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Parking lot or swamp?

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FILL OR WATERFOWL?
  • FILL OR WATERFOWL?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed concerns about a proposal by a North Little Rock business to fill a 43-acre cypress-tupelo swamp on the Arkansas River just upriver from the Interstate 430 bridge, citing eagles’ nests and loss of fish and animal habitat.

Mike Mehaffy, owner of Thomco Inc. engineering and construction firm, filed what’s called a section 404 application with the U.S. Army Corps of engineers to fill the property. He wants to park heavy equipment there.

The public has until Jan. 30 to comment on the application, in which Mehaffy proposes to fill what the COE calls “mature forested wetlands” with 230,000 cubic yards of shale and clay material to bring it level with Crystal Hill Road. Mehaffy’s tract is 73 acres total.

The swamp is upstream from and similar to Rosenbaum Lake, the extensive cypress swamp visible to traffic on the I-430 bridge over the river, where a developer tried to build a marina a decade ago. That project was stopped by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which found that Arkansas had violated its own water quality standards by issuing a permit to the builder.

Mehaffy’s swamp curls behind property adjoining Rosenbaum Lake — which, coincidentally, the Thomco office is on — and turns into bottomland woods at a higher elevation. Water in the swamp was high and muddy on a recent visit; woodpeckers and jays called and darted about the cypress trees. Bur oak acorn caps 2 inches wide lay in the leaf litter under the trees in the upland area.

Mehaffy was paid $16,500 by the Corps of Engineers in 1970 for an easement on the tract as part of the construction of Murray Lock and Dam. The easement deed stipulates that he has the right to fill the tract above a certain elevation, and he has complained to the COE that the public notice did not mention that provision of the easement.

However, the COE’s regulatory office says the Clean Water Act of 1972 trumps the language in Mehaffy’s deed.

If the eagles’ nests are active, Fish and Wildlife biologist Lindsey Lewis informed Mehaffy, “there will be additional requirements for preventing take and disturbance of the eagles.” Lewis also noted that the application lacked required information on avoidance, minimization and mitigation of habitat.

Fish and Wildlife’s Tim Scott, project director, said the EPA has also already expressed concern over the application, as have private conservation groups. ECO (Ecological Conservation Organization), a Little Rock outfit, asked for a public hearing on the application, but Scott said the COE would not call a public hearing unless it needed more information to make a decision.

ECO President Rob Fisher and Vice President Dan DeVun, in a letter to the COE, wrote, “With today’s environmental crises and stresses surely the economic value of heavy equipment storage is not being weighed against the economic benefit of 43 acres of wetlands.”

Mehaffy, 71, said he was making the application now because he wanted to establish his family’s right to use the property before he got any older. He said he did not believe that filling the swamp would have any deleterious effect on wetlands downstream, including Rosenbaum. He also said filling wouldn’t cost him much because of an excess of fill dirt available in the area.

Mehaffy described himself as an environmentalist and noted that he was among the opponents to the marina project on Rosenbaum, where he’s seen ducks and other birds. He is a duck hunter and a member of state and national conservation groups.

Mehaffy also said he believed if conservationists knew the terms of his easement deed, they would not have objected.

The COE will inform Mehaffy of concerns raised during the public comment period after Jan. 30, and give him time to respond. If the permit is granted, Mehaffy will have to come up with a mitigation plan to add the number of acres lost to wetlands elsewhere.

To comment, call Scott at 324-5296; write Little Rock District Corps of Engineers Regulatory Office, P.O. Box 867, Little Rock, AR 72203-0867; or e-mail tim.scott@usace.army.mil.

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