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City staff have launched a defense of the embattled Taylor Run Stream Restoration Projectcriticized by some environmental activists and the city’s Natural Resources Manager Rod Simmons

As part of the budget query process, Vice-Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker asked staff to look into other options as alternatives to the project. Despite reluctance towards the Taylor Run restoration project starting to take hold in the City Council, staff said in a response to Bennett-Parker they believe the current course to be the most effective one.

“If an alternative is pursued, then the 10-Year Plan would need to be revised based on the funding impact of these alternatives, each of which come with very different levels of risk and costs,” staff said. “Additionally, none of the alternatives would stabilize the sanitary sewer infrastructure which will need to be undertaken regardless.”

The Taylor Run Stream Restoration Project is expected to cost $4.5 million, half of which is paid for by the state-level Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.

Local activists have said the city’s project overestimates the levels of pollution in the stream by relying on projections rather than tests of the water and the removal of foliage from the stream — many of them mature trees — though the city has said it will replant new ones.

The first alternative analyzed is implementing smaller scale green infrastructure projects, like bioretention facilities and underground filtering. But staff said these projects could cost up to $66 million, which would come entirely from city coffers and ultimately from homeowners in Alexandria.

Staff compared smaller scale BMPs that include green infrastructure (urban bioretention, bioswales, etc.) and underground BMPs (filtering devices) as alternatives as retrofits in the right-of-way and on public property.  Cost-benefit estimates for these alternatives range from $88,000 to $225,000 per pound of phosphorous reduced, respectively.  (Note these estimates do not include currently uncertain costs that may arise during the planning, scoping, design or implementation phases, or future maintenance and operation costs.) Using those per pound cost ranges, capital costs are estimated between $26 million and $66 million to implement between 300 and 400 new BMPs to achieve an equivalent amount of pollution credits. This would add (refer to footnote) between $41 and $89 to the annual stormwater fee for the majority of homeowners in the City. It is also important to note that due to the high cost per pound of phosphorous removal none of these BMPs would meet the eligibility requirements (of $50,000/lb. or less) to be considered for a VDEQ Stormwater Local Assistance Program grant. Therefore, the City would need to fully fund these smaller BMPs using local funds.

Another option suggested by many opponents of the Taylor Run Stream Restoration project is additional tree planting, an option suggested in contrast to some of the tree clearing that would take place as part of the project. Staff noted in their analysis of the option that, like additional green infrastructure projects, the solution could be more expensive than the current project.

Staff compared tree planting per DEQ and EPA’s Recommendations of the Expert Panel to Define BMP Effectiveness for Urban Tree Canopy approach to generate pollution reduction credits. To achieve an equivalent pollution reduction, the City would need to plant between 421,000 and 686,000 trees at a low-end estimated cost of $84 million to $137 million and a high-end estimated capital cost of $126 million to $206 million. This would add (refer to footnote) between $113 and $287 per year to they stormwater utility fee for the majority of homeowners in the City. Like Alternative Scenario 1 these costs do not include currently uncertain costs that may arise during the planning, scoping, design or implementation phases, or future maintenance and operation costs. The issue of where to plant this volume of trees also would need to be addressed.

The last option, and possibly the alternative scenario most suggested by opponents of the Taylor Run project, is to do nothing: leave the stream alone. City staff reviewed the no-build option but said that cancelling the project without pursuing any of the other alternatives it could put its state stormwater permits (MS4) at risk.

If the City chooses to defer or cancel the Taylor Run Stream Restoration project, it brings into question the use of stream restorations as a key strategy in the City’s toolkit to meet its Bay mandates. The City’s three, currently approved stream restoration projects will cost the City approximately $3.7 million, with another $3.7 million coming in VDEQ grants.  In contrast, the total cost of a “BMPs alone” strategy to reduce an equivalent amount of phosphorous for the City would be between $79 million and $201 million, which is currently not programmed in the Ten-Year Stormwater Capital Plan. This would add between $106 and $274 per year to the stormwater utility fee for a majority of homeowners. It would require the installation of over 900 total green infrastructure and underground BMPs in rights-of-way and on public property. If Council chooses one of the above scenarios for Taylor Run, or removes stream restoration from the City’s toolkit, staff would need to provide additional refined projections on the fiscal impacts and risk, and revise the City’s Stormwater Utility 10-Year Plan.

Staff said the city is currently ahead of schedule on its Chesapeake Bay Cleanup mandates, but if the city fell behind from cancelling this project, it could be subject to fines and other punitive measures.

“These would likely include prescriptive actions and schedules of interim milestones to demonstrate positive trajectory to meet the requirements, including the identification of adequate funding and scheduling to implement alternative BMPs to achieve milestones,” staff said. “These punitive measures would likely be administered through aggressive oversight by VDEQ.”

The kicker, staff said, is that separate sanitary sewer stabilization would still require impacting Taylor Run.

“The sanitary sewer runs parallel to the trail and within the southern stream bank for most of the way until it crosses to the northern side of the stream near the acidic seepage wetland, where the sheet pile for the manhole is located,” staff said. “Separately stabilizing the sanitary infrastructure in lieu of incorporating this work into a more holistic stream restoration would require tree removal for access — presumably the pedestrian trail as well as down to the stream to access the sanitary sewer crossings exposed in the stream bed — to allow heavy equipment access to stabilize the sanitary crossings by encasing the pipe in concrete.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said in an email that on Monday, April 12, from 5-7 p.m. staff and the design consultant will host a walkthrough of the project, giving community members a chance to tour the site.

“Project staff will be present and available to answer questions and discuss restoration goals and efforts in specific areas of interest,” Wilson said. “The onsite walkthrough will begin at the entrance of the Chinquapin Park trailhead located at 3120 King Street.”

An update on the project and others included in the city’s Chesapeake Bay Pollution reduction goals is also scheduled to be presented to the City Council on Tuesday, April 27, at 7 p.m.

Image via City of Alexandria

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What a week in Alexandria.

Our top story this week was on a plan to install hanging gardens in the Carlyle neighborhood.

Still, a lot of other stuff happened. While Alexandria City Public Schools opened their doors to hybrid learning, City Council made headway on a collective bargaining ordinance and rejected the Braddock West development.

Here are some other important stories this week:

Here are this week’s top stories:

  1. The Caryle neighborhood could be getting its own Hanging Gardens
  2. Residential neighborhood with 139 townhomes approved for Victory Center site
  3. Police Chief updates Del Ray community on recent crime incidents
  4. City Council takes rare step and strips local business of special use permits
  5. City passes ordinance limiting large trucks from parking in business zones
  6. Just Sold in Alexandria: March 16, 2021
  7. Alexandria looking for feedback on proposed North Beauregard Street repaving
  8. Local vaccination efforts accelerated with new vaccine supply, city preps for phase 1c
  9. Waterfront Commission tries to avert ‘Disneyland-like’ development in Old Town
  10. Poll: Do you agree with the City Council’s rejection of the Braddock West project?
  11. Alexandria’s initial and continued unemployment claims just jumped by double percentage points

Have a safe weekend!

Image via City of Alexandria

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Critics of the  Taylor Run and Strawberry Run stream restoration projects will get some of their questions answered this spring.

A recent City Council memo is asking staff to schedule a legislative meeting — preferably in April — for an update on the projects, which a growing chorus say disrupt natural habitats. The issue would be raised during the oral reports portion of the Council meeting.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilman John Taylor Chapman drafted the memo, which was sent to the city manager’s office on March 10.

“Over the past several months, city council has received public comment, emails and other communication regarding the city’s stream restoration projects at Strawberry Run and Taylor Run,” the memo states. “We are also hopeful, that given resident concerns, staff would be able to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by alternatives that resident groups that come forward with, as well as any fiscal impact.”

There are two upcoming legislative meetings in April — on Tuesday, April 6, and on Tuesday, April 27.

Opposition has been led by the Environmental Council of Alexandria, which also says that the city’s soil tests at Taylor Run are not accurate. City Councilwoman Amy Jackson also recently went against the Taylor Run project after the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) advised Council to step back. Staff’s plan to clear the waterway near T.C. Williams High School and Chinquapin Park will result in the removal of 269 trees, of which they say 22% are dead.

“The proposed restoration method will degrade — not improve — the physical, chemical and biological features of the stream and the adjacent natural resources,” wrote EPC chair Kathie Hoekstra. “We believe the City needs to step back and address unanswered questions before proceeding with a project that would irreversibly impact Chinquapin Park for several decades at least.”

Photo via City of Alexandria

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Critics of the city’s plans to restore Taylor Run secured a new voice — City Councilwoman Amy Jackson — to their side when the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) of Alexandria recently announced its opposition to the current project.

The EPC is an independent body established by the city in 1970 and reviews issues like water quality and environmental conservation.

In a letter to the City Council, Kathie Hoekstra, Chair of the EPC, shared some of the group’s doubts and concerns about the project.

“We believe the City needs to step back and address unanswered questions before proceeding with a project that would irreversibly impact Chinquapin Park for several decades at least,” Hoekstra said. “The City should demonstrate a good faith effort to explore all possible alternatives with better long lasting results with the EPC and the community before the City selects a contrator and moves forward with its plan.”

Hoekstra acknowledged it could result in the city foregoing the current grant funding unless that is applied to alternative projects.

The EPC’s letter is part of a coalition of dissent that includes some member of city leadership, like Rod Simmons, the city’s natural resource manager, and City Councilwoman Amy Jackson.

“I shouldn’t say I was dancing in the streets when I saw that,” Jackson said of the letter in a discussion with the West End Business Association earlier today. “There are a few awesome environmental specialists who don’t work for the facility who have done their due diligence in bringing that report up.”

Jackson said she and others are working on bringing the issue back to City Council for discussion. Currently the issue isn’t docketed for City Council review, having been earlier approved as part of a grant application, which has opened up new concerns about transparency for Jackson.

“Grants are on our consent docket [and we] move them right along,” Jackson said. “I want this changed and was communicating with the Mayor about this yesterday: our grants need to be pulled from the consent calendar and we need to be discussing those grants before they come to our docket, because that grant money we’re approving — that project may never come back to us. In the meantime, unbeknownst to me at the time, I’m approving a project that will never come before me again.”

Mayor Justin Wilson noted earlier that the Taylor Run project could come back to the city, but only as part of the current budget discussions.

The city stated that the project will reduce erosion at the site and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by reducing the level of phosphates.

The city fired back at the ongoing criticisms with a recent letter dismissing the phosphorous tests done by Simmons — though Simmons stands by those tests and say they more accurately reflect the levels of phosphorous than city projections.

Jackson said she has concerns that the project would not substantially benefit the stream, pointing to earlier work at Fort Williams Park where she said the park looks today very close to how it did before the restoration. The EPC is worried the project could actively hinder the health of the stream.

“The proposed restoration method will degrade — not improve — the physical, chemical and biological features of the stream and the adjacent natural resources,” Hoekstra wrote.

Photo via City of Alexandria

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(Updated 3/9/21) Under growing pressure from local environmental activists like the Environmental Council of Alexandria to halt the planned Taylor Run Stream Restoration, city staff have fired back with a 10-page response to criticisms of the project.

Opponents say the city is overstating the level of pollution in the creek and the proposed overhaul of the stream bed would damage the health of the watershed by removing foliage, though the city says many of the trees being removed are dead and that more will be replanted.

“The Taylor Run Stream Restoration project will restore the stream corridor, protect an exposed sanitary sewer pipe from damage, enhance local water quality and the stream’s riparian buffer, and address state and federal Chesapeake Bay TMDL (total nitrogen and total phosphorus) cleanup mandates,” staff wrote. “The project helps clean up the Chesapeake Bay as required in the City’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Permit special conditions to address the Chesapeake Bay TMDL for nutrients and sediment (total suspended solids).”

Opponents also launched an email-campaign today to contact members of the City Council and the Department of Environmental Quality. One of their proposed alternatives is an expansion of the city’s tree planting program, but city staff suggested it would be far too costly.

“To achieve an equivalent pollution reduction, the City would need to plant between 421,000 and 686,000 trees at a low-end estimated cost of $84 million to $137 million,” the city said. “The Taylor Run Stream Restoration project is estimated to cost $4.5 million, including a $2.25 million grant from the state. While the City strongly supports expansion of its tree canopy, tree planting through the recently approved Urban Tree Canopy Expansion BMP is not a viable substitute for this project.”

But the opposition also says the soil is not as rife with pollutants as the city makes it out to be.

Samples collected by the city’s Natural Resources Manager Rod Simmons, in a study ultimately published in T.C. Williams student news organization Theogony, led to a claim that phosphorous levels were substantially lower than the city claimed in its models. Read More

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In response to the city’s public information meetings about the Taylor Run Stream Restoration project, local advocacy group Environmental Council of Alexandria (ECA) is hosting its own meeting tomorrow outlining its opposition to the plan.

The city is planning to overhaul the stream’s design to reduce erosion of the banks and cut down on the flow of pollution from the watershed further down the creek into the Potomac River. Critics of the plan, including the city’s own natural resource manager Rod Simmons, have questioned project contractor’s figures on the pollution in the stream and the benefit of the proposed changes.

The city has posted its own Q&A document with lengthy responses to some criticisms of the project.

The ECA is scheduled to host its meeting via Zoom tomorrow (Thursday) at 7 p.m., with attendees able to register online.

“The City claims that the project will impact only a narrow band of forest along the stream that can be restored easily by replanting thousands of young trees and shrubs,” the ECA said. “They continue to say that the project will rejuvenate the stream and the park ecologically, stop stream erosion, protect sanitary infrastructure, and prevent hundreds of pounds of phosphorus and nitrogen each year from reaching the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. But are any of these claims really true? We don’t think so. Join us for a Zoom presentation on February 25 to find out why.”

The city held a public meeting on January 28 which is viewable online. The project is not scheduled to return to City Council for further approval, although Mayor Justin Wilson said the issue could be revisited in the public hearing phase of budget discussions.

Photo via City of Alexandria

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Morning Notes

Beyer Asks for Pause After 500,000 COVID-19 Deaths — “500,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. Every one of them was a person with a story, friends, a family. It’s a tragedy that’s too large to comprehend, but we should take time today to think about them, and strengthen our resolve to do all we can to end this awful pandemic.” [Twitter]

Eviction Moratorium Extended to March 31 — “The CDC moratorium on residential evictions has been extended thru March 31. If you received an eviction notice, call the Office of Housing at 703.746.4990.” [Twitter]

T.C. Williams High School Kicks Off Football Season — “Watch the Titans kick-off their football season under first year Head Coach Rodney Hughey vs. the Robinson Rams LIVE tonight (Monday night) streaming online. Show your support and post online to Facebook or Twitter. Let us hear from you Titans Fans – Students – Alumni – Parents – Friends!” [Facebook]

Howard Hughes CEO Excited About Landmark Mall Future — “O’Reilly broke his silence about Landmark in an interview with the Washington Business Journal after being named the company’s permanent chief executive in December. He stopped short of calling the project a done deal, but he believes Howard Hughes has assembled a strong team with Inova, developer Foulger-Pratt, architect Cooper Carry, and Seritage Growth Properties (NYSE: SRG), the real estate entity spun out from Sears Holdings Co. that owns the old Sears store at Landmark.” [Washington Business Journal]

Community Group Hosting Taylor Run Stream Presentation — “Learn more about stream restoration from environmental experts and residents who have been studying the Taylor Run project for more than a year and hear what we think should be done to restore Taylor Run, protect Chinquapin Park, and help the Bay.” [Environmental Council of Alexandria]

The Chamber ALX Women’s Forum is March 11 — “After almost a year full of the unexpected and the unprecedented, this forum will bring together women at all stages of their careers for an interactive discussion filled with inspiration and insight, centered around this year’s theme of resiliency, and learning how to find the opportunities amidst the challenges.” [The Chamber ALX]

Today’s Weather — “Partly cloudy skies (during the day). High 53F. Winds WSW at 15 to 25 mph. Winds could occasionally gust over 40 mph… Mainly clear early (in the evening), then a few clouds later on. Low 32F. Winds W at 10 to 15 mph.” [Weather.com]

New Job: Front Office Agent — “And just like our hotels, no two colleagues are the same. So we’re curious about you. How will you inspire the eclectic rhythm in our hotels? How will you bring the local neighborhood story to life? At Hotel Indigo® hotels, we’re excited to meet spirited characters who can delight the most curious guests.” [Indeed]

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The city’s plans to overhaul Taylor Run to combat the erosion of the stream has generated some controversy as both local civic groups and some environmental activists have expressed concerns about the restoration’s impacts.

Criticisms of the city’s plan range from the simple — many of the trees and foliage in the forest will be torn down, though the city has committed to planting new growth and says the damage will be worse if erosion is left unchecked — to the more in-the-weeds concerns — like phosphorous levels in the water might not match the city’s models, meaning the levels of estimated pollution justifying the restoration could be lower than what’s currently speculated.

Local citizens and city staff, along with hired consultants, have gone back and forth with the community in meetings and documents. The matter is not scheduled to return to the City Council for review, though Mayor Justin Wilson said the project could be reviewed in the city’s upcoming budget discussions.

Some noted, however, that the funding mechanism of the stream restoration project could make cancelling or postponing the project tricky even if the city did reverse course — which would not be the first time the city has found itself in that situation.

According to the Q&A, the stream is partially funded by a state grant that would evaporate if the project is delayed:

This project is receiving funding from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF) matching grant. If postponed, the project will lose $2.255M in funding. The City’s portion of the funding is prior year funding from the Stormwater Utility Fee revenues that must be used for stormwater management projects per the Virginia Code.

Image via City of Alexandria

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A project meant to restore Taylor Run, a stream near T.C. Williams High School, has attracted considerable controversy as local environmental activists say the city’s plans will provide minimal benefit and could end up harming the local forest.

The city’s plan is to replace the existing stream with a “natural channel design” that would make it shallower and step-pools and log riffles would be designed to curb erosion. The city’s stated goals are to stabilize the stream corridor and natural environment against erosion, and protect public infrastructure while meeting Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.

The stream restoration project is nearing the end of the public engagement phase and construction proposed to begin in late winter 2021. Additionally, a Q&A document put out by the city is 25 pages long and features 254 comments and responses.

But the project has attracted concerns from a diverse range of local groups, from the Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria activist group to the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. Criticisms range from planned removal of plant life along Taylor Run — despite promises that the vegetation will be replaced — to specific arguments that the city could be dramatically overestimating the level of harmful pollutants currently in the stream.

Jesse Mains, stormwater division chief, said in a public meeting last week on the project that he was in an Uber headed home on New Year’s Eve when he got talking to the local driver about events around the city. The driver asked Mains if he’d heard that the city was going to “bulldoze Taylor Run and build townhomes?”

Mains used the story as an example of misinformation about the project. There will be heavy machinery, he said, but not bulldozers and there are no plans to build townhomes there.

But Andrew Macdonald, former Vice Mayor and chair of the Environmental Council of Alexandria, says scientific inconsistencies in the city’s planning can’t be washed away.

“People recognize that this may do some real harm to places they really want us to preserve for the future,” Macdonald said.

Mayor Justin Wilson said there are no plans to bring actions on the item back to the City Council, but discussion of whether to fund the project could come up during the budget process.

“The Council voted back in 2018 to apply for the grant for this project and initiate the effort,” said Wilson. “Since that time, Council has approved the annual Capital Improvement Program containing funding for this project on a few occasions. Council could certainly choose to remove the funding for this project when we go through our budget process this spring (we would need to identify an alternate project to achieve similar water quality requirements), but that would be the venue for that conversation.”

Macdonald said the problems at Taylor Run start further upstream with runoff from developments in the heart of Alexandria. Read More

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Alexandria is planning an upcoming meeting to look over the latest on the Taylor Run Stream Restoration Project.

The city announced revitalization plans earlier this year and recently completed gathering feedback. The renovation is scheduled to begin mid-to-late 2021 and will include trail improvements.

“The purpose of the Taylor Run stream restoration is to reduce and limit the ongoing erosion, widening, and downcutting in the corridor,” the city said on the project website. “This effort will help to prevent pollution (sediment and phosphorous) associated with that erosion from being delivered downstream. Currently, the design process is ongoing with additional community outreach events occurring in fall 2020.”

Critics of the restoration says that it will negatively impact the habitat.

The Department of Transportation and Environmental Services is planning a community outreach meeting on Thursday, Jan. 28 from 7-8:30 p.m. to provide an update on the project. Attendees can register online with access codes available online.

The city has committed to replanting around 9,500 native trees and shrubs along the stream.

“This forest has thousands of beautiful trees,” the city said. “About 60 along the stream are already dead and others are in jeopardy of falling since bank erosion will accelerate without our help. We will replant 2,280 trees and 7,200 shrubs (using over 30 native species) to replace these and another 209 trees that will be removed.”

Photo via City of Alexandria

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