Park expansion plan raising paleochannel concerns

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Citizens will comment on the county’s desire to eliminate 35 acres of forest to build an athletic field, and possible effects on the paleochannel, an underground water source, at a public hearing July 29.

The meeting, at 6 p.m. in Room 301 of the Government Office Building, is  planned to address the future of the paleochannel, and ongoing discussions with county officials about proposed athletic fields. Those fields would be adjacent to the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex on Naylor Mill Road.

That land is within the Paleochannel Overlay District, which is defined in the city’s zoning code, according to Chris Demone, who handles public relations for the mayor’s office.

Speaking at the public hearing will be Mark W. Eisner, president of Advanced Land and Water, Inc., said Amanda Pollack, deputy director of the city’s department of public works. The company was hired to complete a source water protection plan for the paleochannel.  At the public hearing, Eisner “will talk about that plan and about what they did,” Pollack said.

“We’ve had a lot of requests from the public, asking if they can speak on this. That is where the public hearing idea came from,” Pollack explained.

Those who want to speak are mostly concerned about losing forest and safety of the water supply being compromised, she said.

“Some people have called saying they want to preserve land.  There are athletic fields there right now, in the paleochannel district, so it is an approved use. The people who have called have been more from environmentalist groups, like Wicomico Environmental Trust,” Pollack said.

Dr. Fran Tracy-Mumford, president of the trust, known as WET, said members want city and county officials to “consider and place the safety of the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people for multiple generations as the highest priority in its decision-making process.”

“Once this water is contaminated, drinking water is harmed,” she said, in reply to an e-mail from the Salisbury Independent.

“The Paleochannel provides an unusual combination of reliable, easily accessible water source near the surface, and abundant supply of high quality drinking water that requires minimal treatment and expense for extraction,” she said.

She explained the channel has no layer of clay to protect it from infiltration from surface contaminants. That makes it especially vulnerable to surface contamination if it’s exposed by having  tree canopy protection removed from the surface, she said.

“Currently, a natural protection is provided by a forest that grows above its most vulnerable section, identified as the Wellhead Protection Area.  This protection would be removed if the city were to transfer the land to the county and the area cleared and used for baseball fields,” Tracy-Mumford said.

The area being considered for athletic fields is not developed, but has unofficial biking and hiking trails. “It is a lovely forest block but, also, there are limited places to have athletic fields,” Pollack said.

Mayor Jim Ireton said city leaders have “several issues we are trying to get settled with the county, including money for the skate park, the fire service agreement and tax differential.

“This hearing for the lands above the paleo is the first in a series of public meetings so that we can engage the public and hear from them on these issues,” Ireton said.

Information Demone  released  describes the paleochannel as “an ancient buried underground riverbed with approximately 7 billion gallons of water, which extends into the northerly portion of Wicomico County from Dorchester County and which has been nominated by the city council and designated as an area of critical state concern by the Maryland Department of State Planning.”

“Because of its vast potential as a potable abundant water supply, protective measures, in the form of use limitations and review procedures, are necessary to ensure that it is protected from contamination while continual study is done of the paleochannel’s recharge areas and its capabilities and limitations,” the information states.

Forbidden  uses in the paleochannel overlay district include discharging  excessive amounts of water or using,  storing or generating raw or waste materials that can ignite or are toxic.

Examples include paint, pigments, petroleum refining, steel, metal products fabrication, electroplating and textile dyeing and finishing.

Anyone proposing development there must present a comprehensive site plan, which will be reviewed by the planning commission.

Permitted uses include boat landings, docks, boat houses, museums, libraries, art galleries, symphony halls, theaters, swimming pool. wildlife refuge, nature preserve and zoo.

Uses permitted by special exception include boat landings, docks, privately owned boat houses, private concession stands, golf courses and shooting ranges.

Accessory uses include concession stand at a public or nonprofit community swimming pool and playground or park operated for patrons of the facility.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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