Saturday, August 2, 2008

Democrat-Gazette editorial cites Beaver Lake pollution problem

EDITORIALS : Man-made mess
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Northwest Edition
Posted on Friday, August 1, 2008

THE NAME of the housing
development sounded vaguely familiar:
Grandview Heights. Oh yes, that’s the one that the builders planned to put up on the shores of Beaver Lake, complete with high-rise monstrosities towering over the once pristine scene. We didn’t think much of the idea at the time. High-rises in the Ozarks ? On the environmentally sensitive shores of a lake that provides drinking water to whole communities ? You gotta be kidding. But this is also the Northwest Arkansas where it seems nobody ever met a development they didn’t like—or at least tolerate. As it turned out, the grandiose project was scaled back, but only somewhat. Instead of seven 25-story buildings, developers made a big concession: They’d only build three 15-story towers, limiting themselves to a mere 486 condominiums. Benton County thought that was just fine and gave the idea the go-ahead.
That was three years ago. What’s happened since then ? As it turns out, not much. The developers cleared the land, graded some roads, and put in a drainage system. Otherwise, the project just sat there.
And started washing off into Beaver Lake.
Which is why this stalled project is back in the news. The neighbors, who were never too thrilled with the plans in the first place (think paved-over countryside ), say the runoff is fouling Beaver Lake. They’re upset. So is the state’s environmental department. If even that sleepy watchdog has awakened, you know things are bad.
The neighbors knew something was wrong when the water in nearby Coos Hollow cove turned green instead of the crystal blue that’s more normal in the middle of summer. Soil runoff is causing algae to form in the water, which makes it harder to treat for human consumption. The water treated by one nearby water district that serves 60, 000 customers has been 10 times dirtier this year than last. Heavy spring rains are partly to blame, but other treatment plants farther away have seen their water clear up much faster.
While the scraped-off land runs into the cove, it’s unclear what will happen with the development. The builders ran into money problems when the housing downturn hit. They’re not sure whether they’ll even continue with the project. Considering the disproportionate scale of the development—the triple towers would have dwarfed their surroundings—the failure to build them would be no great loss. But while the developers consider their options, the mess grows messier.
Here’s a description of the marred scene from a news story by our Amanda O’Toole:
“Rain has carved deep gullies through a winding gravel road on the 177-acre construction site.... French drains laid exposed and crumpled like used drinking straws, and trees rested on silt fences meant to keep runoff from the lake.”
If that isn’t the very depressing picture of an abandoned construction site, what is ? What’s left of Grandview Heights reminds us of the gaping hole in downtown Fayetteville that was supposed to be the site of a 200-room hotel. These days, the Renaissance Hotel is another of those projects that have run afoul of today’s economic slowdown. There’s a public interest in the project because it’s become such an eyesore. And also because public money was involved in it—in the form of a special tax district formed to finance the demolition of what once stood on the site, the crumbling old Mountain Inn.
Public interest is just as warranted when it comes to Grandview Heights. There might not have been a special tax district set up to finance it, but Benton County went along with the plan. And now the source of drinking water for thousands of residents is being fouled by runoff from the unfinished—or rather barely started—condo project.
It’s unclear what’s going to be done. The state’s environmental regulators have told the developers to fix the worst problems. But the company hasn’t responded yet. Even if they don’t, the regulators aren’t sure what kind of reprimand or penalties could be involved.
These aren’t the best of times for developers. Northwest Arkansas got so used to things going so well for so long that it tends to comes as a shock, or at least a surprise, when these high-profile projects stall out for financial reasons.
It’s one thing for developers to take a beating. After all, they’re entrepreneurs. Risk is part of their job description. But it’s something else when a failed project affects the common good, whether it’s an ugly wound in downtown Fayetteville or runoff causing problems with the main source of drinking water for Northwest Arkansas. If the public’s going to get blindsided, the developers ought at least be required to make things right, instead of walking off and leaving their messes behind.
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