Monday, October 29, 2012

The Travesty on Sandy Creek

Tree canopied hills, dales and ridge lines dominate the landscape of Durham, North Carolina, where I live.  They are contoured by scores of streams that feed rivers and lakes and provide drinking water here and for many other communities downstream.

Durham is an activist community and nowhere is that more apparent than in the restoration of streams and wetlands, but thousands of volunteer-hours and the collaboration of scores of public and private organizations such as Duke University are now violated by outdoor billboard companies. 2012-10-04 15.08.30

Sandy Creek is a Durham stream that drains nearly the entire campus system of Duke University where researchers study aquaterrestrial biogeochemistry including the urban stream impairment plaguing all communities and threatening water supplies.  The restoration of Sandy Creek has even appeared recently in scientific journals.

Overall, 1,400 acres of the community drain into Sandy Creek as it makes its way to merge with New Hope Creek and then flow into the drinking water supply stored in Jordan Lake.

Upland, Duke has made some amazing provisions to restore and protect Sandy Creek as it passes the president’s house and down through the university’s acclaimed hotel and golf course, while volunteer groups, neighborhoods and local governments have worked to restore and protect the lowland floodplain and wetlands through which it flows after passing under US Highway 15-501 Bypass just south of Cornwallis Road, including recreation trails and the conversion of an abandoned treatment plant into an education center.

Now that collective work has been desecrated by four huge billboards erected along that highway by out-of-state companies which have been enabled by new legislation forged by a handful of their advocates in the NC General Assembly.

These companies can now clear cut football length areas of trees and vegetation in either direction from these billboards as well as in front of and behind the unsightly structures.

As shown in the series of photos linked here and to the image in this blog, the action by this billboard company, which happens to own half of the fewer than 90 that still remain here after billboards were banned in Durham in 1984, has also denuded the banks of Sandy Creek wiping out the trees and vegetation that were preventing soil erosion and slowing run off and preventing sediment from the impervious surface of the roadway from polluting this environmentally sensitive stream and making its way into the water supply. 

Aware of the overwhelming objection of North Carolinians to the measure, particularly the 8 out of 10 opposed to sacrificing trees for billboards, advocates for the legislation enabling this travesty claimed at least twice on the floor of the General Assembly that respect for local ordinances and efforts such as Durham’s would be protected from the abuse.

But in fact, as those assurances were uttered any such provisions respecting local efforts in communities such as the restoration of Sandy Creek were being stripped out of the final version of the bill by a small conference committee of just 12 legislators, one of whom ramrodded the legislation and another a now federally-indicted owner of billboards himself.

Many in the legislature are only now waking up to the havoc being wreaked across the state by this billboard legislation including another particularly egregious threat to water quality in Charlotte.

There are many other examples but it all adds up to the fact that all of this destruction of tax-payer-owned green infrastructure commons is being permitted to an out-of-state enterprise over the strenuous objections of 8 out of 10 North Carolinians just so the already-visible structures can be sure to be seen by the 8% of motorists who may still use them in a given year.

This travesty led Republican candidate for governor, Pat McCrory to call attention to the legislation in the first debate even though the measure was sponsored by a powerful leader in his own party while his Democratic opponent remained mute perhaps because he has taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over the years from out-of-state billboard interests.

According to the most current annual Gallup poll on the topic, by nearly 8 to 1, Americans greatly worry about pollution of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and drinking water, and this concern has remained consistent over the past 10 years, even through the economic difficulties of the last five.

Spurred by the Federal Clean Water Act, communities such as Durham with stakeholders such as Duke University understand that it is economically far more efficient to prevent pollution and runoff with green infrastructure than it is to treat water with gray infrastructure.

However, the North Carolina General Assembly need not rely on federal legislation or public opinion polls to know that the new billboard legislation is against the will of the people.

Just over 40 years ago, by more than 7 to 1, North Carolinians voted to embed an amendment in the State Constitution:

to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty” (Section 5, Article XIV.)

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