Army Corps of Engineers opens public comments on Buffalo Valley wetlands plan

Nathan Baker • Updated Nov 5, 2018 at 8:38 PM

Johnson City is currently eyeing an environmental project at the site of the former Buffalo Valley Golf Course that could provide millions of dollars to the city’s coffers.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a public comment period for a stream mitigation project in the Buffalo Creek watershed by which the city would restore 10,005 linear feet of streams, re-establish 2,709 feet and enhance 99 feet.

According to a description posted by the government agency, streams that feed into Buffalo Creek, the Watauga River and the South Fork of the Holston were degraded and modified during the property’s time as a golf course.

To restore the channels, the city would change and reroute them to mimic natural patterns and flows, put in logs and rocks to create aquatic habitats and plant native vegetation for shade and bank stability, among other efforts.

The environmental work would create a mitigation bank for the city, which would give the municipality credits that could be sold to companies developing projects elsewhere that may affect natural areas. To offset the changes to the environment their projects make, federal law allows the companies to purchase credits from restoration and conservation projects.

Johnson City Department of Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the Buffalo Valley project is still in its preliminary stages and hasn’t yet been approved by the city commission. If it moves forward, however, it could create about 9,279 credits, which sell for $300 to $500 each, but can only be sold incrementally over five years.

On the low end, the project could bring $2.8 million to the city. On the high end, the city could receive $4.6 million. The cost of the mitigation project was estimated at about 10 percent of the potential revenue.

“We’re waiting on the process to get further downstream to report anything as whether to recommend or not recommend the project,” Pindzola said. That recommendation won’t come until January at the earliest, he said.

If undertaken, the mitigation bank project seems to be a more lucrative option than the only public offer the city has received for the shuttered course. Early this year, the town of Unicoi offered $400,000 for the 121-acre property, but withdrew the offer in April after aldermen learned the city planned to dig up topsoil at the site.

Johnson City could still use the site or sell it, but under the laws governing the mitigation bank, would have to maintain the restored areas around the streams as environmental easements.

When the course closed and the city removed some of the soil, nearby homeowners, some of whom said they moved to the area to live near the golf course, complained about the state of the property and the loss of the nearby amenity. Pindzola said Monday the city would take into consideration the nearby landowners’ concerns as staff works through the stream-restoration process.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ public comment period is open until Nov. 30. For more information or to make a comment, email Ryan Evans at [email protected]. Comments may also be mailed to Evans at 3701 Bell Road, Nashville, TN 37214.