Potomac Yard Metro proceeds on wetlands site

Potomac Yard Metro proceeds on wetlands site
(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Luke Anderson | landerson@alextimes.com

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Clean Water Act permit to the City of Alexandria for the new Potomac Yard Metro Station on Nov. 15.

For those involved with the project, the approval of the permit is a “huge milestone,” but for some residents and environmentalists, it comes as a huge disappointment.

The USACE permit was the last major approval the city needed to move forward with the project. The city was issued a permit from the Virginia State Water Control Board in September. Both permits were part of a Joint Permit Application submitted in February.

Because of wetlands located on the future Metro station’s site, the pending permit application has attracted opposition from environmentalists throughout the planning phases of the project.

Building the Metro on the site dubbed Alternative B will permanently destroy 1.56 acres of wetlands – 0.92 acres of palustrine forested wetland and 0.64 acres of palustrine emergent wetland, according to the USACE permit. Construction will temporarily impact another 2.01 acres of wetlands.

“The wetlands are valuable,” former vice mayor and environmentalist Andrew Macdonald said in an email. “The city doesn’t have many wetlands left. They offer all sorts of environmental benefits that will not be easily replaced after the Metro station is built.”

A drawing detailing design plans for the Potomac Yard Metro Station and the wetlands it would impact. The project received its permit on Nov. 15 that allows permanent destruction of 1.56 acres of wetlands and temporary disruption of 2.01 acres of wetlands. (Image/Stantec)

In accordance with the Clean Water Act, USACE considered environmental protection, conservation, economics, aesthetics, cultural values, energy needs and safety factors prior to issuing the permit, according to the Potomac Yard Metro page on the city website. The evaluation process also involved a public comment period.

With the approval, the USACE laid out a list of conditions that must be obeyed during construction. Among them, the city must return temporarily disturbed wetland areas to preconstruction contours, and the city must purchase 2.48 credits from an approved wetland mitigation bank to offset the loss of 1.56 acres of wetlands.

The USACE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

If the city chooses to purchase the credits from the Buena Vista Wetland Mitigation Bank – the only wetland mitigation bank mentioned by name in the permit – there would be no direct benefit to the wetlands in Alexandria.

Going forward, the station will face additional development review and require other local permits over the next year, according to the permit.

Over the years, the city has considered several sites for the Metro station. By the end of 2014, plans had been narrowed down to four sites in close proximity that varied in cost. City council selected Alternative B, the plan that most impacted the Potomac Yard wetlands, in May 2015.

“No one is objecting to the Metro, just the fact that they put it on a wetland site, the only wetland site of all the sites under consideration,” Alexandria resident Jimm Roberts said.

Alternative B was the best fit for the overall project purpose, according to city staff. The project purpose was amended in the final Joint Permit Application to be “in support of currently proposed and anticipated development in the area over the next several decades.”

A vocal group of residents say the development benefits aren’t worth the environmental destruction.

(Read more: Potomac Yard Metro Station’s southern entrance gets scaled back)

“Alternative B is by far the most environmentally damaging choice of all the practicable alternatives considered and is the only one that needlessly situates the project in wetlands and a flood plain. … the city stubbornly favors only Alternative B because

building it on city and federal parkland maximizes development opportunities at nearby Potomac Yard,” Roberts, Hal Hardaway and Cill Dara wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Nov. 7 edition of the Alexandria Times.

Several years went into researching the potential locations, according to Director of Project Implementation Terry Suehr.

“Many different factors have to be considered when you look at these options,” Suehr said.

The city outlines the reasoning behind choosing Alternative B on its website. The explanation reads:

“The Preferred Alternative includes the restoration of off-site wetlands in part because the [Environmental Impact Statement] determined that construction of the station is not possible without the use of the wetlands due to the physical site and land use constraints, engineering constraints, and other environmental constraints. This is an outcome common with large transportation projects across the nation. To avoid the wetlands, there would be other environmental impacts such as noise, vibration and visual impacts associated with placing it closer to townhomes in Potomac Greens …”

In addition, the site selection process included community outreach, Suehr said. She cited comment sessions at public hearings and monthly Potomac Yard Metrorail Implementation Work Group meetings.

Despite pushback from some residents and environmentalists, Suehr said she would not characterize the decision to build on the wetlands as highly contested.

“I know there is a contingent of people. My perception is that it’s not a majority of people,” Suehr said.

Suehr said that at the State Water Board’s final hearing, citizens were allowed to make comments and statements.

“The only people who came [forward with comments] were all positive,” Suehr said. “Everyone who showed up was in support, and the State Water Board approved unanimously.”

Macdonald and Roberts say there are plenty of people who are frustrated with the city, especially in their endeavors with this project.

“I think it boils down to the fact that [the City of Alexandria] see[s] development as more important than wetlands,” Macdonald said in an email.

Preliminary construction on the station began earlier this year. The contractor will now begin foundation grade work in the areas authorized under the Joint Permit Application, city project manager Daphne Kott said. The project is on schedule to be completed by March 2022.

(Read more: Potomac Yard Metro construction drags)