Booker Creek Working Group Considers Recommendations to Protect Local Bottomland Forest

Lower Booker Creek. Photo courtesy Town of Chapel Hill.

ENVIRONMENT

By Michelle Cassell

Chapel Hill’s Booker Creek Working Group continues to examine ways to improve stormwater management in the Booker Creek watershed. Five of the eleven working group members attended the April 25 virtual meeting to learn about the Town of Cary’s stormwater management initiatives, make a recommendation regarding the protection of local bottomland forests, and to discuss the group’s next steps.

How they do it in Cary

Billie Lee, the Town of Cary Stormwater Operations Manager, gave a presentation on the development and implementation of the Town of Cary’s adaptive stormwater process. Cary has adopted several objectives:

  • Restore open space;
  • Mitigate flooding;
  • Reduce economic losses.

“We looked at our programs and policies,” said Lee, “[and] we looked at open space. One of the things we wanted to do was to have a downtown park. [One way to] do that would be to buy properties that do flood and turn them into open space.”

The approach Cary has taken to manage stormwater includes:

  • Citizen engagement;
  • Program and policy initiatives, such as evaluating existing stormwater-related ordinances, and maintaining stormwater conveyance infrastructure (e.g., storm drains);
  • A pilot program in Walnut Creek (Cary’s minor basin) that uses a hydraulic model to evaluate alternative approaches to mitigate flooding in the watershed.

Lisa Booze, Cary’s floodplain administrator, presented Cary’s current approach to FEMA’s community rating system (CRS). The approach seeks to enable everyone in Cary to receive flood insurance discounts regardless of where their property is located with respect to the floodplain.

Booze explained the complex process of qualifying for flood insurance reduction, which involves recognizing that the CRS places great emphasis on the restoration of the natural functions of the floodplain.

Once a community has completed its portion of the application process, a verification procedure occurs which involves having a specialist designated by FEMA validate the information submitted by the community. Cary is going through this process now.

Cary’s future stormwater management plans include:

  • Refining policies and programs for developed areas;
  • Developing open space acquisition criteria;
  • Pursuing infrastructure improvement opportunities;
  • Continuing to engage the community in conversation about stormwater management.

John Morris, co-chair of the Booker Creek working group, told The Local Reporter that several items from the Cary presentations stood out including “the strong support of the Town Manager and the way Cary stakeholders and Town staff worked extensively together.”  He also liked the concept of public-private partnerships for new development. For example, a developer constructing a new building that increases stormwater runoff could incorporate improvements to minimize stormwater impacts into the contracts prior to construction.

Bottomland forest protection

Doug Fredrick, a forester and voting member of the working group, presented recommendations for preserving and protecting Chapel Hill’s bottomland forests. The recommendations called on the Town to:

  • Increase the permanent protection of existing Town-owned properties and seek to acquire new bottomland properties that are privately owned;
  • Adopt conservation easements on existing Town properties that do not have them and acquire new properties in bottomland areas as they become available. Typically these properties have limited development potential;
  • Protect targeted bottomlands through land-use planning and appropriate rules for restricting development that would encroach on these areas;
  • Develop a natural land inventory, that is, a compilation of information about the kind of natural habitats that exist in town and are already protected.

The discussion that followed addressed the need to remove invasive and exotic species, federal and state funding for bottomland conservation, and the types of data that currently exist regarding local bottomland areas, including state datasets and those of conservation organizations such as the NC Botanical Gardens and Triangle Land Conservancy.

“We were given a charge that included three tasks,” Frederick said. “First, how can Chapel Hill preserve and protect bottomland forest and natural stream corridors using existing or new regulations. Second, what would adopting these recommendations mean in practice and what benefits would they provide? And finally, how would the implementation of the recommendations differ from the current Town operations?”

The five working group members all strongly endorsed the proposed recommendations.

A request was made during the public comment period for working group members to help draft recommendations and for Town staff to assist in compiling these recommendations.

“I think it is going to be really important that we start [drafting our] report,” said working group member Jeanette Bench. “[We need to] make it very clear that whatever we do, it is not going to eliminate flooding,” she said.

During the public comment period, working group members heard

  • A suggestion to provide in the working group’s final report context on impervious surfaces in the town and impacts from future build-out;
  • A request that third parties, not the Town, hold the conservation easements;
  • A call for the Town to develop a management plan for invasive plants.

The group’s next step will be to hold a session on environmental justice, which entails studying the social impacts of land-use practices, particularly differential impacts on historically marginalized or disenfranchised groups.

The group chairpersons will provide an update on the group’s activity to the town council at the May 11 council work session.

For more information, visit the Booker Creek Working Group webpage here.

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