Originally created 09/22/99

Senator: Re-examine pond proposal



A proposal to develop boat-racing facilities at the Merry brickyard ponds should be re-examined in light of the area's broad appeal as a natural area, according to state Sen. Charles Walker.

"It would be a tragedy if we do not allow Phinizy Swamp and the Merry ponds to remain a habitat for wildlife," the Senate majority leader told members of the Sierra Club's Savannah River Group on Tuesday.

The idea of developing the ponds -- which are actually old mining pits that have reverted to fertile wetlands -- was first discussed in 1995 as a way to lure Olympic rowing to Augusta, where annual regattas are held.

The idea resurfaced in March as part of a $94.5 million economic development package endorsed by Gov. Roy Barnes and a powerful contingent of political and business interests -- including Mr. Walker.

The boat-racing proposal was simply an informal proposal that has gained substantial notoriety among environmentalists concerned with the effects of development in the area, he said.

"That proposal has not been formally adopted," he said. "I do not know how it grew legs and walked all over Richmond County."

Sierra Club members have voiced concerns that developing the ponds could disrupt an already-fragile ecosystem that attracts wildlife -- and wildlife aficionados such as anglers, bird watchers and researchers.

The ponds -- some a century old -- are also an important wintering area for thousands of teal, widgeon, mallards, canvasbacks and other waterfowl. The area also is home to bald eagles and alligators.

Mr. Walker pointed out that the ultimate disposition lies with the owners -- Merry Land Properties Inc. -- who will make final decisions.

"What happens out there will be decided by the owners and by environmental laws," he said.

The company is devising a long-term use plan for the property, some of which is tied up in mining leases.

Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which operates Phinizy Swamp Nature Park a few miles away, has approached the company about incorporating the ponds into the nature park.

Mr. Walker told his audience that any public use for the area must have broad appeal to succeed.

"It would have to be used by large numbers of people, all Augustans, the education system, the children," he said.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222.