Outbid on river property, Riverkeeper poised to move in anyway
Though the Savannah Riverkeeper’s bid for a 14-acre parcel of land along the Savannah River was more than $100,000 less that the top bid when the city of Augusta’s surplus property bids were opened in early October, the nonprofit advocacy group is nevertheless poised to enter into a long-term lease that would not only give it a legitimate, permanent home, but would also drastically increase its offerings.
According to Tonya Bonitatibus, the organization’s director, the group hopes to finalize things with city officials this week.
“Of course, the commission’s got to vote on it, and I’m trying to hurry up and get it through before we have a new commission and I’ve got to work on them,” she said. “Really, the only discussion right now as far as I can tell is what to do with all the stuff Traffic and Engineering left behind.”
Though Pilcher-Hardy Rentals was the highest bidder for the property, the city rejected the bid and retained ownership of the land, which was the former home of Traffic and Engineering’s shop and was once part of the city’s port area.
The property was assessed at nearly $1 million.
After significant volunteer cleanup efforts (six years and about 200 tons of removed trash) and a high-profile social media campaign getting the word out about the organization’s desire for the land, the group raised some eyebrows by only bidding $1,000 for the property in the city’s sealed bid auction, but according to Bonitatibus, that was by design.
“The only reason we offered as little as we did was because we were going to have to put so much work into it,” she said. “I think the city realized that they had some legal liabilities with the contamination, so even if they had sold it for $100,000, they would have been completely open to somebody then coming around and suing them for $3.4 million or whatever to get the cleanup.”
A total of 14 city-owned properties, including the Old Richmond County Library, the I.M. Pei-designed chamber building and the historic depot property, were involved in the auction. When the bids were opened and Bonitatibus found out that the winning bid for the Traffic and Engineering property was only $110,000, she said she felt like they were safe.
“I think the only reason the city would have let that property go at that value would have been if it had been something that would have benefit to the public as a whole, and the bid was to turn it into an equipment rental company,” she said.
Her plan would not only reshape the area, but the organization, too.
The 14-acre site is split into three different areas — a small piece of densely wooded land, the two fenced-in acres that once housed the old Traffic and Engineering shop and then 12 acres that were used as a kind of car parts landfill. Her plan would turn the entire property into an eco-friendly recreation area and a headquarters for the Riverkeeper.
“The 12 acres — that’s contaminated land,” Bonitatibus said. “We’re actually already going through the process of applying for federal funding to be brought in to not only test the soil, because it’s never been tested, but also to provide cleanup funds. Our goal with that area is to turn it into a disc golf course and to rehabilitate the beach and actually put in a beachfront and to have some fishing piers and some walking and running trails.”
In spite of its current state, Bonitatibus said there are already a handful of people who use the area for fishing, and she hopes the project will spur growth throughout the entire area.
Currently, the Riverkeeper’s office is near the Boathouse, about a mile down the road.
“Our hope is that starting at the end of the road and turning that into a recreation area will start the revitalization of that area into a place where people aren’t scared to be anymore,” she said.
Other than the Riverwalk, the area is about the only place in town where people can engage the river, and Bonitatibus is not only anxious for people to get down there, she thinks it could be an area that thrives.
“We could actually have shops down there and different things that people probably associate more with riverfront cities,” she said.
The land will also allow the group to increase the educational outreach it’s already begun.
“We are finalizing our education program right now that actually goes into the schools,” she said. “Having the land is the next logical step, so if you participate in the education program in the schools, then it becomes the next step to come out to the site and help us clean up or go kayaking on the river and do some of those things that we really need people to do. Though there’s more people that know we have a river than maybe a couple of years ago, we’ve got a long way to go, and the more that we can get people out in it and next to it and engaging with the river, the more that are hopefully going to want to save it.”
With two young boys of her own, she knows how important kids are to the future of the river, and with childhood obesity and other health concerns related to the inactivity of today’s youth on the rise, the need will only grow.
“Kids need the opportunity to just go out and explore the world,” she said. “Especially in an urban environment.”
Having the long-term lease on such a substantial piece of property will help the organization, which oversees some 10,000 square miles of river, have a sense of identity and allow it to become an institution, she said.
“It would tell people that we’re staying here,” she said. “And as for fundraising, we’re hoping that having a physical location and the ability to put people’s names on the wall and that kind of thing will help with the renovations.”
Beyond the education and outreach arms of the Riverkeeper, the issues facing the Savannah aren’t getting any less complicated, especially giving the harbor deepening project downstream in Savannah, which has implications clear up to the lake system.
Currently, the Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Ports Authority are in mediation because of some water quality issues, though Bonitatibus said she thinks it’s unlikely the issues, though important, will have much of an impact on the deepening itself.
However, a worry about dissolved oxygen in the harbor directly impacts area industries and municipalities, which have had to reduce their output by up to 90 percent. In addition, the saltwater/freshwater line will move because of the deepening, impacting Savannah’s drinking water. No matter how low, the lake will have to maintain a certain amount of water flow to keep the salt water out of Savannah’s drinking water, which will have an affect on the already low levels in the lake.
Recreation is already a secondary use for the lake, and Bonitatibus said that Savannah being able to drink fresh water will likely outweigh any recreational desires upstream.
In addition to making sure the various discharges into the river are not exceeding their permits, the Riverkeeper is also constantly monitoring the amount of dirt clogging the waterways because of the area’s many construction projects.
And then there’s the ongoing deterioration of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, something area residents and governments have been watching for years without action.
“As part of the harbor deepening issue, they’re going to put a $36 million fish ladder around it, which is a little bit funny, being that it could probably fall in before the fish ladder is finished,” she said. “North Augusta and Augusta have made some moves in the last couple months in terms of funding, but I remain pretty skeptical that it’s going to happen, because it’s been the kind of thing you just ignore.”
Because federal funding for such a repair is next to impossible to secure, it’s long been the responsibility of the two communities benefiting from the dam to repair it, and neither has showed much willingness to move forward.
“I think the solution is either Augusta and North Augusta come up with some significant funding, or it just falls in the river,” she said. “And I would be hard pressed to believe that once it fell into the river they would rebuild it.” You Might Also Like: