Growing numbers of developers are seeking to build impoundments that would convert streams into lakes, creating artificial waterfront property that could command higher prices.
The idea isn’t new—think Lake Lure and Beaver Lake. But if the eight proposed lakes now under consideration are approved, they will collectively impact some 30 miles of streams in Western North Carolina, according to biologist Bryan Tompkins, who works in the Asheville office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These impoundments are a little-noticed facet of the region’s increasing development, but they have serious and near-permanent impacts on the streams where they’re built,” he notes. Although lakes provide opportunities for boating or swimming, they don’t occur naturally in the Southern Appalachian landscape, says Tompkins.
In the first four months of this year alone, the Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed five applications for permits to build lakes in planned subdivisions, Tompkins reports. During all of 2006, the agency reviewed seven such applications. And while FWS makes formal recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerning the permits, the decision ultimately lies with the Corps and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Water Quality.
Last year, FWS reviewed a proposal to construct a 160-acre lake in Caldwell County that would serve as a landing area for seaplanes as part of a 3,100-acre residential development. Although the agency recommended that the permit be denied, the final decision is still pending. Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers vetoed a proposed 15-acre lake in a 424-acre subdivision abutting national-forest land in Transylvania County, saying it would snuff out one of the few remaining thriving populations of Southern Appalachian brook trout. Native to the Southern Appalachians, the fish population has significantly declined throughout the region due to habitat loss.
The only river-impoundment project currently proposed for Buncombe County is drastically smaller, but according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, it could still cause irreversible damage to what is now a healthy stream. Versant Properties has requested a permit to build three dams on Baird Cove Creek, creating three small ponds in the Versant subdivision, promoted as a green development. Each pond would span just less than an acre.
“The conversion of Baird Cove Creek to three ponds will result in the loss of natural stream functions, alter the hydrology, and affect native ecosystem processes within and downstream of the proposed reservoir site,” noted FWS Field Supervisor Brian Cole in comments submitted to the Corps of Engineers’ Asheville’s office. “Although the habitat will remain in an aquatic state, the fauna and ecosystem functions associated with the stream are different from, and cannot be replaced with, associated fauna and functions from the ponds.” Cole advised that the permit be denied, and the Corps asked Versant to make changes and re-submit the plan.
“We’re obviously going to try and design a project that has minimal adverse effects on existing streams,” says Leonard Ridner, environmental-planning consultant for the company. Ridner stresses that the impoundments are still in the permitting phase, and none have been built yet.
Described as a “European-inspired village with estate-sized home sites along the top of a mountain,” Versant emphasizes environmental stewardship as part of its design. The gated community will include 169 home sites on a roughly 400-acre tract of land just north of Woodfin. Charlotte Waldron, a community planner for Versant, notes that the plans include wildlife-habitat preservation and careful attention to storm-water management. As for the dams that would impede the flow of Baird Cove Creek, she says Versant is “revisiting that idea.”
A press announcement from Versant notes that the development has joined Audubon International’s Gold Signature Program, a fee-based certification process that requires developers to follow certain environmental guidelines. Partly funded by the U.S. Golf Association, Audubon International typically certifies golf courses as being “green.”
The name Audubon may have a familiar ring to it, but Audubon International should not be confused with the National Audubon Society, a conservation group founded in 1905. In fact, The National Audubon Society has an official statement about Audubon International, with which it is often confused: “Audubon is not associated with Audubon International in any way,” the statement reads. “Audubon does not certify golf courses, or any other development, as being environmentally sound. Indeed, Audubon very often opposes such development.”
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