Environmentalists, Developers Fight Over Montgomery County Creek


I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today we're going Down the Hatch, with our annual show about the D.C. region's food and drink. And when it comes to drink, this week was a big one for the most essential drink of all, water.


The crisis over a faulty water main in Prince George's County is now behind us, but in Montgomery County another water related controversy is swirling around, thanks to the proposed construction of more than 1000 new homes next to Ten Mile Creek in Clarksburg. Some environmentalists and water quality experts say putting major development alongside the backup drinking water source for three million people, would be a major mistake. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has the story.


Cathy Wiss is hunched over a table that she's set up on the banks of Ten Mile Creek. She's peering into a plastic bin filled with what looks, frankly, like nothing more than water, rocks and a bit of dirt.


Oh my goodness, here's something I didn't see before. It looks kind of interesting.


Wiss coordinates the water quality-monitoring program for the Audubon Naturalist Society. And what she's spotted is some kind of benthic macroinvertebrate.


This one's a caddisfly. We have several different kinds of caddisflies today.


Benthic macroinvertebrates are the tiny animals that live among the stones and sediments at the bottom of streams and rivers. The vast majority are insects, but the community also includes snails, crayfish and worms. Wiss says the number and diversity of these creatures found in a creek can provide a good sense of its health, and Ten Mile Creek, she says, is healthier than any creek in the county, and maybe the region.


It's just so amazing to find this amount of diversity in our area that is getting pretty urbanized.


Ginny Barnes is vice chair of the environmental organization, Conservation Montgomery. She also performs water-quality checks for Audubon in another Montgomery Creek, Watts Branch, which empties directly into the Potomac River.


What is really polluting that stream and is not polluting this stream is sediment. If you look at this stream, you don't lift a rock and see clouds of sediment fill the clear water. You see that all through the Watts Branch.


Barnes, Wiss and a coalition of environmental and citizen groups are worried the same fate could befall Ten Mile, what many call the region's last best creek. The county is considering plans for an 1100-house development adjacent to Ten Mile Creek. And the coalition argues that rushing ahead with the plans could lead to muddier and more polluted waters. And some county residents say the fight isn't just about clean water, it's about broken promises.


To understand exactly why you have to drive a little ways away from Ten Mile Creek and back to the center of Clarksburg.


Well, you'll look and see these undulating hills of moved soil with pretty mature vegetation now on them, since they've been this way for a couple decades.


That's Caroline Taylor of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance. She says before clearing a path for new homes and outlet malls, the county needs to provide current Clarksburg residents with the town center development that was first talked about two decades ago, when the master plan for the community was first devised. Right now, Clarksburg residents have to drive to Germantown to shop for groceries.


The fear is that we have two large developments that some seem to think are rather sexy in this sort of economic downturn, and there are some very foolish mistakes that could go on if we promote those developments ahead of this town center, if we promote those developments at the peril of Ten Mile Creek and Seneca Watershed and the groundwater.


Taylor and others lay the blame for the disjointed implementation of Clarksburg's Master Plan directly at the feet of the county council. But councilmember Craig Rice, who represents Clarksburg, says plans for a Town Center are finally moving forward. He also says in his three years on the council he's worked hard to give Clarksburg residents what they want, clearing the path for the new grocery store that's set to open here in the fall.


You know, what we've done is delivered on our promise. That was one of the things we said, look, in the meantime we'll make sure you have a place to shop, you have a couple different stores to go to. If you need a dry cleaners or something like that you shouldn't have to go to Germantown for those simple things. And so we delivered on that. And so I want to continue to deliver on those same kinds of things. It's just that some of these things take a little bit more time, but we are working to push the envelope to make sure we can circumvent as much of that time as possible.


But the Save Ten Mile Creek coalition fears that pushing the envelope will just mean pushing more pollution into Ten Mile Creek. Lewis Birnbaum of Pulte Homes, the company that wants to build the homes near Ten Mile Creek, says environmental concerns about his development are unwarranted.


A lot of the land that we're proposing to development on is currently farmland, so the impact to actual trees and forested area is minimum. Most of our area is farmland already, so there should be less pollutant runoff from our development than there is in its current use.


Birnbaum says Pulte has included hundreds of environmentally-minded extra features, such as permeable pavements and natural site grading throughout its development plan. He says the county's own studies show that water quality will not be affected by Pulte's Ten Mile Creek development, and adds that Pulte is still willing to add even more storm water treatment safeguards to its plan. But he balks at the idea of reducing the number of homes in the plan, as some environmentalists have suggested. He says that could guarantee businesses located a future Town Center wouldn't be able to survive.


We do understand that our neighbors in Clarksburg are exhausted while waiting for this town center that's promised to them. The point we would like to make is that we have environmentalist groups throwing around like, who needs another 400, what does it matter, why do they need 900 homes, maybe they should have 300 homes. I think everybody's significantly underestimating the impact of 200, 300, 400 households and how much money they spend per month, locally, on the local economy.


All of these issues should get hashed out in the next few months. The county's planning board will hold hearings this fall on the Clarksburg Master Plan, giving residents a chance to weigh in on the Ten Mile Creek proposal, as well as the larger question of what this fast-growing suburban community, and its relationship to the area's last, best creek should look like in the decades to come. I'm Jonathan Wilson.


We have more about Ten Mile Creek and the Clarksburg Master Plan on our website,
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