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Texas developer plans to dismantle pre-Civil War dam in Ossipee

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From time immemorial, the small town of Ossipee has been home to an old granite dam that has held back the ebullient waters of the Haw River’s Reedy Fork tributary.

But this age-old edifice, which has been around almost as long as Alamance County itself, may soon be swept away by the currents of a federal initiative that encourages eco-friendly development to offset the impact of projects that have an outsized toll on the natural environment.

Known as compensatory “mitigation,” this regulatory strategy is used by agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to negotiate the complex give-and-take that comprises the federal government’s environmental permitting process.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, developers can obtain transferable mitigation “credits” for ventures ranging from wetland restoration to the removal of obsolete dams. They can then apply those credits to their own high-impact endeavors. Or they can sell them to other developers who need the added regulatory juice to jumpstart environmentally-sensitive projects in the same federally-designated watersheds.

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The trade in these credits, or “mitigation banking” to use the insider jargon, has grown into something of a cottage industry – with specialized developers who ferret out opportunities for credit-rich projects in different parts of the U.S. These mitigation professionals include Adam Riggsbee of Austin, Texas, whose firm RiverBank Conservation has been the prime mover behind the proposed dam removal in Ossipee.

[Story continues below photo which shows the dam in the background through the trees and vegetation near the current bridge construction.]

A century-old dam in the background near the bridge construction in Ossipee is being proposed for removal by a Texas conservationist/entrepreneur.

Riggsbee notes that he and others in his profession are always on the lookout for ecologically-friendly ventures that can generate credits under the Clean Water Act.

“I’m a mitigation banker, as it’s called,” Riggsbee acknowledged in an interview earlier this week. “That’s predominately how I make my money, and North Carolina has a pretty robust market for mitigation credits.”

“We provide credits to the open market,” he added. “We’re basically trying to fill a specific need and dam removal is one way to do that.”

Riggsbee happened to find an obsolete dam ripe for this treatment along the Haw River’s Reedy Fork tributary, which tumbles through the rural hinterland along the border between Guilford and Alamance counties. Located about a mile inside Alamance County, this 14-foot-high granite monolith dates back to at least 1855, when it was used to power either a cotton- or gristmill along a bend in the river.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, this dam ceased to serve any industrial function sometime before 1979. Yet, it has remained in position along the Reedy Fork, where it has formed a slow-moving, sediment-clogged bulge in the waterway that extends for some 2.6 miles upstream.

[Story continues below picture of the log-jam often created at the current dam.]

In March of this year, Riggsbee sent a proposal to the Army Corps of Engineers that calls for the dam to be dismantled in order to restore the tributary to a more natural, free-flowing state. According to a public notice that the Corps issued later that month, this project would entail the removal of the dam “and any associated support structures.”

“The sponsor also proposes to restore and enhance [the] stream habitat immediately downstream, which has over-widened and over-coarsened because of the dam’s spillway hydraulics” the Corps adds in a project description that it published in March. “It is anticipated that the [dam’s] proposed removal will benefit aquatic species by relieving habitat fragmentation, restoring lotic habitat, and improving water quality by alleviating stagnate water conditions.”

Based on the plans that he has submitted to the Corps of Engineers, much of the work that Riggsbee proposes to do would occur on a single, 12-acre lot that Glen Raven Mills has owned off of Old NC 87 since 1979. This parcel, which is nestled between Ossipee Front Street and the right bank of the Reedy Fork, is presently situated within the municipal limits of Ossipee.

The Corps’ prospectus for this project also alludes to the proposed reconstruction of streambanks beyond the dam’s immediate footprint. According to the federal agency, these areas will eventually be planted with native trees and shrubs to prevent future deterioration.

Riggsbee told The Alamance News that, in addition to some streambank restoration on Glen Raven’s own property, he also hopes to extend these improvements to other parcels along the 2.6-mile stretch which has been partially choked off by the dam. But in order to proceed with this work, Riggsbee must first purchase easements from the property owners.

To the extent that anyone is worried they’ll be forced to sell to the Texas-based developer (as one reader of The Alamance News indicated he is in a Public Asks inquiry), Riggsbee insists that the dam’s neighbors are under no obligation to enter into these real estate deals.

“The landowners along the current impoundment will have an opportunity to let us purchase conservation easements,” he elaborated. “It’s a completely voluntary transaction. There’s no forced sale, no eminent domain. But if we purchase the conservation easement, that does come with some restrictions.”

Riggsbee went on to stress that anyone who agrees to sell him a conservation easement will have to accept new limits on the rights that they currently have to the land along the Reedy Fork’s channel. In particular, they’ll have to allow the natural vegetation to grow back within a 50-foot stream buffer and subsequently refrain from disturbing this flora.

Riggsbee said he has no doubt that the easement’s restrictions would hamper one property owner who presently mows the grass all the way down to the streambank. He added, however, that others who own land upstream of the dam would be able to continue the same low-impact activities that they’ve always enjoyed within the 50-foot zone.

“We can identify certain purposes and uses, like fishing or picnicking, that we can protect,” he observed. “‘Quiet enjoyment’ is the legal term for these uses, which are compatible with conservation.”

Riggsbee said that he has already made overtures about the purchase of these conservation easements to nearly all of the property owners within the 2.6-mile “impoundment” that lies upstream of the dam. He added that most of these neighbors warmed up to his offer once they understood his intentions as well as the proposed easement’s legal ramifications.

“I’ve been pleased with the interactions,” he said. “The questions have been thoughtful…And, by and large, everyone I’ve been in touch with has been interested in selling conservation easements.”

In the midst of the developer’s own outreach efforts, the Army Corps of Engineers launched a month-long public comment period about Riggsbee’s proposal that ultimately came to a close on April 19. In the meantime, the Corps has begun its own review of the developer’s plans, in tandem with other state and federal agencies that have a stake in this project.

In the aforementioned public notice, the Corps makes no guarantee that Riggsbee’s endeavor will, in the end, receive the federal government’s seal of approval.

“The decision whether to issue a permit will be based on an evaluation of the probable impacts, including cumulative impacts of the proposed activity on the public interest,” the Corps goes on to assert. “The benefit which may reasonably be expected to accrue from the proposal must be balance against its reasonably foreseen detriments.”

Riggsbee said that the feedback he has so far received from the Corps has been encouraging. Even so, he admits that he isn’t holding his breath while federal regulators continue to pick apart his plans for the Ossipee dam.

“It will probably be a couple years before this thing is all hammered out,” he added. “The public comment period is just the first phase.”

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