Walk, Don't Run

Published 5:22 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2013


What can you do in the buffer?

You can walk in the buffer.

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Although he admits that it's a bit of an oversimplification, William “Bill” Mawyer, assistant director of public utilities in Henrico County, says this is his preferred way of describing the types of activities that will be allowed in the 150-foot buffer surrounding Cobbs Creek Reservoir.

The length of half a football field, a permit through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requires the space be managed, “for the purposes of water quality protection and controlling and abating the discharge of pollutants.”

The goal is to allow current vegetation surrounding the reservoir to act as a kind of filtration system, reducing the amount of pollution and shoreline erosion that could corrupt the reservoir's water quality.

The DEQ has required Henrico to submit a Buffer Management Plan, “after allowing for public input.”

Cumberland citizens will have an opportunity to provide their input during a meeting on May 8 to be held at the Cartersville Volunteer Rescue Squad building at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will also update citizens on the overall reservoir project, a Henrico spokesperson stated.

The input gleaned during the meeting will be submitted to the DEQ along with Henrico's proposed plan.

The DEQ will then determine whether the plan needs revisions before approving it.

Saying that someone can only walk in the buffer is a bit of an oversimplification, Mawyer says, because existing activates for those landowners who live near or in the buffer are grandfathered into the plan.

For example, although the management plan does not allow motorized vehicles, those who currently mow lawns or access their home via driveways that lie within the buffer area will be able to continue to do so.

Mawyer points out that there are very few existing homes that are in or near the buffer. Those homes will continue to be able to be used as they have been he said, but property owners will not be permitted to create new uses: “no new roads, no buildings, no new fences, no new pastures.”

Henrico is investing in Cobbs Creek Reservoir as part of a 50-year plan to meet its increasing water needs. The total cost of the reservoir is estimated to be $280 million.

The 1,117-acre augmentation reservoir will be located between Columbia Road and Cedar Plains Road, in the far northwest corner of Cumberland County near the James River. The augmentation reservoir is designed to release water into the James to augment river flow during the dry summer months and periods of drought. During times of sufficient river flow, such as the spring, the reservoir supply will be replenished.

Whether Cumberland will ever need to use its shares of the water supply, the County is already benefiting through yearly payments from Henrico of $1,131,900 as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding between the two counties. Cumberland is slated to receive this amount yearly until 2050.

In the upcoming fiscal year, Henrico's payment is projected to be a tenth of all local revenue received by the County, according to the approved 2013-2014 Cumberland County Budget.

The Buffer Management Plan

Despite the benefit to other counties and their own localities, property owners in the proposed reservoir site are now struggling with the project's direct impact on their lives and land.

So far, only one parcel of the 44 needed for the project, has been purchased by Henrico. Land acquisition for the project had been on hold due to negotiations regarding mitigation, but Mawyer stated that the responsible department has been authorized to resume making offers.

In some cases, portions of the buffer will be owned by private property owners. In those cases, Henrico plans to obtain restrictive use easements for the buffer area. The language of the proposed easement is included in the Buffer Management Plan.

The easement language is a mirror of the buffer management provisions, restricting how owners can use the land. It also gives Henrico the right to cross the property owner's land “between public or private roads and the easement for monitoring purposes.”

For some landowners, the high level of restrictions on the 150-foot buffer area calls into question earlier dreams of the reservoir serving as a tourist attraction and recreational facility.

“It just blows my mind why we have to have this sanctity of a buffer, a 150-foot buffer, where it has been stated by Henrico, all you can do is walk on the land,” said Edmund “Pete” Burruss during the March Cumberland Board of Supervisors meeting.

He continued, “I feel like Cumberland County has kind of been bamboozled…Their benefit from the recreational use…is going to be totally destroyed.”

Burruss, who owns 20 of the 44 parcels which Henrico hopes to buy for their project, presented a study to the board following his comments, which he was hopeful would provide a feasible alternative to Henrico's current plan.

The study, which was written by Burruss and Dr. Billy H. Kornegay, provides a brief synopsis of scenarios “whereby reasonable uses in the buffer and extracting the material in the buffer” lessens the impact on the water, Burruss said.

However, he warned, “I can assure you that there will not be any recreational use at all if this buffer, as they have defined it, is allowed to go forward.”

Included in Henrico's plan is a proposed public use facility with a boat launch in the northeast side of the reservoir.

Besides exemptions for existing activities being conducted by current landowners, such as the use of pastures, driveways and lawn mowers; exemptions are also made in the case of Henrico's proposed public use facility and activities completed in relation to maintaining the reservoir.

While the construction of a boat ramp is prohibited, landowners will be allowed to construct docks according to the new plan. Landowners would have to obtain a permit from Henrico, which require dock plans be approved by Henrico and an onsite visit conducted by a Henrico representative be conducted to determine its location.

Docks permitted by Henrico will need to be constructed and maintained from the water or constructed off-site and floated the approved dock location, according to plan.

It seems that enforcement of the management plan will fall primarily on Cumberland's shoulders. According to the proposed plan, Henrico will be able to notify Cumberland “should it become aware of a buffer violation, and Cumberland then having responsibility to enforce this as a zoning violation.”

Cumberland will also adopt a Watershed Protection Plan and Ordinance, which will be “consistent with the Buffer Management Plan,” according to Henrico's Buffer Management Plan.

The Watershed Protection Plan and Ordinance will be reviewed by the Planning Commission and ultimately voted on by the Cumberland Board of Supervisors.

“A lot of the conditions in the buffer are going to be dictated by DCR [Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation] and the Army Corp of Engineers, so we'll have…limited items that we can tweak in that,” Interim Planning Director Rachel Falkenstein pointed out to the Planning Commission during a March meeting.

A copy of Henrico's draft Buffer Management Plan is currently available at the Cumberland Planning Department for those wishing to view it prior to the May 8 meeting.