Work on City Park golf course destroyed acre of wetlands, Corps of Engineers rules _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Uprooted trees, destroyed to clear the way for a new golf course at City Park, awaiting removal behind a construction fence. Over the past month, as the park contractors attempted to clear trees and brush to make way for an 18-hole, 383-acre championship golf course, their work has been blocked by two separate tree-sitters, part of a group called Wild Is Free.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined that the construction of a $13 million golf course at City Park this year has destroyed more than an acre of wetlands in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, according to a notice issued this week.

The determination is at least a moral victory for opponents of the Bayou Oaks Golf Complex, who had sought to block the development of the 250 acres that are part of the construction site and who had cited the presence of the wetlands as part of their case against the project.

While park officials have stopped construction in the area of the disputed wetlands while the Corps’ review process plays out, they are seeking permission to continue working on the course’s current configuration.

The immediate issue for the Corps is to determine whether the 1.3 acres of wetlands, which park officials maintain were solely the result of a leaking water pipe, should be declared off-limits and restored or if City Park can offset the damage by purchasing credits in a mitigation bank.

The Corps and the state Department of Environmental Quality will be taking comments on the matter for the next few weeks as they do their review.

The Corps began looking into the issue early in the construction process, and City Park officials immediately stopped construction in that area, which was to be part of the fifth hole of the course near Mona Lisa Drive, park Chief Executive Officer Bob Becker said in an emailed statement. Plans called for filling in that area and another small water area with sand.

A contractor for the park, U.S. Helm, determined the area was not a natural wetland but was the result of a water pipe that had been leaking for a long time and was capped in April, Becker said.

The Corps disagreed and declared the area a wetland.

That’s sparked what’s known as an “after the fact” permit application. The current review focuses only on what should be done about the wetland going forward; any legal issues arising from its destruction will be dealt with later.

Projects are required to either avoid affecting a wetland or, if that’s not possible, to minimize and mitigate the damage, Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said.

During the process, City Park has argued against protections for the area.

“The applicant maintains that shifting the hole in any direction would create safety issues and conflict with surrounding hole designs,” according to the Corps’ public notice. “Shortening hole 5 would change the designation from a par 4 to a par 3 and jeopardize the professional level design of the golf course.”

Becker also noted Wednesday that the park administration has previously improved or built wetlands and lagoons in the park.

City Park’s plan to combine two former golf courses and the area that surrounds them into one championship-level golf course has drawn opposition from activists who say the area should be left to grow wild, as it has since Hurricane Katrina.

Opposition to the plan, spearheaded by a group of protesters organized under the name Wild Is Free, came to a head in the spring, when a few of them camped out in trees on the site in an effort to keep them from being cut down.

Those efforts ended after City Park stepped up security around the site and tree sitter Jonathan “Lloyd” Boover fell from his perch after 12 days. Boover pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing and resisting arrest earlier this month and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service with an unspecified “nature-based charity.”

The opponents also have taken their case to the courts. The lack of a permit authorizing the development of wetlands was one of the issues cited in a federal lawsuit seeking to block the construction of the golf course.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.