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Living Lightly on the Land.

Yon wouldn't think of the former munitions plant known as the Washington (DC) Navy Yard as a model of "environmentally sensitive development." Walk under a leaky overpass of Interstate 295 and through Gate 9, and what you see is mostly pavement. Sure, there are berms lining the entranceway, landscaped with homes and red maples. And star magnolias and cherry trees peek out among the maze of brick buildings.

But 95 percent of the Navy Yard's 65 acres is covered with impervious material--rooftops and parking lots. With every rainfall, dirty water runs off those surfaces and into the Anacostia River, one of the most polluted waterways in the country.

Capt. Steve Martsolf aims to clean up the stormwater here. As special assistant for regional environmental affairs, he's leading a new demonstration project that uses trees, shrubs, and perennials to help clean up the runoff. Martsolf is like scores of other officials grappling with how to ecologically balance growing populations and shrinking green space. His efforts are among the drawing cards for this year's 2001 National Urban Forest Conference, September 5-8 at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington, DC.

"The Navy believes in having a good quality workplace," says Martsolf, explaining the impetus for the pilot project. "The better the river, the better the workplace." Plus, he says, "We understand that if your backyard is crapped up, nobody wants to be there." And the Navy wants people here. The yard not only serves as the home and office for thousands of employees, it serves as a destination for tourists and as a neighbor to local residents southeast of Capitol Hill.

The conference will describe the work at the Navy Yard, through a workshop and field trip, along with various other aspects of the environmentally sensitive-development movement, including conservation developments like Prairie Crossing. The movement's goal is not to fight development but, rather, to build in a way that "protects and preserves natural features and ecological systems," according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Traditional development entails axing trees, scraping away the ground's natural contours, and laying down lots of asphalt--all things people lament when they complain about urban sprawl. The environmentally sensitive approach, as the name implies, seeks to develop with nature in mind.

There are various ways to accomplish environmentally sensitive development, from large-scale projects that involve clustermg houses to conserve land and protect parcels of trees and forests to smaller-scale projects, like the Navy Yard's, that involve managing stormwater in ways that mimic natural water cycles. Some methods are incorporated into the planning for new developments, others are modifications to improve the environment of old sites.

These approaches, the Maryland natural-resources department says, are geared toward "building in harmony with the natural landscape and its features." And in harmony with developers' pocketbooks. Plenty of people have shown that conserving land--and the trees on it--can make money for developers in the long run.

"People often pose these issues as growth versus preservation or the environment versus the economy," says Ed McMahon, director of the American Greenways Program of the Conservation Fund. "We would say--and AMERICAN FORESTS would say--that that's a false choice. What's good for business is often good for the environment."

McMahon's goal is to "use development as a tool for conservation" by encouraging city planners and developers to build communities around green space the same way they would around a golf course. Surveys by the Conservation Fund and others show that homeowners are willing to live on smaller lots, say, half an acre, and still pay a premium if their property abuts open space--forest, prairie, whatever. If enough developments did that, over time, counties would create contiguous green spaces--for walking and biking trails, as well as corridors of animal habitat.

That was the idea behind Prairie Crossing, a 678-acre development on former farmland in Grays Lake, Illinois. A group of landowners bought the parcel with the idea of creating a subdivision that was the antithesis of sprawl. With the help of planners, developers, and architects, they designed a cluster of 362 homes on 120 acres, preserving 70 percent of the land as permanently protected open space. Some of the land is reserved for an organic farm, other parcels serve as playing fields and hiking trails. The rest is designated as prairie and marshland, winding throughout the development and sometimes right up to back porches.

Native trees, such as bur oak and shagbark hickory, grow amid osage-orange hedgerows. But the focus is on restoring the natural grasslands. They serve a practical purpose: handling 88 percent of the development's stormwater. The lots are graded and the houses and streets are sited so that stormwater runs sequentially through grass swales, then through prairie, and then to the wetlands. That system uses nature to filter and slow the runoff.

Helene Miller, an urban forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation, is pushing for a similar approach to development in Kansas City. Her department is trying to reduce sprawl--and the traffic and pollution associated with it.

"Kansas City's claim to fame is that we have more highway miles per capita than any place else in the country," says Miller, who presented her work at the 1999 conference. All that highway is not a milestone Miner is proud of, but she figures, "We're not going to end suburbia." Instead, she wants to help shape it by encouraging environmentally sensitive alternatives.

Miller's department has been using AMERICAN FORESTS' CITYgreen software to compare typical residential developments to the cluster-and-conserve developments. CITYgreen helps quantify variables--like the number, size, and type of trees in a given area--and determine the amount of money saved through the energy conservation, stormwater management, and pollution absorption that trees provide. After all, trees protect homes from the summer sun and winter wind, and they take up water and toxins that would otherwise be washed down storm drains and into streams.

Through the software, Miller found, "If you have more trees you get more benefits and alternative-development patterns allow you to have more trees."

At George Mason University in Virginia, graduate students in environmental science are finding that CiTYgreen can help them show residents the impact of development on Difficult Run Watershed.

In Houston, Wendee Holtcamp was worned about trees and water when she learned that 78 acres of woodland near her home was going to be razed for two shopping centers. Holteamp formed a citizen's group--the San Jacinto Conservation Coalition, named for the nearest river. She helped educate her neighbors about the environmental benefits of trees, encouraged the Texas Forest Service to use CITYgreen to evaluate the property, and took the findings to developers and retailers, urging them to spare some of the trees.

"The ideal thing would be if they used vacant properties," Holtcamp says. But short of that, "They have been responsive to our concerns, leaving more buffer zones and tree scapes."

Getting homeowners and citizens involved in protecting the environment is the unspoken goal of Larry S. Coffman, associate director of the department of environmental resources in Prince George's County, Maryland. Coffman opposes sprawl, believes in conservation, and considers himself an environmentalist. But he's also a pragmatist. "You can't pit conservation against development because you're going to lose," he says. So while the politicians duke it out over smart growth, Coffman is doing what he can to modify development to make sure that the building going on all around him occurs in an environmentally sensitive way.

A biologist by training, Coffman is the county's expert on stormwater management and has made Prince George's County a national leader for its environmental practices. He has lots of followers, including two conference speakers, Judith A. Okay, a riparian specialist with the Virginia Department of Forestry, and Neil Weinstein, executive director of the firm that led the Navy Yard project, Low Impact Development Center, Inc.

Research shows, Coffman says, that frequently dumping large amounts of stormwater, especially hot stormwater, is more harmful to receiving streams and the organisms that live in them than even the polluted quality of the water itself. Given that fact and the expense of building and maintaining the conventional pipe-and-pond systems, Coffman is striving to affordably mimic Mother Nature by reproducing the watershed's natural ebb and flow.

In 1997, he came up with low-impact development technology and then used an EPA grant to convert the local model into a national one. It involves several design strategies: conserving the lay of the land, minimizing the added infrastructure and impervious materials, reducing the frequency of water runoff, detaining stormwater on the lots, and preventing pollution.

To understand what Coffman has in mind, and the evolution of his thinking. it's best to hit the road with him. There's a lot of pavement in Prince George's County. So while eyeing his gas gauge, which dips precariously into the red zone, Coffman winds in and out of a mind-boggling number of developments until he reaches one called Northridge.

Built more than 10 years ago by Michael P. Rose, a Maryland developer whose logo is a tree and whose slogan is "communities that live with nature," Northridge is a unique subdivision where stands of trees were preserved and protected during construction. Mature pines and maples now rub up against the back of these houses.

"Trees are good, trees are key," says Coffman, snapping some pictures to further document the subdivision that first got him thinking about what more could be done to protect watersheds. His conclusion: Trees alone aren't enough. When it comes to stormwater runoff, patches of conserved land do not counterbalance developed land, he explains.

Back in the car, he makes his way to a newer development: Somerset. There are no mature trees here; the subdivision was built on a tobacco farm so there were none to preserve. And it feels like a sprawling suburb--wide streets lined with identical houses fronted by mown lawns and miniature trees. But from Coffman's perspective, Somerset holds part of the promise to watershed protection.

There are no curbs lining the yards and no storm drains lining the roads. Instead, lawns dip to form shallow swales a few feet before grass meets street. Every downspout flows into a yard or rain barrel and every lawn includes a low, landscaped spot-a rain garden. These bioretention areas are designed to hold 6 inches of rainwater--the first flush of a downpour, which contains the highest concentration of pollutants from hard surfaces. Homeowners in Somerset have planted their rain gardens with redosier dogwoods (Cornus sericea), ornamental grasses, and daylilies, all of which take up the excess water, along with the pollutants. Residents are also encouraged to plant river birch (Betula nigra).

Coffman's dream development would marry the technIques used in Northridge and Somerset. The trouble is, while the techniques used in these neighborhoods saved the developers thousands of dollars on every house, they also required the developers to get waivers to deviate from "a bewildering mix of subdivision codes, zoning regulations, parking and street standards, and drainage regulations that often work at cross purposes with better site design." That's bow the Center for Watershed Protection describes the process, adding, "Few developers are willing to take risks to bend those rules with site plans that may take years to approve or that may never be approved at all." Rose, for example, says he'd like to use rain gardens in his subdivisions, but he's never won approval from local officials.

To improve that process, the Center brought together 30 constituencies-from conservation groups to civil engineers-for a discussion that in 1999 led to the endorsement of 22 better-site-design techniques. The round table, which will be discussed during the urban-forest conference, endorsed things like reducing street lengths and widths, using bioretention sites, and conserving trees. The center works with communities and municipalities to change codes that prevent low-impact designs.

At the Navy Yard, Captain Martsolf and the other officers are celebrating the work they've begun, with the community's help, to clean up the stormwater runoff here. On a sunny day, volunteers from the Conservation Corps and other community groups planted red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), day lilies, and ornamental grasses in new bioretention cells in one of the Navy Yard's biggest parking lots. These plants are more than window dressing. They're expected to clean up 90 percent of the heavy metals that wash off this pavement. As such, they're an integral part of cleaning up the run-off and restoring the Anacostia. "A simple and elegant answer to cleaning up the environment," as the Commandant of Naval District Washington, Rear Adm. Christopher Weaver, put it.

Some 40 people, including Ethel Kennedy, gathered for the ceremony and to learn about the Navy's environmental project. Kennedy has long been involved in efforts to clean up the river here. Today, she's full of admiration for the Navy. "I'm so proud of the Navy. It's wonderful," she says, looking toward one of the bioretention cells.

This may be low-impact development, but it's gaining high-profile proponents. AF

Courtney Leatherman is associate editor of American Forests.


The Virginia Department of Forestry describes a rain garden as a depression in the ground built as a landscape tool to improve water quality. Essentially, it's a bioretention area that's based on the hydrologic function--the natural ebb and flow of water--in a forest habitat. In the forest, leaves, soil, and plants not only help improve the quality of water, they slow it down and reduce the amount that runs off the land and into streams. By capturing the first flush of rain, the rain gardens help prevent pollution from entering waterways. But they also help prevent erosion of stream beds and the destruction of habitat.

It's pretty easy to build a rain garden. The following basic guidelines for building gardens in your yard can easily be adapted to build a bioretention cell in a parking lot.

1 Note the lay of the land in your yard and the basic drainage pattern. Following that pattern, dig a depression--about 20 feet away from your house and your neighbor's-to catch runoff. Make it deep enough to accommodate a 6-inch ponding area for four days or less. That's deep enough to hold the first flush but not so deep that the area becomes a mosquito-infested swamp. The size of the rain garden depends on the size of the drainage area. The Virginia forestry department recommends a garden that is 5 to 7 percent of the drainage area.

2 Think about maintaining a grass buffer strip at the edge of your garden--another way to slow the flow of water.

3 Add gravel and soil to your rain garden. The Virginia forestry department recommends a soil mixture of 20 percent leaf mulch, 50 percent sandy soil, and 30 percent top soil. That combination provides a medium that will retain some water and provide nutrients for the plants. Plus, clay particles absorb pollutants.

4 Select plants that can tolerate extreme moisture conditions. Sometimes the garden will be inundated with water, other times it will be very dry. Experts recommend herbaceous perennials--like cardinal flower, Joe-Pye weed, and daylilies--as well as woody plants such as river birch, button bush, and sweet pepperbush.

5 Finish off the planting with a layer of hardwood mulch, and enjoy your efforts.


The 2001 National Urban Forest Conference, September 4-8 in Washington, DC, offers tours and workshops for those interested in learning more about low-impact development or how ClTYgreen can help make the case for trees in the city.


Workshop: Sept. 5, 9 a.m -noon; Tour: Sept. 5, 1 p.m. -5 p.m.

Learn about and see first-hand some local examples of low-impact development. Participants will learn how biofiltration techniques use the plant/soil complex to filter pollutants and reduce stormwater runoff volume and peak runoff rates, as well as how these techniques are used in both urban and rural riparian settings.

The afternoon tour will let participants see the techniques in action, with stops at Bladensburg Port Towns Redevelopment Project, Beltway Plaza, and the Washington Navy Yard. These projects show how biofiltration techniques can be incorporated into streetscapes, tree wells, planters, traffic medians, and virtually any open space.


Sept. 5. 9 a.m -4.p.m.

This hands-on workshop teaches participants to use AMERICAN FOrESTS' CITY green desktop software to conduct Urban Ecosystem Analyses. Calculate the urban forest dollar value benefits of reduced stormwater runoff, energy conservation, carbon sequestration, and improved air quality No prior Geographic Information Systems (GIS) experience necessary.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:efforts by various communities to clean polluted waterways
Author:Leatherman, Courtney
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Forest INVADERS.
Next Article:The Mesmerizing Southern Magnolia.

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