Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 31, 2014

Pros and Cons

Work continues on Habitat Conservation Plan

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — The Cumberland Habitat Conservation Plan is continuing to work on a document that proponents say will streamline environmental work necessary for future development in Crossville and Cumberland County.

"We already have the Endangered Species Act. This seems to me to be a way to reach a friendly agreement with the powers that be," said Rob Harrison, a local developer who serves on the steering committee. He characterized his agreement to participate as a "defensive measure."

"You can spend a lot of money in a development and, all of the sudden, you're stuck for years," Harrison said. "We talk about no surprises being a part of it but, to me, it's much bigger than that. It's so you don't have surprises in adding on to Meadow Park Lake, or other projects that could be started here."

He said he believed the plan would protect development and growth.

Doug Little, also with the steering committee, said he had been involved since the inception of the project.

"I've worked on projects before where I had to deal with the federal government. They're very difficult to deal with. The time can go from 30 days to a year or more. Our thinking is, if we get involved with this, it may help us in the future as far as our development goes."

But some citizens have concerns that the plan, saying language regarding climate change effects on habitats of protected species is worrisome and the federal government could revoke the permit if harm to a species could not be avoided.

"There is nothing written in stone here," said Steve Franks, of Cumberland County. He was also concerned with participation of the Nature Conservancy, which administers federal grant funds through the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, disbursing those to the University of Tennessee to perform the work. The HCP staff does not work for the Nature Conservancy, but for the university.

Randall Kidwell, of Crossville, questioned if the plan would extend federal jurisdiction to privately owned land.

"You are creating another level of mitigation on top of what we already have," Kidwell said. "You're admitting guilt and endangered species before you even know it's there because of these models that are being created."

The Habitat Conservation Plan addresses the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which prohibits the take of federally listed threatened or endangered species, or their habitat. HCPs were included in federal law in 1982. The HCP is a long-term document used to obtain an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Cumberland HCP would be a 30-year plan.

If adopted, the incidental take permit would cover land disturbance of the permit area, including the county, to allow for the take of those habitats of threatened and endangered species through development activities, explained Teresa Payne, project and outreach manager for the project. Both the city and county governments passed resolutions in support of the project in 2007.

"Participation is voluntary. Anyone who wants to develop, they can decide whether or not to participate. It's up to them," Payne said. "This is just one method of complying with the Endangered Species Act."

Cumberland County is an area expected to see a great deal of growth over the next 30 years, Payne said, and is also an ecologically diverse area, with some of the 23 covered species endemic to Cumberland County.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service feels like it is important to try and keep those in our county," Payne said.

In addition to species currently covered by the Endangered Species, the plan works to protect water quality in the watersheds of the county, protecting aquatic species habitats. The HCP is also working with state and federal agencies to identify species which may be listed as threatened or endangered in coming years.

"If a person chooses to participate in the HCP, they will not have survey fees. They will not have to have a habitat survey, an endangered species survey. They will not be required to do that," Payne explained. "They won't have any consulting fees. And, they, consequently, can avoid a stop-work order on the project, which can hold up a project for a long time if the Fish and Wildlife Service gets involved in a project. That's an unplanned event that can really slow a developer down and cost a developer a lot of money."

There are things the plan will not do, Payne said.

"It will not render lots undevelopable. It will not take land rights. It will not require participation," Payne said.

It also does not cover agricultural use of land, mining activities or timber harvesting and forestry activities.

The plan is fully funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Crossville City Council asked for the work session on the HCP when an item for continuation of an agreement to reimburse city staff for work they performed on for the plan.

Payne said, "The HCP has done that for several years and it's been really helpful to us. It has allowed us to consult with staff without it costing the city any money."

The program is voluntary, Payne said, and the council could choose not to participate in the future. If that happened, the city would not have to reimburse the Fish and Wildlife Service for the grant funds. No funds have come from the city or the county.

Payne said the report was approximately 75 percent complete. The HCP is consulting with other HCPs across the country, as well as state agencies and federal agencies.

The council will continue discussion of the Habitat Conservation Plan at its work session set April 1 at 4 p.m. at Crossville City Hall. The agenda for the work session also includes the Tennessee Open Records/Sunshine Laws discussion, bids for the Downtown project, request for qualifications for the Northwest Connector sections II and III, recreation master plan, request for qualifications for wastewater operations, budget work sessions, an aquatic or fitness center, and misuses of chair.