If Columbia County's sediment-control inspectors aren't doing their jobs, somebody forgot to tell the county's builders.
Ask any of them: Fines and warnings for silt-fence violations are as common as this spring's rains have been. Unfortunately, those rains have also brought with them problems by the gallon, and now Georgia's Environmental Protection Division warns the county may lose its ability to enforce its own runoff rules.
There's no doubt there are problems. Last month, representatives from West Lake pleaded with county commissioners for help as the neighborhood's Bowen Pond is quickly filling with silt from runoff upstream. The county now owns the pond as part of its greenspace program, and will face mounting pressure to use stormwater utility funds to dig out the dirt that has washed into the pond.
The Jones Creek neighborhood has similar runoff issues, and not long ago spent thousands of dollars dredging its pond - only to see much of the work undone as silt continues to flow in. And Billy Tiller, who built Lake Jean in Evans nearly 50 years ago, is blaming lax enforcement of controls on a nearby development for now turning the lake into a pond of muddy water.
But are these problems entirely the county's fault? County engineer Jim Leiper points out the rising number of citations and fines, along with many builders' efforts at voluntary compliance, are often washed away with this year's record-setting rainfall. Even the best erosion controls have trouble withstanding several inches of rain in one storm after another.
Additionally, many in the building industry had warned that local counties would face a crackdown when the EPD set up a regional office in Augusta a couple of years ago. It's human nature that the EPD inspectors would pay more attention to problems in their own back yard, and sure enough, now Columbia County finds itself afoul of soil runoff rules.
Though county officials believe they're doing the best job they can, the EPD thinks otherwise. To make them happy, inspectors must get tougher on violations, and builders must police themselves better if they want to avoid a slowdown on building permits.
It also means Columbia County must get a better grip on the fast pace of development. All that dirt flushing into the county's streams gets there when a bulldozer first strips the trees and grass off the ground. If the county's three inspectors aren't enough to keep track of the booming building activity, the county should hire more inspectors.
The construction industry is the county's biggest economic engine, but as the EPD complaint again demonstrates, it also provides some of the county's biggest headaches. If the builders and inspectors can't clean up their act, it will be tough to keep the EPD from trying to shut them down.
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