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FRAN ALEXANDER: Is this soaking in?

Land’s ecological function should be part of planning by Fran Alexander | February 2, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Have you ever looked out the window and instead of the view you're used to, you're staring at a bulldozer? When you learn it is there to widen your street or channelize the nearby creek or shape new building lots in an open field or clear the forest that surrounds your neighborhood, a chill might settle in the bottom of your stomach.

Contrary to criticisms leveled on your motives for alarm (NIMBY, or not in my back yard, slurs), usually reactions to environmental upheavals are not based in selfishness or a belief that nothing should ever change. Instead, it's that gut chill of knowing whatever is happening will not improve, but instead degrade and destroy, the integrity of how the land works in your surroundings. It's also the chill of knowing that since you don't own the land or creek or forest, you might be helpless to halt the harm. Such is the condition for many property owners nationwide, but it doesn't have to be this way if we would change the starting point in deciding how land is used.

Currently, it seems city planning is basically planning to just build stuff. Soil type, slope, geology, vegetation, drainage, watershed and habitat are all indicators of how land is functioning, but some of these are never considered in planning and rarely planned in concert with each other for a true picture of a site.

Because not all land is created equal, all land functions play different roles. The first law of land-use planning should be to determine what makes up the canvas on which someone wants to create his or her vision. The second law should be to find out how building on that canvas will alter the roles that land and water systems play.

Once again in Fayetteville, steps toward approval or denial of a bulldozer's mission to create another subdivision is before the City Council. Tonight on its final reading is a request from developers of Chandler Crossing for annexation into the city of 59 county acres. The farmland is part of the bucolic scene in front of you if you're facing east at the Zion Road junction with Crossover Road, which is also Arkansas 265.

This time the entire town, not just neighbors, should be on full alert because the consequences of the decision will affect at least two of the town's prized amenities, the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and Lake Fayetteville, plus the watershed around them.

The chosen location for this development is at the low end of a land tub with one primary drain, Hilton Creek. That creek travels along the south edge of the botanical garden on its way to Lake Fayetteville and has flooded many times, doing extensive damage. Densely filling 39 acres with 370 "housing units" and several more acres with commercial uses translates into vast impervious surfaces of rooftops, streets, driveways, parking lots, sidewalks, etc.

If the existing soil is spongy and of wetland quality, it is working to slow and filter water that can't pass rapidly through clay and shale. Removal of this soil function or "eco service" means humans will have to come up with something more efficient to keep homeowners' feet dry. They might also have to deal with cracking and subsidence of pavements and foundations, since this type soil contracts and expands. Prospective buyers should check out the cost of insuring homes built on former mud.

A local geologist conservatively estimates runoff could increase by 60% if such a dense build-out occurs. It will take some mighty tricky engineering to handle the water, no matter how many detention ponds and trees and grasses are put in its path.

Lake Fayetteville is listed as impaired and at times has had algae blooms toxic enough signs were needed to warn people to avoid skin contact or letting pets drink or swim. Tragically, birds, frogs and other wildlife can't read signs. If an upstream development with hundreds of residents and cars add to that pollution, will the taxpayer shoulder even more cost for cleaning it up?

There's agreement that the watershed needs major repair, but there's also skepticism that developers adding acres of impervious surfaces can or should be the entities or the impetus for restoration of natural systems. The trade-off deal of increasing dense urban sprawl in exchange for maybe, or maybe not, fixing a small section of a long creek needs a close examination of losses and gains. Also, who pays for helping residents if/when their new development floods?

Fran Alexander is a Fayetteville resident with a longstanding interest in the environment and an opinion on almost anything else. Email her at [email protected]

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