DCA Refuses Support for City of Columbus Sewer Plan


From: Board of Trustees, Darby Creek Association

To: Cheryl Roberto, Policy Advisor, Mayor’s Office, City of Columbus

RE: Comments on Draft Columbus Metropolitan Facilities Plan Update


Darby Creek Association is pleased that the City of Columbus has taken steps to expand possible protection of the Darby Creek Watershed in Franklin County. The Environmental Conservation District created in the City’s Comprehensive Plan has been an effective tool in preserving and protecting existing land uses – primarily agriculture – which are preferable to the suburban development immediately to the east. The potential expansion of such protections is a welcome step.


The Darby Creek Association’s Mission is to unite concerned citizens to preserve, protect and restore the scenic Darby Creek ecosystem so that this and future generations may benefit from its rich diversity. We believe that suburban sprawl is the single greatest threat to the Darby Creek ecosystem. Land application sewage systems (LAS) threaten to accelerate suburban sprawl in the Darby watershed. The Franklin County Commissioners have put in place rules that would allow the use of LAS in the Darby watershed. The Columbus Metropolitan Facilities Plan (CMFP) would eliminate the risk of LAS in Franklin County and COULD provide a regional approach to development in the watershed. This approach COULD allow development in the watershed while still preserving, protecting and restoring the most significant natural resource in Central Ohio. For these reasons, Darby Creek Association prefers CMFP over the current situation but we cannot endorse or support the CMFP until much greater detail is available on what kind of development in the watershed might occur with the CMFP.

At this time, we believe this plan should not be approved until the issues described below are addressed.

Importance of the Darby Creek Ecosystem

The Darby Creek Ecosystem is home to the highest-quality natural resource in Central Ohio – the Big and Little Darby Creeks. The Creeks are well known for their high water quality that supports a remarkable diversity of aquatic life. The significance of this resource is best recognized by their designation as State and National Scenic Rivers. In addition, the Creeks’ biodiversity is so important that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a National Wildlife Refuge along Little Darby Creek in Madison and Union County. Central Ohio governments face a huge challenge in managing the development process while preserving, protecting and restoring such an important natural resource.

Threats to the Darby Creek Ecosystem

There are many threats to the Darby Creek ecosystem. A massive fish and mussel kill in Big Darby Creek in Union County in July, 2000, occurred because an agricultural services firm was careless with some of its byproducts. The Ohio Department of Transportation actually dug up and moved a stretch of Big Darby Creek while constructing a new road interchange in 1997 – causing massive erosion and silting in the process. The biggest threat is not such isolated incidents, however, it is the ongoing process of habitat destruction and land alteration caused by housing and commercial development. Both the Darby Creek Association and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have formally concluded that such development is the primary threat to the Darby Creeks (see Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Little Darby National Wildlife Refuge).

It does not take much development to destroy a river. Hellbranch Run is the primary tributary to Big Darby Creek in Franklin County. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, in their Hellbranch Greenways Plan, states that "once a watershed has 10-15% of its area as impervious surfaces (paved or significantly compacted) the water quality of the stream will be significantly degraded by increased erosion in the stream, pollutants and warmer water temperatures that all reduce biodiversity." (page 14, Hellbranch Greenways Plan) MORPC currently estimates that 25% of the Hellbranch Run watershed is in residential development and 5% is in commercial development. MORPC estimates that a typical subdivision has 35% impervious surface and commercial development has even more (we will use 50% for the following calculation). Using these figures (.25 X .35 & .05 X .5) it appears that 11.25% of the Hellbranch watershed is ALREADY impervious surface. It is no coincidence that Hellbranch Run is the lowest quality tributary in the Darby Creek ecosystem.

Land Application Sewage Systems

Land Application Sewage Systems (LAS) are a horrible threat to the Darby Creeks. Delaware County has seen several installations of LAS that have accelerated suburban sprawl in that area – allowing large housing developments totally disconnected from urban areas. Darby Creek Association has worked to derail two LAS-supported developments in the Hellbranch Watershed (Sugar Farms, Manchester Park) in the past 18 months. Sugar Farms’ was derailed, in part, because the Ohio EPA decided "there is a possibility that pollutants may be discharged to waters of the state in a particularly sensitive watershed." (OEPA Press Release, 7/10/2000) Almost anything that prevents LAS in the Darby ecosystem is a good thing.

The Franklin County Commissioners responded to the derailment of the Sugar Farms proposal by writing rules that would allow LAS in the future. This interpretation is confirmed by a quote from Donald Plank, a lawyer who worked on Sugar Farms for the developer, Dominion Homes. He said, "I believe what the county is working on would facilitate projects like ours." (Columbus Dispatch, 5/27/2000, page C8)

The CMFP describes LAS as an alternative wastewater system and in the same paragraph states "No alternative wastewater systems shall be installed or operated in the Facilities Plan Area Boundary." (Draft CMFP, page 2) Darby Creek Association fully endorses and supports this element of the CMFP.

Regional Approach to Development

The most important, most complicated and most vague element of the CMFP is the proposed rules for development in what is called the Environmentally Sensitive Development Area (ESDA). The ESDA is designed to protect that area of the CMFP inside the Darby watershed. The complexity of this issue and the lack of proper objectives, guidelines, rules and enforcement authority in the CMFP prevent Darby Creek Association from lending its support to the plan.

Improper Objectives

The ESDA "conditions" for development provide a short list of planning tools that describe some good things that can lead to preserving, protecting and restoring a watershed (i.e. riparian buffer restrictions, comprehensive stormwater management planning, clustered development and maintaining open space). In the compact disc the City distributed to sell their plan, these planning tools are described as "common sense protective conditions."

Darby Creek Association believes there is nothing common at all about what will be required to restore Hellbranch Run and preserve and protect Big Darby Creek. We point to the rather remarkable controversy over the Little Darby National Wildlife Refuge (which the City Council of Columbus has thoughtfully supported). We do not believe the City of Columbus can maintain the political will to do what is right in the ESDA over long periods of time UNLESS they have very clear objectives for the ESDA.

These objectives should:

Inadequate Guidelines

The CMFP expresses some concepts for the CMFP but leaves unanswered such questions as:

Nonexistent Rules

The ESDA acknowledges the "particularly sensitive" nature of the area but says nothing about how, when and whether specific rules will be created. The complexity of the situation requires particularly sensitive approaches to governance and regulation. This plan should not be approved without including a detailed process that shows how these rules will be created.

Enforcement Authority Vacuum

Darby Creek Association has been around long enough to know that existing governance and regulation authorities do not always have the tools or resources to enforce the necessary steps to preserve, protect and restore the Darby Creek ecosystem. The only mechanism mentioned in the CMFP for the ESDA is that the City of Columbus will not extend sewer service until plans are in place which meet the ESDA "conditions." Those plans (such as comprehensive plans) are always subject to challenge and change. We note that even the City of Columbus amended its Environmental Conservation District recently to allow the Spindler Road development. This was a high-density development that took out a stand of trees in an area the City had previously set aside for environmental reasons.

As a volunteer citizen group, we also state that relying on volunteer citizen oversight of these plans is not sufficient to meet the challenge of preserving, protecting and restoring Central Ohio’s most important natural resource.

We also must reluctantly note that the City of Columbus’ record on environmentally sensitive development does not provide us with complete confidence that the ESDA will be as strong a protective device as it could be. While the City Council has frequently stood firm in protecting the Environmental Conservation District, and it has supported the Little Darby National Wildlife Refuge, we have had to face down the Administration’s Department of Development in similar situations. Thus the City’s commitment is subject to the political whims of office-holders. We also note the City’s support of plans a couple years ago to build immediately next to the Pickerington Ponds Metropark and wildlife refuge. This land was sufficiently valuable that the Metroparks system decided to acquire the land to protect the area’s only existing wildlife refuge. We note the current destructive development called Grasshopper Creek in the Darby watershed (see pictures, attached). When a DCA member noted the erosion caused by this development, and the failure of the silt-control devices, the member was greeted with a lack of cooperation by City employees. Corrective action at this development took over a month. Grasshopper Creek is a perfect example of why we need the ESDA in the entire watershed. In short, actions speak louder than words, and the City’s actions on this topic do not give us enough confidence to endorse and support the CMFP at this time.


Darby Creek Association appreciates the opportunity to comment on the CMFP. We look forward to working together with all concerned to create an improved plan that will truly preserve, protect and restore the Darby Creek ecosystem.

CC: Lisa Morris, Chief, Division of Surface Water, OEPA; Greg Smith, Chief, Division of Environmental and Financial Assistance, OEPA; Columbus City Council; Franklin County Commissioners; Madison County Commissioners; Darby Watershed Municipalities and Township Trustees; US Fish and Wildlife Service; The Nature Conservancy; Sierra Club; MORPC; Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District; Media Outlets