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The Natural Georgia Series: Atlanta's Urban Wildlife

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Sediment, combined with nonpoint-source pollutanta, is washing down from many Atlanta-area homesites and choking metro waterways. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.Development Blues: Will Atlanta's Growth Ruin Its Air, Land, and Water?

by Pamela P. Holliday

In Atlanta it is nothing new to round a curve expecting to see a familiar stretch of green, rolling countryside only to find it replaced by an exposed and vulnerable mound of red clay. Construction sites are cleared down to the last blade of grass to make room for Atlanta's phenomenal growth—to meet the demand for new homes, apartments, shopping malls, and office parks. Hulking bulldozers have stripped so many Atlanta hillsides bare that it is easy to become numb to the effects development has on the city's waterways, wildlife, land, and air.

Metro Atlanta ranks fourth—behind Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Denver—on the list of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan regions by population. The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates that in 1997 alone, the 10-county metro region grew by 79,000 new residents and predicts that by 2020, the population will increase by more than 1 million. All of these new people, in addition to the current population of 3 million plus, need transportation, homes, jobs, and basic services like water and electricity.

Atlanta's resources are already stretched to their limits and showing signs of strain. The city's infrastructure is crumbling, its waterways are polluted and lack stream life, its air contains dangerous quantities of ground-level ozone, and its trees are disappearing. Part of the problem is the amount of land the metro region now covers. The suburbs are booming as residents keep driving their cars and building their houses farther and farther from downtown, but many suburbanites still commute into the city. The environmental reality of urban sprawl is so-called bedroom communities where people only sleep and nothing is within walking distance. The focus is on automobiles, not on people.

As Atlanta continues to stretch its city limits outward, conservationists are looking for ways to minimize the impact of development on wildlife and the environment. Instead of taking the same haphazard approach to growth, some say we should save green spaces and wildlife corridors and make our neighborhoods more people-friendly. They say the result would be cleaner air and water and a reduced dependence on the automobile.

Dr. Eugene Odum, University of Georgia professor emeritus of ecology, says, "It's what we call too much of a good thing. We need to stop thinking about how to get bigger and start thinking about how to get better."

There are developers looking at more environmentally sensitive approaches to design and construction, and they think they are coming up with solutions that will do well in the marketplace. Residential developers are responding to surveys that show home buyers are looking for large green spaces as well as bike paths, trails, and sidewalks in their neighborhoods. Scientists say including those features could be good for both natural resources and people.

Orange Shoals: Greenbelt Approach

When Chaunkee Venable bought approximately 350 acres in Cherokee County back in 1989, he decided the land was too beautiful and rich to chop into little pieces and pack with houses. So, he thought of a way to maintain the best of the land's wild qualities and develop it, too. He admits he could have made more money by building houses on every square foot of the property, but he doesn't regret his decision to create the Orange Shoals Greenbelt Community instead.

"The good news is, Orange Shoals is beautiful," Venable says.

For his property, Venable developed a new design concept that involves an integrated greenbelt: a contiguous, 100-acre tract, that less than 300 homes will back up to. It allows every homeowner to share a 100-acre backyard and walk anywhere in the neighborhood without crossing a road. "The advantages for wildlife may even be more clear than the advantages for humans," Venable says.

It is true that Venable's design addresses two of the biggest issues facing urban wildlife: road kills and fragmentation of habitat. The greenbelt gives animals that need larger habitats than traditional backyards a chance to survive. And it saves all of the development's wildlife from risking their lives crossing roads to move from one portion of their habitat to another. They can make their home right in the middle of Orange Shoals.

Recognizing these and other benefits for wildlife, Venable decided to certify his development as a wildlife habitat. He enlisted the help of Georgia Wildlife Federation member Ron James and became the first development in Georgia to be certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

As part of the certification process, James identified the plants and animals on the development and oversaw Venable's efforts to set up birdhouses and bat houses, to plant native plants, and to put in a trail system.

"Developers should put some funds into quality of life. It can be a win-win situation for people and the environment," James says.

Venable says his greenbelt concept came out of a "desire to do the right thing" and disgust for the "cookie-cutter approach to development." So far, 30 families have moved into Orange Shoals and numerous houses are going up. "I believe any real change in development practices must be market driven," Venable says. "Developers aren't going to do it out of the goodness of their heart. With Orange Shoals, I hope to show that the market will get behind a development if it's done right."

The market for new houses in Atlanta is certainly healthy. In 1997, for the seventh straight year, the region ranked first in the nation in new homes built and sold. As proof that the city is expanding northward, the six-county area north of Atlanta (including Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, north Fulton, Forsyth, and Gwinnett counties) accounts for 75 percent of the metro market, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With new houses making up such a large chunk of the market, Atlanta developers have to stay on top of what new-home buyers want. A study for builders conducted by Market Perspectives Inc. in Roseville, California, asked almost 500 homeowners in master-planned communities around the U.S. to rank the desirability of over 20 amenities. Natural, open space ranked first (77 percent) followed by walking and biking paths (74 percent) and gardens with native plants (56 percent). Golf courses, once the ultimate lure among upscale-neighborhood home buyers, ranked last. What home buyers are looking for in a neighborhood is changing and becoming more environmentally friendly.

Jerry McCollum, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, supports this new trend in development because it is good for wildlife. "Isolated pockets of green space provide full-time habitat for small mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles and provide stopovers and rest areas for migratory birds," he says. "A lack of resting habitats is often the limiting factor for Neotropical migratory birds.

"We help wildlife a great deal by providing those kinds of spaces in developed areas without doing more than that. Sometimes doing nothing in an area is doing a great deal for wildlife."

Al Nash, left, and Wal Rekuc say Eagle's emphasis on nature is even reflected in the building materials chosen for Rivermoore Park;s commor areas--granite, cedar, and limestone.Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.Rivermoore Park: Quiet Zones For Wildlife

Orange Shoals is in a prime location to test the housing market: Cherokee County is outside the core of the metropolitan area but north of town where development is exploding. Another development striving to entice buyers with an environmentally friendly approach is Rivermoore Park, located near Suwannee in unincorporated Gwinnett County and along the Chattahoochee River. In this 353-acre development, 20 to 25 percent of the land will be devoted to natural areas, including numerous parks and recreation areas. In addition to approximately 550 home lots, plans for the community include features such as an 80-acre meadow, sidewalks, a 30-foot-tall dove cote, over 200 birdhouses, street trees, landscaping with native plants, and nature trails.

The developer, Eagle Real Estate Advisors, plans to work with Ron James to certify Rivermoore Park as a wildlife habitat. "Rivermoore Park is different than Orange Shoals. The houses are a little denser, but the developers are leaving a quiet zone for wildlife," James says. "They're going to do things like plant Pin Oaks, which are a great food source for wildlife."

Walt Rekuc, director of development and construction for Eagle Real Estate Advisors, says they plan to plant approximately 815 Pin Oaks in the community, primarily as street trees (trees along the curb). "We had to fight for those street trees," Rekuc says. "We felt they were really important, but the county hadn't allowed those before. The county was afraid of people hitting them. Those trees will provide a canopy and shade and add to the overall feel of the community."

Another feature that will add to the feel of Rivermoore Park and make it more of a pedestrian community is sidewalks. If some conservationists have their way, sidewalks will be an important part of many future communities. According to Carolyn Hatcher, president and CEO of the GA Conservancy, they are one of the keys to creating "successful communities." Out of their Blueprints for Successful Communities initiative, the Georgia Conservancy has established Successful Communities Principles that are being testing in local communities across the state. These principles center on using land efficiently, bringing people closer to work, school, and shopping, and encouraging people to drive less and walk, bike, and use mass transportation more. The goal is to create communities with cleaner land, water, and air. "Our Blueprints program came out of our opposition to the outer perimeter once we saw there is no evidence it would fix Atlanta's traffic problems," Hatcher says. "We started looking at what our alternatives are."

The outer perimeter, a 211-mile, $5 billion highway surrounding Atlanta, has been proposed as a way of relieving the metro area's traffic woes. Atlanta's roadways are packed with more than 2.4 million cars and light trucks. Residents use those vehicles to drive farther per day (33 miles per day) than citizens of any other U.S. metropolitan area. That traffic is part of the reason that 13 metro Atlanta counties are in "serious" violation of federal standards for ground-level ozone.

Homes at Rivermoore Park surround an 80-acre meadow. The sidewalks that line all streets and the trails that tread through the community will join nature trails around the park. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.Because of 1990 revisions to the federal Clean Air Act, Atlanta has to develop a plan for reducing ground-level ozone in order to continue receiving federal funds for road building. The Atlanta Regional Commission, which is responsible for the plan, has looked at everything from mandatory car pooling to high-tech fuels to do that, but the state Environmental Protection Division now says there is no way Atlanta can meet its 1999 deadline to clear up ozone pollution. The ARC has not been able to write a transportation plan that reduces vehicle emissions far enough.

Under the Clean Air Act, failing to meet federal deadlines means the 13 metro counties in violation cannot spend federal transportation money on new road expansions. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, federal money makes up approximately 80 percent of most major highway projects. Besides hampering road-building, failure to meet federal standards puts a heavy burden on industries and could be a big blow to economic development in Atlanta. Unless the ARC can develop a plan that significantly reduces vehicle emissions, power plants and industries will be forced to make difficult cuts in emissions, and there could be a ban on new or expanded industry in the region.

At Rivermoore Park, Rekuc says the focus will be on creating a community where people can get out of their cars and enjoy nature. "We're going back to old-time neighborhoods that were created 75 years ago. We can consolidate development around parks and create a sense of community—common places where people can meet and walk and see nature."

Rivermoore Park does include approximately 150 acres within what is legally defined as the Chattahoochee River corridor (land 2,000 feet outside the river's banks). Of that 150 acres, 80 acres will be the meadow with trails and other park features on it but not homes. The 70 remaining acres in the corridor will include 133 lots, or approximately 20 percent of the total number of lots in Rivermoore. "The good news is that we are not planning a large amount of development in the river corridor," says Rekuc. "We are not trying to optimize our land there."

Optimizing land in the Chattahoochee River corridor is a big concern in metro Atlanta, where water-quality issues have taken center stage. Development along the banks of Chattahoochee and the streams and creeks that feed into it is clouding the waterways with sediment and pollution. As the number of impermeable surfaces like parking lots, roads, and buildings increases in Atlanta, more runoff and nonpoint-source pollution threatens the river. The city's wastewater treatment woes aren't helping any either. Cracked and leaky sewer pipes, as well as overburdened combined sewer overflows are contaminating the waterways with untreated waste and costing the city $10,000 per day in fines. If the city does not stay on track to clean up its sewer problems, the fines could increase to $25,000-$100,000 per day.

The result of so much pollution is a river in peril. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, more than 55 miles of creeks that flow through the city of Atlanta are officially listed as unfit for swimming or fishing by the federal government. The newspaper also reports that fish and other aquatic life in the streams have nearly disappeared; more than two dozen native fish species can no longer be found in most of Atlanta's major streams. Animals have been choked out by heavy layers of sediment, more than 1 foot of silt in many metro creeks.

The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that, among other things, works with developers near the river to reduce runoff and make sure laws and best management practices are being followed. The Riverkeeper receives calls from concerned citizens who spot developments that look questionable.

"We have our hotline, and most of the calls have to do with developers and citizens who are frustrated with erosion, stream buffers, floodplain development, etc.," says Alice Champagne, Adopt-A-Stream network coordinator for the Riverkeeper. "We get involved and review plans and offer suggestions, and developers are usually very receptive. They want to be known as good developers. There are just so many out there, it is hard to keep track of."

Rekuc says the developers of Rivermoore Park hope that by not developing a portion of their land in the river corridor that they are helping the environment. And they believe helping the environment is something homeowners want and will appreciate.

"We believe there is a growing environmental awareness among home buyers, and we're trying to respond to that," says Al Nash, executive vice president of Eagle Real Estate Advisors. "We've stepped out of the box a little bit, and school's still out on what we're doing, but we feel pretty good about the response we're getting."

Living With Nature

As Atlanta continues to grow, there is some question as to how big the city can become before quality of life begins to suffer. If developers eliminate too many green spaces and if the air and water become too polluted, conservationists ask who will want to live in Atlanta.

"Rapid growth benefits no one in the long run. You're going to have a boom and then a bust," Odum says. "It's important to maintain the quality of life. You reach a point in growth when any further increase in size reduces quality." He believes Atlanta has reached that point and is growing beyond its capacity to maintain itself.

So does McCollum. "We certainly have created an urgency to modify our sprawling techniques over the past 15 years of growth," he says. "When things are going best for development, they're generally going worst for wildlife."

More than ever before, people are talking about the importance of land-use planning as a way of controlling growth and creating more of the kinds of communities citizens want. If the surveys are true, people want more green space, they are tired of sitting in traffic, and they believe water quality is important. All of that is good news for wildlife.

Convincing developers to conserve open areas is a first step toward helping urban wildlife. The next step involves looking at the quality of that green space, says Dr. Larry Wilson, an ecologist at Fernbank Science Center. Does the space have a water source? Does it provide different types of wildlife habitats instead of one uniform habitat? Do the forested areas include underbrush where animals can find cover? Wilson says that answering these questions is important to ensure that a diversity of wildlife flourishes in Atlanta instead of just a few "weed" species. What might be the best and most important step to take for wildlife is finding ways to connect open areas with corridors. Animals that cannot live on small parcels of land in the middle of a sea of development would be able to move along these corridors and perhaps survive.

As Atlanta considers changing the way it is growing, citizens must ask themselves what is important to them in a community. A few single developments like Orange Shoals and Rivermoore Park cannot solve Atlanta's water, land, and air problems. They are a step in the right direction, but environmentally sensitive development will only succeed if politics and the market support it. More developers will conserve land if land-use plans dictate open spaces and people are willing to fight for the future of the natural resources that make Atlanta a quality place to live.


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