Raleigh News & Observer Aug 6, 2005

Natural beauty or overgrown eyesore?

By Jim Wise
Staff Writer

A stream of water flows through Durham's Forest Hills Park. Called Third Fork Creek, the stream meanders between banks growing lush with tall grasses, wildflowers and saplings.

To some in the Forest Hills neighborhood, the stream represents erosion control and clean water. To others, it represents a mess.

"It's atrocious," said Robert W. "Judge" Carr of Beverly Drive. "The use of this area as a park has been absolutely nullified."

Said Randy Pickle, who lives on the same street, "The creek is happier than I've ever seen."

The point of contention around Forest Hills is a stream-restoration project that has turned almost 3,000 feet of Third Fork Creek from a straight, steep-banked, canal-like, flood-prone watercourse to a serpentine branch with reinforced banks and a 50-foot buffer on either side planted with native flora.

Construction on the $980,000 project began in August 2004 after the city granted a permanent conservation easement of 9.64 streamside acres to the state. Designed and managed by KCI Technologies, a Maryland engineering firm, the project was finished this spring and left for nature to work its course.

"Somebody said they had seen a sunfish," Pickle said. "They hadn't seen one in six years. We had a duck lay eggs and raise ducklings there."

"All that growth," said Carr, "you know has got to be mosquito heaven."

"It's tricky," said Andy Seamans, president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association. "How do you balance the water-quality goals of the city and state with the aesthetic desires of the neighborhood?"

Ditched

Once known as Bull Factory Branch, Third Fork Creek begins just south of the American Tobacco complex and flows south, behind Forest Hills Shopping Center and through the park, picking up tributaries along its way to Jordan Lake.

The quality of its water has been a point of environmentalist concern for years, and by 2004, according to the city's project announcement, the banks were extremely eroded. Moreover, the creek was littered and dirty.

"It was just a drainage ditch," said Doug Vaughn, manager of the city's Stormwater Services Division.

About three years ago, said Paul Savery, a former neighborhood association president, the city's Public Works Department and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources approached Forest Hills residents about restoring the creek.

Some neighbors, he said, "needed some convincing there was a need for stream restoration, but many of those fears were allayed with what the state and city presented to the neighborhood.

"Unfortunately, what they showed us is not what they gave us. ... For example, the buffer zone, we were not told it was going to be as broad as it is."

"We feel like we were a little bit duped in the process," Seamans said. While the neighborhood "very much wanted some investment" in the stream's improvement, he said, "There really is a division of opinion" over the restoration, "and that division tends to follow age lines.

"The longer you've lived in the neighborhood, the more you remember what it was like when it was new and well manicured and the stream was small."

Recreation forever

Judge Carr has lived there since the 1920s, when most of what is now the park was a nine-hole golf course. His father, George Watts Carr Sr., helped design the neighborhood for its developer, the New Hope Realty Co.

New Hope Realty went bankrupt in 1929. Unsold lots and the golf course went up for auction. Durham banker John Sprunt Hill bought the golf course and donated it (for "the sum of One Dollar and other good and valuable considerations") "unto the City of Durham and its successors."

His quitclaim deed, of Dec. 24, 1930, requires that the property "be forever used" as a golf course, playground "or for park or recreational purposes." Should that condition not be met, the deed calls for the land to be sold and the proceeds donated to charity.

Carr said the conservation easement violates those terms by making the stream and its buffer unusable for recreation.

"No, it doesn't," said Beth Timson, assistant director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

"We certified that it would not interfere with any of the activities going on in the park," she said.

"They still have the Frisbee football games and Boy Scouts camp out there. ... It even enhances [recreation] in the sense it makes the park more beautiful."

Beauty is in the beholder's eye, though.

"There used to be nice green grass all the way across," Carr said. "One of the attributes of the park is to have vistas."

Now, views across the park are interrupted by a swath of knee-high grass, much of it brown and going to seed, assorted tall green weeds, an occasional black-eyed Susan or stalk of Queen Anne's lace and saplings meant to grow into a riparian forest.

Grass and trees

The forest-in-progress occupies 30-foot zones on either side of the creek; another 20 feet are, according to KCI Technologies' project description, "managed native grasses."

Carr pointed out that the park used to have broad grass lawns between the creek and nearby streets. "Grass," he said, "is known to be an excellent filter to prevent sediment from reaching the creek."

However, Curtis Richardson, a specialist in wetland ecology at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, said the new plantings are important.

"To improve the [water] quality, you have to have that forest there," he said. "I think the biggest issue there is, they had a park, and they want a park, and you can't keep a park and have a stream restoration. ... You have to do things, armor the banks ... and plant vegetation."

The stream buffer and its growing things are not the only concern in the neighborhood, though. There are broader questions, Savery said, particularly the quality of the restoration work.

"We had some independent engineers walk through afterward," he said. "They said, structurally, the creek restoration was a bad job. Where there are structures in the creek that should be slowing down the water ... they are speeding up the water, and vice versa.

"That may be the biggest issue of all."

Vaughn and Tad Boggs of the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program both said their agencies are pleased with the job done. Boggs said he has not heard any complaints about the Forest Hills project. Vaughn, the Stormwater Services manager, said the "great majority" of neighborhood response "is favorable."

The buffer zone's present appearance, he said, is not going to last.

"The plantings ... are little things," he said. "It's going to take some time for everything to grow in."

In Forest Hills, Randy Pickle said he is "happy with it.

"A Cadillac stream restoration," he said. "If you go to the bridges or get down to the edges of the creek and look, there's aquatic life. It's got to be better water."

Staff writer Jim Wise can be reached at 956-2408 or jim.wise@newsobserver.com.