The fight over the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam has exposed something of a rift between the city and the Savannah Riverkeeper. The highly favorable lease terms granted to the SRK’s Tonya Bonitatibus by the city of Augusta in 2014 is now coming under scrutiny.
The City leases its property to the Savannah Riverkeeper for her use as the organization’s headquarters. The property is valued by the city of Augusta at over one million dollars and includes a 15,000 square foot flex space-type two story building as well as 13.89 downtown river front acres.
For $1 a year. The Lease says the agreement with the Riverkeeper is for 100 years.
Insiders indicate the Riverkeeper receives this sweet deal in addition to the thousands of dollars paid annually to the organization for clean ups performed by volunteers around the city.
“So the Riverkeeper was all set to sue the city of Augusta if they didn’t start the stormwater fee program … but she doesn’t even have to pay the fee at the million dollar property Augusta provides to her free of rent?”
The city may have some concern that the property is contaminated.
According to the Lease, the Riverkeeper “shall seek coverage and any financial assistance available under the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield Program.” Augusta is responsible for paying “costs of the initial investigation necessary to apply for coverage under the USEPA Brownfield Program.” The Brownfield Program is designed to assist landowners with cleaning up or remediating contamination issues.
Any water testing that is done occurs very sporadically and is on a level with what middle schoolers would learn at an Adopt a Stream session.
Insiders are aware of no publically-available information indicating any Brownfield activity has been initiated at the site in the five years since starting the lease.
Insiders indicate there has apparently been some cosmetic debris removal along a portion of shoreline and area immediately next to the building. A walking pathway from the parking lot to the river is routinely cleared, and a few offices have been added to the warehouse. Yet the real objectives of turning the valuable land over to the non-profit have yet to be addressed five years later.
In addition to initiating Brownfield “coverage,” the Lease requires the Riverkeeper to provide a number of valuable services to the City of Augusta.
However, Insiders say there is concern that not much, if anything at all, has been accomplished in the first five years of the Lease.
That’s a shame because Augusta’s leaders apparently had high hopes for the property.
First and foremost the agreement promised that the Riverkeeper would return the land to usable recreation space.
According to Augusta Tomorrow, “The large area north of Sand Bar Ferry Road to the Savannah River offers the opportunity for neighborhood-defining redevelopments and recreation-oriented areas with both waterfront and rural character all located on the edge of Augusta’s urban core. As part of the recreation area, the Savannah Riverkeeper received approval from the Augusta Commission in late 2013 to lease and rehabilitate 14 acres of land bounded by the Augusta Levee and the Savannah River for educational and recreational activities.”
The “Phase 1” guarantees from the Riverkeeper in the Lease:
3.1. Building The building will be improved and used for the following purposes:
(a) An education center, including a classroom and a Savannah River museum.
(b) Labs for geological, chemical and biological research pertaining to water quality and native, aquatic plants and animals.
(c) Six offices and a board/conference room to be used by Lessee for administrative purposes and promotion of its civic goals.
(d) Boat storage and kayak and canoe rentals.
(e) Use and demonstration of “green” building practices and materials, including energy conservation and self-sufficiency.”
(f) Use and demonstration of state of the art solar energy harvesting.
3.2. Land The Phase 1 portion of the Land will be developed and used for the following purposes:
(a) Invasive species will be removed and replaced with native plantings appropriate to the locale.
(b) Innovative surface water management techniques, including bioswales and vegetative buffers will serve the Leased Premises and be designed for public demonstration.
(c) A river access path will be cleared to provide a launch for three water trails to be established providing access to river and creek waterways for recreational and research purposes.
(d) Promotion of the Riverkeeper canine sewage detection program and training of “sewage dogs.”
Those with knowledge of the facilities state that none of the above items have been started, much less completed.
Although the lease grants the city “the right to enter upon the Leased Premises to make inspections during regular business hours when a representative of Lessee is present to determine whether Lessee has complied with the terms and conditions of this Agreement”, an inspection has never been carried out.
It seems as if the Riverkeeper floated a list of environmental jibber jabber to sway the city to donate the land rather than sell it to the highest bidder, and once the lease was in place there was no city oversight on the commitments made by the Riverkeeper.
State of the art solar energy harvesting? A highly trained team of “sewage dogs”? A museum, labs, education center, kayak and canoe rentals?
The Riverkeeper can be seen out and about with a beautiful dog she says was purchased with grant money for the purpose of detecting water pollution. But insiders indicate the dog has not been trained for that purpose and will likely never be used for that purpose.
The failure of the Riverkeeper to establish a lab is perhaps the most troubling failure. On Friday, Riverkeeper representative John Carlson posted on Facebook that the Savannah Riverkeeper “has ensured that all of you have had safe drinking water for 13 plus years.”
However, insiders indicate there is no lab at the facility and no one on staff that is qualified to run a lab. Any water testing that is done occurs very sporadically and is on a level with what middle schoolers would learn at an Adopt a Stream session.
The Riverkeeper continues to enjoy preferential treatment in addition to the rent free river front estate at Augusta-Richmond County taxpayer expense.
The Riverkeeper pays no property taxes at the facility Augusta values at over one million dollars. A neighboring property on the river (owned by Anderson Equipment Rental) is valued at less than half that, yet pays almost $19,000 per year in property taxes according to Augusta records.
Given the current high demand for warehouse space, real estate professionals estimate that the facility could probably fetch somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 annually for the building alone.
Additionally, it seems the Riverkeeper pays no water bill. That means she doesn’t pay the stormwater fee that goes along with it.
Ironically the Augusta stormwater fee was instituted under the threat of a Savannah Riverkeeper lawsuit. At a Commission meeting in December of 2014, she told Commissioners “when we sat down initially we were getting ready to file a suit very similar to the Chattahoochee River Keepers suit against the city of Augusta for its failure with storm water and sewage.”
So the Riverkeeper was all set to sue the city of Augusta if they didn’t start the stormwater fee program … but she doesn’t even have to pay the fee at the million dollar property Augusta has provides to her free of rent?
Insiders also indicate someone lives at the facility. If true, this clearly violates the lease’s requirement “in compliance with all … ordinances of Augusta.” The facility is zoned industrial and residential uses are prohibited in industrial areas.
The threat to the Lock and Dam by the Army Corps of Engineers has created a real sense of urgency for results on the Richmond County Commission, one that many close observers feel runs counter to the task oriented Savannah Riverkeeper’s approach.
The heat is on.