Come Hell or High Water

(Appeared in Blue Ridge Syndicate, 1/8/2001)

With a $1 billion project on the line, South Carolina developer Burroughs & Chapin in late December filed the last of an extraordinary volley of documents aimed at persuading the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to revise the floodplain map of the Congaree River.
Burroughs & Chapin owns 4,600 acres on the Congaree, just south of Columbia, that it wants to develop into a sprawling office park, convention center, and residential community. Unfortunately, 70 percent of the property is on flood-prone bottomland restricted from development.

But no matter: Since 1999, Burroughs & Chapin has been trying to convince FEMA to redraw the floodway lines of the Congaree, in effect, making the floodplain a safe place to build with the stroke of a pen. FEMA’s final decision on the Congaree map, due this spring, will reverberate throughout the South.

We tend to forget about FEMA until it responds to hurricanes pounding the coast and hundred-year floods sweeping through the low country. But it is also FEMA’s job to develop preventive measures to protect U.S. citizens before natural disasters strike. One of the things the agency does is map the floodplains of rivers to be sure the placement of new homes and businesses does not put people in harm’s way. Could FEMA be convinced to redraw existing floodplain boundaries to allow for a new development?

Burroughs & Chapin bet on it. The developer made its reputation building Sunbelt resorts and retirement communities in Myrtle Beach, contributing to the South’s coastal development boom of the 1990s. But as the decade drew to a close, Burroughs & Chapin had outgrown the coast and migrated inland, planning for Columbia and the Congaree the $1 billion development it calls Green Diamond.

The only thing standing in the developer’s way was a large, U.S. government-certified floodplain.

Undaunted, Burroughs & Chapin commissioned a hydrological study and hired a team of lawyers, lobbyists, and engineers. By August 1999, the Burroughs and Chapin team had convinced FEMA’s Atlanta office to redraw the floodplain map, dramatically narrowing the projected boundaries of a hundred-year flood.

But FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., reversed the Atlanta decision. The original floodplain lines were restored, placing almost 70 percent of the Burroughs & Chapin property in restricted low-lying areas behind an antiquated levee.

The documents Burroughs & Chapin filed late in December came at the end of FEMA’s public comment period. FEMA’s final review concludes this spring.

Observers throughout the South see the fight over the Congaree as a kind of referendum on an increasingly complicated question facing the region: How much of the health, safety, and quality of life of our communities are we willing to sacrifice for economic growth?

Burroughs & Chapin and its supporters in Columbia laud the economic growth Green Diamond will spur and see the old levee on the Congaree, beefed up with modern engineering, as an adequate safeguard against flooding. Opponents cite the strength of recent hurricanes such as Hugo and Floyd as evidence that moving thousands of people into a floodplain could spell disaster.

Some environmentalists oppose Green Diamond even if it is not a risk to human safety. Undeveloped, the land along the Congaree offers a much-needed tract of green space for Columbia. Despite claims that the development will bring an economic payoff for the city, many residents are wondering if they want to trade in farm fields, pine groves, and hardwood stands for Myrtle Beach-style golf courses and stucco suburbs.

Water quality is also an issue. Runoff from Green Diamond will almost certainly flow into the Congaree. South Carolina’s environmental protection agency, however, has a mandate to promote development and a record of lax enforcement of non-point source pollution. Many worry that this adds up to an increasingly dirty river, with damaging downstream impacts. Just south of the proposed development is a South Carolina Heritage Preserve, which protects natural lands and archaeological sites. Only a dozen miles farther downstream is the Congaree Swamp National Monument, a wetland refuge to some of the South’s largest old-growth trees. How these treasures will be affected by the Green Diamond development is a question many feel requires further study and consideration.

Sensitive to public interest in environmental concerns, Burroughs & Chapin has described Green Diamond as an eco-community where people and nature will live in a 21st-century harmony unavailable in the old paradigm of suburbs and cities. The company has declared it is river-friendly, citing plans for canoe launches and nature walks along the levee.

Soon, FEMA will decide if a “storm of the century” could wash that levee downstream. Will the agency reaffirm the current floodplain lines, restricting the size of Burroughs & Chapin’s “city within a city” along the Congaree River? The answer will have long-term repercussions not only for Columbia, but for any Southern city with FEMA-protected floodplains ripe for development.

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