Wash out: New developments raise mud and ire

When the city recently painted a white stripe down the center of the Rivanna Trail, many trail-goers called it an unwelcome intrusion. But some say they're really seeing red now: red mud.

It's on the Trail and in the Rivanna River. And it came from construction of two housing developments. "It's an ongoing problem," says Rob Hull, a Riverside Road resident who took photos of the recent mudslides that covered the trail and the Riverview Park entrance after a heavy rainfall.

While the city added provisions to its water protection ordinance a year ago to help prevent such mud movements, Hull and others say the city isn't enforcing its own law.

The law is "essentially worthless," says Louis Schultz, whose frequent citations over too-tall weeds in his Woolen Mills yard have been the subject of local news reports. "There are steps that somebody who's going to disturb the soil should take to prevent erosion," says Schultz. But in this case, the developer, he says, "clearly didn't do it."

Hull points out the contradiction that a developer touting "sustainability" would allow silt to flood the river, harming wildlife and eventually polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's an oxymoron to say environmental developer," says Hull. "Are you going to take into consideration everything about the environment?"

Richard Price, architect and developer for RiverBluff Conservation Community, a development of 22 "sustainable" homes being constructed on a bluff high above the Trail, says there's no way for a developer to please everyone. The site (once the subject of a suggested "land swap" by Stan Tatum) was zoned by-right for 65 townhouses. Instead, the development clusters the houses on a cul-de-sac, Price points out, to create less environmental impact than another developer might have caused.

In addition, he says his firm, the Folsom Group, has made every effort to preserve the wooded nature of the land and has gone well beyond typical erosion control measures for construction sites.

On a recent tour of the RiverBluff site, Price points out extensive silt fencing as well as state-of-the-art drainage technology, including a "rain garden," a trench that will soon be filled with absorbent soil and planted with native species. He says the rain garden will contain all but the most torrential downpours, and when water does overflow, it will be directed down a terraced slope, which helps slow the water's velocity and prevent flooding.

Down the road at River's Edge, the drainage issue is even more difficult because the storm water from all of Riverside Road empties onto the land. Architect Chris Hays, Price's partner at River's Edge, a community of 10 homes slated to fill one and a half acres at the entrance to Riverview Park, says improving drainage for the entire neighborhood is the goal. To that end, he says, he and his partners have worked closely with the city and are offering their design services for the creation of another rain garden along the edge of the park entrance.

Jim Tolbert, the city's head of Neighborhood Planning, insists that the city does enforce its water protection ordinance, though he acknowledges that there were erosion issues at the inception of the RiverBluff project.

"They did not do a good job when they first started developing," he says. "We had some rain, some issues, but we came down on them, and they did a really good job."

During the recent storm that knocked out power throughout the city and flooded roads, Tolbert says, it was unavoidable the silt fences would be breached.

"I don't know that there are any erosion controls that would not have failed in some places," Tolbert says. And, he points out, Price and his team were out cleaning up the mud before the City had a chance to come inspect.

"They're on top of it," he says.

Raymond Gay from the state's Department of Environmental Quality agrees that the RiverBluff developers are operating within the law. They received a permit from the Army Corp of Engineers to breach wetland, he says, and when he visited the site in early July "things looked as they should look," with silt fences and sediment ditches in place, and grass seed planted.

Hull, however, isn't buying it. He believes that no matter what Price and his partners claim, the development is bad news for the Rivanna River and the wildlife that lives in and around it.

"Houses are flying down the mountain in California. You don't have to be that smart to figure it out," he says. "If you remove trees from a flood plain, you're going to have a problem."

Recent rain sent some of the dirt excavated from RiverBluff onto the Rivanna Trail.