to any complaints.
“In general, TDEC has the legal authority to inspect projects on private property so that a compliance check can take place at any time, even if we are made aware of site-specific information that leads to an inspection of that site,” said Schofinski.
Kurtz said the alliance would take on a monitoring role in the future.
The group “will oversee the project to ensure that permit requirements regarding the remaining wetlands and Spring Creek water quality are meticulously,” she said.
“We had some success in that our comments resulted in a slight increase in the wetland area saved and an increase in the buffer zone for the wetlands to 30 feet instead of 15,” said Kurtz. “This permit does not deal with flooding. We will see what happens in the future given the increasing heavy rainstorms due to climate change.”
Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.