How Can We Protect Ourselves from the Big, Red Elephant?

Corralejo_Apartments_under_construction_(3080702627)The financial climate is right in Alpharetta for a great deal of real estate development to take place, and it is.  City Hall is exceptionally friendly to this development; and residents are either friendly, or, by their not appearing at Council meetings and being more vociferously anti-development, are friendly in absentia with up to 7 elected politicians being the friendly proxy voters.  But there is a red elephant in the room.  And he’s a troublemaker.

This so-called red elephant is the downside to density and the profits someone got to reap after they paid the closing attorney.  He is the red elephant of air, water and land pollution and the heavy human footprint.

The heavy human footprint is metaphor for our thinking only of our needs and not the needs of the place where we are walking.  But there is an actual specific example of a heavy human footprint that might make the metaphor clear.  It is the sandy, weary looking, over-walked woods near the creek at Wills Park, thus having come to exist because people frequently leave the walking paths here and do so at great peril to the stream and the native vegetation.

The perfectly manicured lawns at homes and businesses, though not a sign of a heavy footprint, are a sign of our vanity at the cost of water quality.  These places eat up glyphosate, 2-4D, nitrogen and phosphorus just to have the clean, flawless look we desire.  But these herbicides don’t immediately degrade, they have a half-life.  When it rains, they are washed away with the fertilizers into our streams, potentially killing aquatic life or causing changes in vegetation that impact the entire eco-system.   And wildlife, from the honeybee to the hawk to the bear, depends upon the life-giving stream of water.

As we chop down trees to build multi-use developments, our dirty creeks will flood more and more often, partly due to the fact that trees are not taking up all that rainwater, but also because we chop down trees only to install impervious surfaces that don’t absorb rainwater.

The increasing number of cars in Alpharetta will spew their fumes into newly dense Alpharetta.  The suburban forest, once so full of air pollution cleansing trees, will be diminished or non-existent.  Football practice and cross country and recess will be delayed or cancelled due to to poor air quality and it’s impact upon our children.

There are things we can do, however.  There are actions we can take and actions we can prevent from being taken.

Alpharetta, which wants so badly to be known as a forward thinking place, a technology hub, a place that attracts millenials, a place that is a sophisticated and above average shopping and restaurant destination, has the opportunity to also be sophisticated and forward thinking with regard to land use and conservation of resources.

As a homeowner, you can install rain gardens – an amazingly effective tool for water catchment and filtration (in other words, a cleansing mechanism).  What’s more, these rain gardens can provide nectar and pollen for birds and honeybees.  As for lawns, we need to re-think our entire paradigm, as California is doing.  But our reasons are different than California’s because we have water….and that water is washing those herbicides and fertilizers into our waterways.

Collectively, as a city, you can go above and beyond the status quo.  You can request that developers install rain gardens.  You can install green roofs.  You can require pervious, rather than rain-impenetrable paths, in many situations.  If impervious sidewalks have to be installed near tree canopy, you can install helical piles underneath these sidewalks, thus alleviating compaction to tree roots.  You can designate protected swaths of land as “urban forests”, meant to uptake rainwater, sequester carbon, block noise and provide habitat for wildlife. You can create zoning that provides tax incentives for these urban forests. You can leave natural vegetation near new developments.  When a developer says he is ripping out all the undergrowth and planting Hydrangeas, what he’s really saying is he will rip out all of the plants that were filtering and using the rainwater and he will replace it with some nursery specimens that, if they don’t die, will have fertilizers and herbicides carelessly thrown at them every year.

You can vote “No” to a re-zoning into higher density.  But if you must increase density then you can increase buffers between human activity and streams, rather than always granting variances.  Yes, I said increase.  You see, it all depends upon your perspective and whether or not you have the long view.  And here is the long view:

Ultimately Alpharetta will either be built out to the maximum it can be or the financial climate will change and no longer be conducive to intense real estate development.  When that day comes, you will be left to look at the buildings and grounds, trees and streams that remain.  The developers with their sketches and proposals will have realized their greater dream of a profit and will have cashed their checks.  Mark Toro is not your hero.  He is a businessman trying to make money.

What’s more, the politicians who are today granting those variances and land use changes will also be gone. Most of these individuals will not be sticking around to make sure you are taking good care of things.  You will be stuck with whatever is left as a result of what is happening today.  You say you won’t be living in Alpharetta for very long?  How do you know this?  Things change. Let me ask you something.  Do you take that approach to your personal finances?  Do you spend your entire paycheck today on food and alcohol and good times because you have no guarantee you’ll be needing that money in 15 years?

If so, then you’re right, you won’t be living in Alpharetta long.  You’ll be living next to I-85 in a 1 bedroom apartment in Gwinnett County.






One Reply to “How Can We Protect Ourselves from the Big, Red Elephant?”

  1. This truly is a watershed moment for Alpharetta, both figuratively and literally as Julie’s Red Elephant posts make clear.

    Robust trees and plants are critical for the health of our water, air and soil, and therefore critical for our health. So it is essential to maximize the well-being of the remaining green spaces in Alpharetta.

    Recently announced developments in Roswell and Forsyth County recognize the importance of preserving green space. Forty-three percent of the proposed 104-acre Riverwalk Village in Roswell is designated be preserved as a green space, and fifty acres of the proposed 135-acre Halcyon development in Forsyth County are designated to be preserved as green space.

    The challenge in Alpharetta is that few, if any, undeveloped properties appear to provide an opportunity for both a significant development and the preservation of meaningful green space. This is because of their relatively small size and/or topographical and environmental issues.

    Therefore, as effective as developments are at expanding the tax base and containing our property tax bills, the time has come to plan for an Alpharetta that preserves its remaining green spaces. If we don’t take care of nature, then nature can’t take care of us.

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