By Josie Shaw, Managing editor of production
Several faculty members and students from UM’s environmental studies department attended a public hearing in Alabaster to protest a housing subdivision development affecting UM’s Ebenezer Swamp.
In 2020, Alabaster’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved construction of a housing development, Walker Springs. This development will be built on Ebenezer Swamp’s surrounding wetlands.
The hearing began with board member Tommy Ryals announcing, “This development plan has been approved already, and all we are doing tonight is to just simply amend that plan at the request of the developer. It has nothing to do with the swamp. So, if you are here for that, you are going to be sorely disappointed.”
This concern was reiterated throughout the meeting by Ryals.
The amended changes for the Walker Springs development plan would reduce the number of lots, change the size of existing lots and reduce the number of roads.
Newcastle Homes is the developer for Walker Springs.
Brandon Todd, who is the engineering manager at Newcastle Homes, spoke in favor of the amended changes in the Walker Springs development plan.
He reiterated that the development has already been approved at the local level, but clarified that the city level approval process is separate from the development’s federal regulations regarding the Clean Water Act that are currently waiting to be approved from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
UM’s Enviornmental Education Program Director Dr. Jecca Thomason commented, “They don’t even know the comments from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers yet, so why are we discussing an amended plan?”
Thomason continued to question why the commission was allowing Newcastle Homes to develop Walker Springs when Newcastle Homes is currently involved in a federal lawsuit.
Newcastle Homes is not unfamiliar with the Clean Water Act.
Alabaster resident Jessica Snow explained, “As of February of this year, as Jecca just previously mentioned, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of Coosa Riverkeeper in federal court against Newcastle for consistently violating the Clean Water Act, that they say they will uphold. Coosa Riverkeeper documented over 150 instances where Newcastle violated storm water permit at Melrose Landing Construction site. A 78-lot subdivision with 150 violations. But yet we are entrusting Newcastle with 999 lots, and a swamp.”
The current lawsuit is not about the Walker Springs development, but focuses on the Melrose Landing construction site in Dunnavant.
Snow went on to comment, “Also as a resident, I am requesting that councilwoman Kerri Pate to be excluded from participating in any decisions within her roles on city council and the planning and zoning commission that pertains to this development. This stems from her receiving $2500 campaign contribution with the receipt date of March 9th, the day after the public hearing for annexing the land into the city from Newcastle-”
Kerri Pate spoke over Snow by saying “Which is not against the law.”
Snow went on to comment that this would be a conflict-of-interest between Pate’s role as a council member and her connection to Newcastle Homes.
This information can be verified through the contribution search feature about campaign finance records on Alabama’s Secretary of State website.
Ryals followed up by saying this hearing wasn’t the place to voice comments about the swamp, as the commission was focused on amending the plan.
Ryals said, “A lot of this plan was approved, and I assume, if I recall, there was public notices sent out as well.”
In response, chants of “No” were echoed throughout the room by the audience.
“But either way, even that, my point is, we probably didn’t, we agree with most of what you are saying, as far as, pretty much, we want to protect the swamp as well. And I understand there has been some good comments, but this is really not the forum to do all this,” said Ryals.
Ryals emphasized that there will be other opportunities to voice opinions to Newcastle through the Corps of Engineers.
David Butler, the Staff Attorney at Cahaba Riverkeeper, asked the commission if the amended plans would modify the flow of storm water.
Todd said that if the amendment passed, it would decrease impervious structures thus slowing down drainage resulting from storm water.
Butler went on to ask several more questions about Newcastle’s drainage plans, wanting to know if the Walker Springs development meets the city of Alabaster’s engineering standards.
“It’s hard for the public to understand that, that’s why my questions are here. In the announcement for this event tonight, there wasn’t a description of what was being changed. This is kind of the first opportunity most people have to understand what the amendment was,” said Butler.
Shelby County citizen Cathy Dee followed up to Butler with several questions about how the drainage worked, and was further motioned by Ryals to take this conversation elsewhere or become a formal speaker at the hearing.
“I had no intention of speaking tonight, but the more I hear, the more concerned I get,” said Dee.
Dee said that her property containing a portion of Spring Creek has recently been in poor condition due to development in Calera.
Ebenezeer Swamp sits on a section of Spring Creek.
Dee detailed, “I’ve watched the creek go dry now over the summer, which it never did. I’ve watched it run red, two miles or more from where the subdivision was being developed. Seeing all of this, I don’t see how aquifer is being protected.”
Aquifers are underground permissible channels of rock that carry water which is accessible using a well. The water in these channels is referred to as ground water.
Retired UM Professor Dr. Mike Hardig clarified, “Rain water falls on the ground, and water percolates down into the underlying aquifer, and that said aquifer reemerges as springs at Ebeneezer Swamp. By the way, it’s also that aquifer that Calera draws their drinking water from, Montevallo draws their drinking water from, and many private wells also draw their drinking water from.”
Ebenezer Swamp’s aquifers have previously been studied in 2006 when Middle Tennessee Land Development Company proposed a quarry to be built on the surrounding area.
In response to the quarry’s development, the University of Montevallo Foundation filed a lawsuit against the development company.
This lawsuit ultimately ruled in favor of UM on the grounds that the quarry development would result towards the death to the swamp.
Hardig referred to the lawsuit detailing, “World renowned experts studied this area extensively and concluded that this area is what they call source water area for our swamp which is fed by numerous springs.”
Enviornmental Studies Associate Professor Dr. Susan Caplow informed the committee that many documents in relation to the trial have been recently digitized, and said she hopes the city would review those with the university.
Ryals said, “We want the swamp to be protected as well, it’s in all of our best interest. Everything we have done since that incident with the quarry I know has been in that vein of protecting that swamp. That’s how we kept the quarry from coming in, or that’s how the lawsuit kept the quarry from coming in is that the swamp has to be protected.”
Hardig continued, “When you start to impede the percolation of water into the aquifer, the aquifer starts to drop. As our experts have found, that it only needs to drop a foot and a half before the springs will go dry, and that means Ebenezer Swamp will dry up. It’s also that everyone downstream are going to be affected by this, anybody that draws water from that aquifer will experience the effects of putting a lot of impervious surface area.”
“I’m encouraged, because I can see now, at this point, they can still modify the plan. They can still reduce even more impervious surface area. And I heard the gentleman say that they are going to follow the letter of the law and all the requirements. But, you know, those requirements don’t really address interrupting the ground water flow. They talk about managing the surface water flow,” said Hardig.
Thomason added, “A point that is not as discussed as often is that wetlands also protect communities from drought. Many people downstream rely on this water for farming and drinking water. Wetlands that hold water during wet seasons will also release that water, and help protect that community during dryer seasons.”
“Of course, I would be completely remiss if I did not advocate for those without a voice,” said Thomason.
Emphasizing the importance of the swamp’s biodiversity, Thomason said, “We have several endangered species of plants and animals that are there in that location. We have also spotted 158 birds’ species, some of them are migratory species that rely on the swamp as a safe haven for food and shelter on their long migrations.”
Thomason detailed that UM’s Environmental Education program centers around Ebenezer Swamp by hosting kindergarten through 12th grade field trips, labs for UM classes, day camps, guided tours, teacher workshops and public programming.
Thomason concluded, “The amount of damage that we inflict upon the swamp right now will be felt and remembered for years to come.”
Preceding the hearing, Caplow drafted a letter for UM’s Faculty Senate that opposes the Walker Springs development. A vote to endorse this letter is planned for a future Faculty Senate meeting in October.
Organizing efforts for this cause has been a collaboration between UM’s environmental studies department and UM’s Environmental Club.
Several members of the Environmental Club were in attendance at the hearing, including Alexis Jacobs, Environmental Studies and Policial Science major. Jacobs spoke at the hearing as well.
Jacobs said, “There’s not much else for my program in the city of Alabaster if this swamp is destroyed. I found my purpose at that swamp, that swamp has a purpose and why are we here if we keep destroying what people care about.”
“Even if you do not have a say in the issue, you have the resources to help us come together on this issue and amend it. We can find a middle ground on this development. I wish I had been there at the table for when it was approved, but I guess that is also the purpose of me being here,” said Jacobs.
Caplow voiced appreciation for the public hearing forum as she felt that this was the first opportunity for many citizens to voice their concerns directly to the city.
Caplow later commented on her attendance, “We wanted to make sure the P&Z folks were aware of the various concerns the community has about this development – while they ultimately did not believe it was the correct forum for those concerns, I think voicing them was an important process, as we need to use every opportunity we can to get in front of the decision-makers with our specific concerns related to flooding, sinkholes, pollution, traffic, and more.”
University of Montevallo Foundation Board member Dee Williams commented, “The development will, and should happen, but approving development without full consideration of the accompanying expense and cost that come with it, is the definition of poor planning.”
Williams continued, “The city of Alabaster with input, guidance, and approval of its own citizens completed a comprehensive plan regarding the future of the city with detailed provisions for growth and development. Shelby County has done the same, it has mapped the layout of future land use. This proposed development is in direct violation of both of those plans.”
Williams voiced concerns of the impact of the development by pointing out the added costs of policing, firemen, road development and schooling.
“I hope this board will reconsider its approval based solely on the potentially catastrophic environmental impact this development will have, as set forth earlier. That alone should stop this development in its tracks until more research has been done, and more information has been gathered,” said Williams.
Williams said, “But even if this board believes such concerns to be nothing but the ravings of tree hugging radicals, it’s clear that the very basic economic factors necessary to approve this development have not been given any consideration at all, much less the kind of thorough and thoughtful financial analysis the citizens of Alabaster deserve.”
“So, I appreciate you listening to our comments here tonight because I don’t know where else to make them,” voiced Williams.
Williams concluded, “That being said, I know I’m late to the party, and I apologize for that, but no notice that I know of was given to the University of Montevallo.”
After eight Shelby County citizens voiced opinions against amending the Newcastle’s plan, Ryals said, “I want you to know, we sincerely appreciate your comments, and we are all taking notes. And it’s really, the notes don’t really affect what we are tasked with tonight. So, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but I think we need to cut off the hearing part and move on to vote.”
The commission ended the meeting with seven votes to amend the plan, and one abstention from Pate.