SPRINGFIELD — Dissension among neighbors bubbled up during a recent meeting of the Effingham County Board of Commissioners.
Multiple City of Savannah employees pleaded with the board to deny an Aug. 2 request to rezone 130 acres on Old Augusta Road, voicing concerns that a proposed industrial park near Abercorn Creek will threaten the supply of drinking water for 400,000 people in Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties. The property, currently in an agricultural zone, borders Savannah’s water intake plant.
Several Savannah officials, including Environmental Administrator Laura Walker, asked the board to work with Savannah to protect the creek, which slightly irked Commissioner Phil Kieffer. The plot in question is in his district.
Kieffer was particularly troubled by a letter from Savannah Assistant City Manager Heath Lloyd.
“He was really talking about how we have to be a team player and that water and natural resources don’t know political boundaries,” Kieffer said Aug. 10. “I agree with all that but, gosh, we have traffic issues that don’t know political boundaries and a lot of our traffic issues are from the Savannah side. We want to be team players but we’ve all got to be on the team.
“You try not to poke people in the eye — that’s not my style, I like to work with people — but sometimes you get frustrated. ... It boiled over, I guess. You see the money that we are spending to try to improve the traffic flow in Effingham County but I’m not sure we can totally solve it in Effingham County. We can’t.
“We need help across those political boundaries.”
Kieffer said Effingham County's neighbor to the south hasn't been a good partner.
“Somebody mentioned that we haven’t been treated like a team player and we certainly haven’t been treated like a customer — and we are a customer,” Kieffer said. “We buy water from the City of Savannah.
“It’d be nice to have a seat at the table on planning.”
Kieffer said Savannah officials didn’t do a good job of substantiating their case against the rezoning request, which passed unanimously on its initial reading Aug. 2. The second reading to switch the zoning designation from agricultural to industrial was on the agenda for today's 5 p.m. board meeting.
The measure includes a variance request to reduce buffers between the warehouse park and residential and rural neighbors. Chesterfield LLC intends to build four warehouses totaling 1.1 million sq. feet. Approximately one-third of the 130 acres can’t be developed because of wetlands protections.
“I don’t want to discount anything (Savannah officials) say but you have to kind of weed through the emotions, I guess, and try to boil it down,” Kieffer continued. “We couldn’t get to the bottom of their concerns, at least for the rezoning.”
Chesterfield LLC vowed that run-off from the project will be collected in detention ponds that are downstream from the water intake plant and the run-off will flow away from it.
A commissioner in his third four-year term, Kieffer said he’s never had correspondence with anyone about the water intake in Abercorn Creek until the last few weeks.
“We’ve had development along that corridor for the last few years,” he said. “I would think those developments would have raised just as much concern.”
Kieffer expressed confidence that local, state and federal laws will block the project if it is determined that the water supply is endangered.
“There is nothing our board is knowingly going to do to risk contaminating any of our waters or natural resources,” Kieffer said. “We have ordinances in place. We have an ordinance that protects source waters specifically and how they are protected.
“... It’s got to go through a design process and be reviewed — from the (Army) Corps of Engineers to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. There are a lot of steps that they have to go through to make sure there is no danger to the natural resources in the area.”
Tonya Bonitatibus of Savannah Riverkeeper doesn’t share Kieffer’s belief that laws will protect the vital water source. Savannah Riverkeeper is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization that strives to protect and improve the entire river basin through education, advocacy and action.
“The Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers have never been appropriately protective,” she said. “If they were, we wouldn’t need to exist. You wouldn’t have a Riverkeeper if the federal and the local agencies were actively or truly protective.
“They do a better a better job than nothing.”
Bonitatibus said threats to Abercorn Creek have heightened considerably in the last few months because of housing and warehouse construction. She likened the acquisition of area properties for warehouse use as “today’s gold rush.”
“These warehouses are going up on the land that is left and it’s already a pretty crowded area,” she said.
Bonitatibus said further development of wetlands in the area will hinder the county’s natural ability to withstand flooding and storms. She said she has alerted the Corps of Engineers to a request to rezone an adjacent property to a level that lacks industrial restrictions.
“You’re losing 30 acres of wetlands here. You’re losing 100 acres of wetlands next door,” Bonitatibus said. “What you are doing is slicing these creek systems up so that there isn’t flood conveyance and it is unable to flush. That is really scary in a place where you are one hurricane away from a disaster.”
Bonitatibus wants the Corps of Engineers to consider the water impact of all the Old Augusta Road warehouse projects as a whole.
“That’s an emergency as far as I am concerned,” she said. “That is 400,000 people’s drinking water and there isn’t another place to get it from. It’s not like if you mess this one up you can turn another one on.
“That is not the situation you guys are in.”
Rita Elliott of Effingham Georgia Green (EGG), a recently formed environmental group, issued a statement about the proposed project near Savannah’s water intake facility. It says in part:
The county’s lack of protection for the one basic necessity that each of us requires to live — clean drinking water — is alarming. There are no regulations and protections in place that can stop the potential pollution of our drinking water from Abercorn Creek EXCEPT to keep development away from our main water source. Effingham County has a prime opportunity to work with Chatham County and organizations to pay landowners a good and fair purchase price for the Abercorn Creek watershed and wetlands to create conservation areas that protect the water we drink while providing passive recreation areas.
In addition to environmental concerns, EGG pointed to the potential loss of artifacts associated with Effingham County’s past. According to its statement, the proposed development falls within the area of the archaeological site of Abercorn, a town founded in 1733, as well as a British fort used during the American Revolution.
The release continued:
We urge policy makers to be forward thinking by recognizing the immense benefits in preserving the woods and wetlands that filter our drinking water, while saving rapidly dwindling green space for us, our children and grandchildren. The time to act is now, not after the pollution enters our drinking water.
Elliott was the lone Effingham County resident to speak against the rezoning request during the Aug. 2 meeting.