Concerns spur new golf course design

Reduced environmental impact goal of developers

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2001

Developers of a proposed golf course in a West Douglas watershed have redesigned it completely to meet public concerns, said Totem Creek Inc. President John Barnett.

Totem Creek is the local nonprofit group developing the proposed course, which would sit within the Peterson Creek watershed.

The creek is one of the few fish streams in Juneau that isn't on a state list of impaired water bodies - streams that have been harmed, mainly by silt and the runoff of petroleum products and chemicals from developed land.

Barnett said that in the new design the fairways no longer infringe on 100-foot buffers of vegetation around streams and have been moved away from a stand of trees of landmark size. The city had asked for buffers of at least 100 feet.

The fairways have been moved away from fish-rearing tributaries of Peterson Creek and from small seasonal streams. Fairways have been positioned to reduce the likelihood of trees blowing down in the wind.

The course is now much more difficult to play because some fairways now run uphill or downhill, but it is a much more environmentally sensitive course, Barnett said.

It's not clear whether city planners will be satisfied with the new design and recently completed studies of wildlife, pest management and the potential for wind to blow down trees that Totem Creek intends to present to city planners soon.

Although there hasn't been organized opposition to the course, some citizens have expressed concern about the course's effects on a largely untouched area used for hiking, fishing, dog walking and hunting.

Some residents formed the North Douglas Homeowners Association this summer because of concerns about future development, including the golf course, said interim President Ellen Ferguson.

"I'm out there two or three times a week at least," she said of the watershed. "That's our recreational area. That's where we go."

The proposed 125-acre course, about a mile past the end of North Douglas Highway, is on a wooded, gentle slope of city land mixed with wetlands and about half a mile above Peterson Creek, a salmon and trout stream. Altogether, including a mile-long access road and golf cart paths, the course would clear about 200 acres.

The golf course is in winter deer habitat used by hunters. It holds stands of very old trees. The access road and golf cart paths cross streams 23 times. Four streams on site are cataloged by the state as fish-bearing tributaries of Peterson Creek.

The developers submitted an application for a city conditional use permit in September of 1997, and they continue to respond to city planners' requests for more information.

Concerns

What's the big deal? Water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and natural water flow, according to environmental specialists.

They say there are risks to the environment while a golf course is built and while it's operated.

Golf courses remove part of the original habitat and replace it with a grassy world that needs water and usually fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Excavating for a course opens up large swaths of land, which can erode and send silt into streams. Logging many trees on site changes the habitat for birds and animals and can alter the natural drainage. Construction can compact the soil, changing the way surface water flows from the area onto other people's land or into wetlands and streams.

Once a course opens, water running off the land can carry chemicals and silt into streams, or chemicals may leach into the groundwater. The access road, golf cart paths and parking lots can act as dikes, diverting water that would have flowed into wetlands. Courses use a lot of water for irrigation, and that can affect the supply of groundwater.

Oil and dirt can wash off roads and parking lots into streams. Careless management of maintenance buildings can harm the environment. Courses must dispose of human waste from thousands of golfers.

Meeting the concerns

The developers believe they can avoid or mitigate all of those potential harms.

Totem Creek has submitted plans to regulators for wetlands and salmon streams, erosion and sedimentation control, and water conservation. It soon will submit several other detailed plans requested by the city.

"Every study that's ever been known to man, just about, has been applied to this job," said the course's architect, William Robinson of Florence, Ore. "Each time this plan has been revised it's been revised primarily for environmental concerns."

The developers' first concern was to avoid wetlands. The project will fill only about 1 1/2 acres of isolated pockets of wetlands for the access road and golf cart paths.

"There is not a square foot of fill associated with fairways, tees or greens that is being built on wetlands," said Randy Bayliss, who was an environmental consultant for the project.

Bayliss said the course golf site is on well-drained, gravely soil and will be constructed so that there is no runoff of silt or chemicals. Golf courses are designed to quickly drain rain water into the ground, he said.

"Nearly everything you do to the terrain is to make the golf course drain into the groundwater," said Bayliss, who is the managing principal in the environmental consulting and engineering firm Smith Bayliss LeReschne Inc.

Bayliss said the developers always assumed the course wouldn't use pesticides, and he believes that will prove to be true except perhaps for moss-killers.

The golf course has undergone scrutiny by federal and state agencies, and now with the city Community Development Department, and a host of conditions has been placed on the project.

The Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit in October 1997 to fill 1.4 acres of wetlands along the access road and golf cart paths.

The state Department of Fish and Game granted permits in January 1998 to build 23 crossings over streams, with conditions.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation gave what's called a certificate of reasonable assurance that the project, if it follows the agency's 34 stipulations, will meet water quality standards.

The state Division of Governmental Coordination in January 1998 said the plan is consistent with the state's coastal management program, as long as 49 conditions are followed and several studies are submitted.

The city Community Development Department's latest staff report, in March 2001, called for 70 conditions to be placed on the conditional use permit.

The city, for example, may require Totem Creek to excavate no more than 25 acres at a time, to reduce the chance of dirt running into streams during construction. The state has required that exposed soil be replanted quickly.

What's at stake

The Peterson Creek drainage hosts significant populations of pink, chum and coho salmon, as well as spawning anadromous Dolly Varden char and cutthroat trout, said Catherine Pohl, a habitat biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.

The drainage has an unusually large proportion of habitat that's good for rearing fish because so much of it is gently sloping, biologists said. The main stem of the creek, which runs close to the coast, is fed by a number of tributaries, which themselves are fed by smaller streams.

"Small, slow streams provide much of the habitat for juvenile coho in Southeast Alaska, and tiny headwaters can be used by cutthroat and Dolly Varden spawning," Pohl said.

There are several alluvial fans on the course. Alluvial fans, which are places where mountain streams have dumped gravel as the land flattens out and the streams slow down, "contribute high water quality, with even flow and warmer winter temperatures, and can provide for excellent fish habitat," Pohl said.

Research this spring on Peterson Creek and its tributaries showed good water quality and plenty of fish, according to environmental planner Cathy Needham and forester Cal Richert of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council. The council has grants to study Peterson Creek for a year to establish a baseline of information about its water quality and fish habitat. The creek system mostly is on city and private land.

Researchers trapped 600 fish, mostly coho smolt, in one section of a tributary this spring, for example.

"I'd say that's a very healthy stream in terms of fish production and water quality," Richert said. "We can tell you from tramping around out there we've seen fish in every tributary out there and just about every little side slough."

The upper reaches of fish habitat on the larger tributaries are in the lower portions of the proposed golf course, he said. But he hasn't seen fish in the small seasonal streams on the course.

Just the start?

Critics of golf courses often are concerned that they will attract other development, such as housing and shops.

"Even if housing isn't part of the plan initially, a lot of people say 10 years from now there will be housing, and so they oppose it on those grounds," said Damian Pascuzzo, a golf course architect based in El Dorado Hills, Calif., and president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

West Douglas is now a large piece of undeveloped land, said Julie Hammonds, a resident who opposes the golf course.

Totem Creek's original application for a conditional use permit included 250 housing units to be built over 20 years. That is no longer part of the proposal submitted for the conditional use permit.

The city and Goldbelt have earmarked land in West Douglas for future growth, although nothing is actively in the works. Goldbelt and the city have put their emphasis on getting a second crossing of Gastineau Channel, rather than seeking to extend North Douglas Highway, which would be needed to develop West Douglas.

Goldbelt, which owns about 1,700 acres near the West Douglas waterfront, supports the golf course, said Executive Vice President David Goade.

"It's going to bring people to the area, activity and excitement and interest, and I think those are things that bode well for the future of Goldbelt lands," he said.

Goldbelt and the city commissioned a West Douglas conceptual plan, made public in May 1997, that suggested four areas for development to be separated by lands for lower use or that would be protected. One of the developable housing areas was some uplands near the proposed golf course, the plan said. Other sites in West Douglas were considered suitable for marine and industrial uses and for more housing.

But none of that will happen unless there's market demand for it, Goade said.

"The hardest thing to do is that first development because it's changing the values of a lot of land," Hammonds said. "How ideal of them to have the first project be a lot of green space" so that it wouldn't be opposed.

"It's not just a golf course. I think that's why people are willing to go to meetings and keep talking about it. It's the whole area," she said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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