No smooth sailing for Noisette Creek plan AH: $30M waterway, marsh restoration facing many hurdles

By Chris Dixon

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Edition: FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1

The Noisette Company has just released a comprehensive plan for a 20-year, $30 million project to restore what is perhaps the most abused and overlooked wetland in the Lowcountry. But as he watched a great egret preen above an alternately scenic and blighted stretch of old Cosgrove Avenue in North Charleston, project manager Jim Augustin said he knows the plan faces considerable hurdles.

Noisette has waded deeply into the degraded watershed that runs through the former Navy base with a bold plan to recast Noisette Creek as a centerpiece in its 3,000-acre redevelopment of the area. It aims to not only clean up the creek, but to restore as much of its marshland as possible, create a native plant nursery and to make the area a backyard biology laboratory for the 14 schools that lie within a few miles of the creek.

Key to this plan will be a series of scenic pedestrian and bicycle pathways that would cross the creek and connect sites along the Cooper River with neighborhoods as distant as Park Circle.

"If you look at the original 1913 plan for Park Circle, it showed streets all over

the creek," said Augustin. "In fact, all this marsh was going to be streets."

Instead, only a portion of Park Circle was built and then the Navy moved in and built a vast shipyard on the site of Oak Grove and Turnbull — two plantations that date back to the late 1600s. Main arteries of Noisette Creek were left in place, but as pavement and fill-dirt arrived, thousands of acres of marsh and forest were displaced for industry, housing, roads and even a nine-hole golf course. Remaining portions of the creek were dammed and lined with drainage pipes that now dump storm- and wastewater from a 1,400-acre swath that includes half of Park Circle, all of the former Navy Base, and a slice of land on the opposite side of I-26.

Besides the popular duck pond at Park Circle, very little storm water goes to retention ponds. Instead it enters Noisette Creek bearing pesticides, oils, brake dust, antifreeze and animal waste. After summer showers, the runoff is also heated by miles of asphalt and rooftop surfaces, depleting it of oxygen and making it essentially toxic to larval fish, shrimp and crabs. For decades, the creek's watershed also served as a dump for toxic chemicals and materials from industrial solvents to asbestos.

According to the Noisette study, conducted in partnership with scientists from the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, no additional studies have been done on animal populations along the creek. But development and pollution have left a less-hospitable place for birds, fish, crabs, oysters and clams than comparably sized marshland along the Ashley or Wando rivers.

And though it is still a very pretty place, in many places shaded by live oaks and covered with spartina grass, the study found that Noisette Creek is a poster child for invasive species such as stinging nettle, Canada thistle and phragmites — a giant reed grass that can completely choke out marsh ecosystems.

Little testing of the creek's waters for toxins has been done by the state Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Health and Environmental Control. But tests by the Navy in 1997 found elevated levels of semi-volatile organic compounds and numerous toxic metals in the soils. A 1997 to 2002 survey by the DNR of the soils of several area watersheds showed elevated levels of cadmium and chromium specifically. A test in May by members of the Academic Magnet school found elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, the bacteria generated by human waste.

With even all these factors working against the creek, Augustin points out an irony.

As Noisette has advanced its plans, Montague Avenue and neighborhoods surrounding the Naval Base have responded with an uptick in development and property values that could make land for the preserve far more difficult to obtain.

About five years ago, North Charleston had a chance to buy the rundown Marshview trailer park on a 17-acre, oak-lined piece of marsh-side property for just over $3,000. A little more than 16 months ago, the property sold for $295,000. In March, the land was bought by an English developer for $910,000. Though few details have been revealed, Alveston Developments LLC hopes to build over 20 half-a-million-dollar homes on a site that the Noisette company had identified as a key acquisition in its preserve plan.

Augustin pointed out that developing the Marshview site or other shore-side parcels could prove problematic because no one knows the level of toxins in high-ground soil — which is often old fill dirt, or the adjacent creek mud. He said that he had just gotten a request from a nearby marsh-side property owner who has been approached by numerous developers to sell her land, but was reluctant because of just such concerns.

"They said they had an interest in buying and cleaning it up," he said. "But the land was an asbestos dump owned by Raybestos. If you talk to a lot of old timers around here, they'll tell you that a lot of asbestos was dumped around here. Before the Clean Water Act, people dumped anything to create landfill areas and anything could be leaching into the ground out here. It's still a great unknown."

North Charleston Councilman Kurt Taylor said that while he enthusiastically supports the goals of the Preserve Plan, the Marshview development will be a difficult one to stop. "I support the goals of the plan and would like to see limited development in the areas around the preserve," he said. "But I'm also a firm believer in property rights and the value of that land has accelerated so quickly that I don't know if we have the funds to allow us to buy it for market value. It would have been preferable to preserve it, but we just don't have the funds."

But Augustin has not lost hope.

"This whole area should be a community asset," he said. "Not just a place for people who can afford to live on the edge of a marsh." Already, he said, Noisette is in negotiations to put a larger tract at the creek's eastern end under conservation easement and is working on several smaller acquisitions.

Old North Charleston Neighborhood Council president Dan Coleman said that homeowners around Park Circle who are aware of the preserve plan generally are in favor of it. He said that he wished the city had been able to forestall the purchase of the Marshview land.

"I think it's tough for some at the city council to see the value of the Preserve," he said. "All they see is increasing the tax base. But there were funds that could have been put to the purchase."

Coleman's neighbors are already becoming concerned over the appearance of new marsh-side homes that they feel don't mesh with many of the bungalow and craftsman-style homes that date back to near the turn of the century. But he added that some are also wary of the Preserve Plan and the potential to put some land off limits to development. "People are a little wary for their neighbors in terms of property rights."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Restoration Center is also actively working on the Preserve Plan. Local NOAA representative Howard Schnabolk said that there are a variety of federal, state and private funding sources that might help with land acquisitions and turning old landfill back into pollution-filtering marshland. Among them: the $25 million dollar settlement paid by the Evergreen shipping company for a 2002 fuel spill along the Cooper River; wetlands mitigation from the future Vought aircraft plant; the county green-space sales tax fund; state Conservation Bank purchases and NOAA community-based restoration efforts.

"There are a lot of challenges, but we do these sorts of projects all over the country," Schnabolk said. "And you don't usually find preserve or restoration plans like this. It may take 20 years, but at least Noisette is laying out a vision."

"But there's no real sense of urgency for this at the city," added Augustin. "They have different priorities. The other night, I requested that council meet on this so that the plan could be considered with variances or zoning issues. But it's all about architecture or density. Nobody ever says, 'What about the marsh?' This plan represents the single-largest chance to dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone in North Charleston."


Potential funding sources for the Noisette Preserve Plan site improvements:

--Environmental offender remedy restoration funds (fines from oil spills and other environmental degradations): $2 million

--State ports mitigation restoration funds for nearby container facility: $3 million

--Approved Navy Base Tax Incremental Finance Fund for Preserve: $12.5 million

--Approved Navy Base Tax Incremental Finance Fund for Nature Center: $4.5 million

--NOAA Community Based Restoration Projects: unknown

--North Charleston Stormwater Management District: unknown

--Army Corps of Engineers Restoration Projects: unknown.

--Land Acquisition Charleston County green space sales tax: $2 million

--Vought Aircraft plant mitigation: $1.4 million

--State Conservation Bank matches: $1.7 million

--Research/Education Noisette Co.'s Michaux Land Conservancy: $150,000/year

--Noisette Co.'s Research Consortium: $150,000/year


Correction (7/19/2006):

Front page

Some information was attributed to the wrong person in a story about Noisette Creek on Page 1A of the June 25 editions. Jim Augustin said the $25 million settlement paid by the Evergreen shipping company for a 2002 fuel spill along the Cooper River, wetlands mitigation from the future Vought aircraft plant, the county greenspace sales tax fund and state Conservation Bank purchases could provide funding for preservation of Noisette Creek.