21st Century Development Methods: A Case Study of the Lahontan Community

Sept. 1, 2002
What do you think of when you hear the terms golf course, roads, and residential construction? There are instances where developers and contractors have been identified as contributors to water-quality degradation from irresponsible development practices. At the Lahontan development in North Lake Tahoe, CA, a project has emerged over the past five years that shows how one developer has made a commitment to the environment through sensitive planning and conscientious practices throughout the development of the infrastructure, golf courses, and residential construction.Project LocationLocated approximately 9 mi. north of Lake Tahoe in the Martis Valley at 5,800-ft. elevation, the gated golf course community of Lahontan is nestled on 900 ac., with vegetation comprising Jeffrey pine, white fir trees, and sage brush. The community includes more than 449 ac. of open space: wetland preserves, Martis Creek, one 18-hole championship golf course, and one nine-hole, par-3 golf course. Lahontan LLC, the developer of the community, built the golf course, amenities, and infrastructure to support each of the 509 homesites. The homesites are built independently of the developer by the homeowners, using their own architects and contractors for the work. Lahontan was developed with the vision of establishing a unique community recalling historic Lake Tahoe, built with respect and consideration for the natural environment. This has been no simple task.Water quality in the Sierra Nevada, similar to everywhere else in the country, is a serious issue. The State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) for the Lahontan region (no affiliation with the development) regulates and enforces mandated requirements strictly, as evidenced by its actions against various agencies and private companies under its jurisdiction in recent years.Real-estate developers also are held to a high standard. National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits require strict monitoring and sampling of stormwater and the development and implementation of a working stormwater pollution prevention plan. Permit violations can incur daily fines of $10,000 and $10/gal. of sediment-laden runoff or wastewater discharged (California Regional Water Quality Control Board, 1999). For the golf course, a comprehensive Chemical Application Management Plan (CHAMP) was developed to prevent potential contaminants from reaching the major areas of infiltration on the site, primarily the wetland areas. The SWRCB considers CHAMP a cornerstone of a water-quality protection strategy. CHAMP addresses postconstruction water-quality objectives and chemical, fertilizer, and irrigation management of the golf course. Within the plan, a monitoring program is established that includes fertilizer and other chemical application methods. It also includes soil and tissue analysis that prescribes the amount of fertilizer or soil amendments necessary so that overapplication does not occur, thereby preventing discharge of potential pollutants to water bodies. These monitoring program safeguards include the determination of soil amendment needs prior to the application of fertilizers or chemicals, the installation of zero-tension lysimeters at representative greens to ensure that fertilizers or chemicals are not migrating along the wetting front, and finally a surface water-quality and soil-sampling program, which ensures that water-quality objectives are being met. This comprehensive plan is in place to ensure that the golf course does not contribute to water-quality degradation through the application of chemicals. One of the many conditions to be met for the development of this project was the mandate by the County of Placer and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board that postproject flows be maintained at or below pre-project flows. To effectively achieve this, a coordinated approach was formulated through stringent design criteria for the infrastructure, golf course, and residential development to work in unison to protect the natural resources that attract buyers to this development.Infrastructure DevelopmentInfrastructure and golf course construction commenced in June 1996. Before any grading was done, more than 3 mi. of silt fence was installed around the project per the winterization plan developed by Huffman & Carpenter Inc., the project’s third-party water-quality consultant. “We developed the BMP [Best Management Practices] Handbook for Lahontan based largely on the Tahoe Regional Planning Administration [TRPA] BMP guidelines,” says the firm’s Lori Carpenter. “TRPA is considered by many to be the leader in developing protective measures for the environment from stormwater pollution. We adapted these ideas to the specific site conditions at Lahontan.” Site conditions often dictated the need for additional mitigation measures. Jason Hansford, the project construction manager, recalls these early efforts. “We followed what was prescribed by the plan and adapted it in the field to address areas that needed additional stormwater and erosion controls. We saw areas where higher flows might concentrate, or where additional controls were required due to the proximity of wetlands and higher-risk areas, such as construction staging sites for the infrastructure development.” In consultation with Huffman & Carpenter, the developer added temporary BMPs, such as silt fence in a chevron pattern in drainages coupled with anchored hay bales, doubled silt fence in other areas, and diversionary swales on rough graded roads to further reduce flow velocities. Erosion control fabrics, such as American Excelsior blankets, were used successfully on numerous slopes that needed additional stabilization.
Rock swale before (top) and after (bottom)Before each construction season, repair and inventory of all temporary BMP structures was performed and photo-logged. Additional BMPs were installed for the following construction season’s activities, and a photo and maintenance log was developed to monitor structures on an ongoing basis. “Using a photo log of each BMP made it a lot easier for maintenance crews to locate and identify them for inspection. The photo provided a picture of what the BMP should look like, and allowed them to determine if repair was necessary,” relates Hansford. Focused BMP inspection was done on a regular schedule, as well as before and after all storm events, with ongoing random inspections done on a daily basis.In the Sierra Nevada, the construction season is limited to the period between May 1 and October 15, unless extensions are granted by the SWRCB and county Department of Public Works. An earthmoving moratorium for the moving of more than 3 yd.3 of dirt is in effect for the winter season because of snowfall and the sensitivity of the environment to erosion. Winterization of the project occurred each year beginning in early September. “We had to be proactive and aggressive in our winterization and stabilization practices,” Hansford notes. “Hydroseeding is a time-sensitive and necessary measure to protect the site from erosion. We made sure that we completed our hydroseeding prior to the first snowfall.” Hydroseeding was performed with native plant species endemic to the site. In 1996, a seed consultant collected all of the seed used that year on-site to perform the necessary hydroseeding. “We collected about 300 pounds of seed over a two-month period. It was quite a task, but it resulted in the revegetation of disturbed areas with plants 100% native to the site,” reports Mike Kosak, director of agronomy for the golf course. Out of that collection, seed mixes were developed for meadow areas and forest areas, which were used in subsequent years for revegetation operations. At this high altitude, with a limited growing season, these plant species take a lot longer to establish. “Our results have been exceptional,” declares Kosak. “In the first units of the project that were developed, staging areas and sideslopes are indistinguishable from the surrounding native plant species.” He attributes much of this success to the slurry mix used for hydroseeding. The mix consisted of native seed; a tackifier such as Marloc, Atlas SoilLok, or Terravest; wood-fiber mulch; and Fertile Fibers, an organic fertilizer derived from livestock feed. All hydroseeding was done in-house by the developer, who purchased a Bowie 3,000-gal. hydroseeding machine.Lake overflow before (top) and after (bottom)Although infrastructure construction posed a potentially significant short-term threat to the watershed, permanent BMPs were needed to treat and control postconstruction stormwater from roadways. A combination of Fossil Filters, rock-lined ditches, and sediment basins was used to trap hydrocarbons, slow the velocity of traveling water, and finally allow it time in the sediment basins to settle out suspended solids. A rigorous maintenance program performed by the roads and landscape crews ensures that Fossil Filters and sediment basins are kept functional. “During the spring, summer, and fall, crews inspect every Fossil Filter on a monthly basis and remove debris and sediment,” explains Russ Jones, manager of roads and landscape for the community association. “Additionally, we replace the media in every Fossil Filter both in the spring and in the fall and inspect and clean sediment basins as needed.”When possible, the infrastructure design used the golf course as a buffer to infiltrate runoff from roads. Studies show that turfgrass areas can be designed for the catchment and filtration of polluted runoff waters from impervious surfaces. The bacterial population in the moist litter, grass clippings, and thatch of turf is commonly on the order of 109 organisms per square centimeter of litter surface (Clark and Paul, 1970). These organisms offer one of the most active biological systems for the degradation of trapped organic chemicals and pesticides (Beard et al., 1994). Where possible, storm drain outlets were positioned above fairways with sediment basins. When stormwater exceeds the capacity of the sediment basin, water flows over the turfgrass, using it as a buffer to further remove potential metals and other contaminants from roads and other impervious surfaces. According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (1997), “Dense, well-managed turfgrass areas are among the best filtration systems available for polluted water. The thatch layer in turf, which consists of dead and decaying organic material, traps and holds particulate pollutants in the water and allows them to degrade naturally.” In this manner, infrastructure construction was coupled with golf course design to further improve the overall water quality of the project.Sediment basin at workIn addition to the intrinsic holding capacity of the golf course to limit runoff and leaching of pollutants, golf course design also incorporated manufactured wetlands where possible to assist in the filtering process. The ninth hole on the par-3 course has two green complexes to which a golfer can play. Between the complexes, Kosak excavated about a third of an acre of earth and planted the area with willows and native wetland grass seed. “It just made sense,” he remarks. “We had a great opportunity to incorporate a wetland complex between these two greens. Not only does it act as an additional vegetative filter, it is a great natural feature for the golf course, is a habitat for wildlife, and provides another place for water to infiltrate.”Created wetland between the 9th greensGolf CourseGolf courses have been perceived as polluters of our nation’s waterways because many people assume that excessive fertilization and pesticide application practices are required to maintain fairways and greens in pristine condition. In fact, urban runoff is considered by many regulators to be one of the most harmful contributors to our nation’s water resources. Kosak is a leader in sustainable agriculture philosophy and organic farming concepts in golf course management. “In 1984, I began thinking about alternatives to the synthetic fertilizers I was applying on golf courses,” he recalls. “I looked at the native vegetation surrounding the course and realized that it was Mother Nature at her best. The native grasses weren’t fertilized, yet year after year they came back in abundance. I started to research agricultural concepts that were used prior to the development of synthetic fertilizers and came across the research of William A. Albrecht.” Albrecht’s focus was on soil management as the foundation for good crop growth. By developing soil characteristics that are appropriate for turf growth, the need for fertilization and pest control diminishes. “A soil that has the chemical makeup to support turf growth creates an environment in which turf will thrive naturally,” Kosak points out. “When we find weeds or unhealthy turf areas on the golf course, we know that the soil is unhealthy and needs to be amended to better support healthy turf.” This philosophy of organic farming protects water quality by reducing the potential threats associated with higher applications of fertilizers and pesticides.The Lahontan golf course strives to be 100% organic. “Feed the soil, not the plant” is the mantra heard often when speaking with Kosak. To quote Albrecht, “The plant always eats at the second sitting; the plant only gets what the microbes give it” (Fenzau and Walters, 1979). By focusing on the soil where the microbes live, sustainable agriculture reduces the need for constant “adrenaline shots” of synthetic fertilizers that do not sustain the turfgrass over the long term. “In the past five years we have seen a dramatic decrease in our applications of fertilizer on the golf course,” Kosak notes. “By amending the soil early during the grow-in years with organics to sustain turf agriculture, the soil is largely self-sustaining the grass through natural life cycle processes, just like in the native areas surrounding the course.” Through the practice of feeding the soil and not the plant, the nitrogen is not primarily mineralized to be taken up by the plant, but rather the fertilizer feeds the microbes, which in turn release bound nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil. Organics are applied only in quantities that do not run off when solubilized but are held for later use by the soil because the soil has the capacity to hold those nutrients. Sound management is critical to this success. The decision to apply fertilizers is based on many factors. Turf and soil health determines the need; soil moisture content, weather, and irrigation requirements determine when and how fertilizer will be applied. Irrigation of the course also is managed judiciously. “In the five years that this course has been in operation, our irrigation rates have always been below evapotranspiration rates,” states Kosak. The effect of this is that water is not overapplied to the course, which could increase the risk of leaching and runoff. Soil probes are performed by the staff on a daily basis to determine the need for water on the course. In this manner, the soil maintains its spongelike ability to absorb runoff and trap sediment and pollutants.Stanley Wedburg of the University of Connecticut wrote, “The productivity of a soil is in direct proportion to the number, activity, and balance of the soil microorganisms” (Fenzau and Walters, 1979). Pesticides applied to soils with high microbial activity can destroy the very livelihood of the turf itself. “It doesn’t make sense for us to apply pesticides except under extreme circumstances,” says Lahontan Superintendent Kevin Breen. “Pesticides kill the bad stuff, but they also kill the good stuff.” In terms of sustainable agriculture, pesticides and herbicides are a blight. When the decision to apply a pesticide is made, the application is restricted to specific problem spots. “We applied 15 ounces of Roundup on a spot basis on 150 acres of turf in all of 2000,” Kosak reports. The philosophy of sustainable agriculture dictates that the application of foreign substances is a detriment to the turf agriculture as a whole. Residential ConstructionResidential construction regulations within Lahontan arguably are some of the most stringent in the country today in private residential developments. The developer, working under one NPDES permit for the entire development, found a way to allow upward of 30 independent contracting companies to safely build homes under its permit without risk of violating the permit; to achieve this, the developer implemented stringent construction-site guidelines. Contractors who secure jobs in the community attend a mandatory orientation with the Lahontan resign review staff. In this meeting contractors are educated on the construction and environmental requirements for working at Lahontan. Regulations that guide construction of residences focus largely on water-quality issues. For example, all driveways must be paved prior to the October 15 earthmoving deadline. Vehicles that drip oil may not be brought onto the property, and vehicles found violating this regulation may be refused entry until leaks are repaired. To protect native vegetation, contractors abide by rigorous restrictions on how they can access homesites. Only one point of ingress and egress is permitted, and construction fencing surrounds the entire building site to protect the native vegetation from associated construction activities. “The analogy we like to use for residential construction is that we unzip the environment to construct a house and then zip up the environment around it, with as little impact to surrounding vegetation as possible,” relates Keith Franke, design review administrator. Silt fence installed on the downgradient side of the structure is mandatory on every construction site to prevent potential sediment from leaving the site through erosion. Design review staff inspect every construction site weekly during the active construction season to ensure that erosion control measures are in place and properly maintained. A designated washout area is sometimes permitted for contractors who adhere to the other erosion control requirements on their job sites. Washout areas consist of an excavated depression about 12–24 in. deep, lined with filter fabric on the bottom and on three sides downgradient of the pit to protect surrounding vegetation in the event of an overflow. All washout from concrete pours goes into the washout area. Once the concrete has dried, it is easily broken up and disposed of appropriately. To further protect the community’s water quality, contractors who track mud or dirt onto the community roads are required to clean them appropriately before leaving each day. To ensure the commitment of the various contractors on-site working under the developer’s NPDES permit, a fining mechanism was instituted for violators of BMP requirements. Fines range from $250 for dripping oil from vehicles to $500 for failure to maintain erosion control BMPs and $2,500 for accessing a homesite by means other than the approved ingress and egress.Permanent BMPs for houses also are required to protect water quality and maintain postconstruction flows off the property at preconstruction conditions. All water that hits an impervious surface on a homesite is infiltrated back onto the property through drip trenches and driveway infiltration trenches. Appropriately sized trenches are dug below every eave and on the sides of the driveways and filled with drain rock (which consequently must match the surrounding landscape color palette). All water that falls on the house or driveway therefore is infiltrated through the drip trenches back into the soil. “All of the water-quality measures that are enforced by the design review team are designed to both protect Lahontan’s water quality and ultimately the investment that homeowners make when they buy property and build homes in this community. It’s a benefit to them and to the environment,” emphasizes Franke. “There is definitely a learning curve associated with educating contractors who are not familiar with working under such tight conditions, but most of them recognize the reasons and the benefits in working in this environment.”The commitment, pride, and dedication to the resources inherent to this community on the part of the developer and staff at Lahontan have resulted in an outstanding project. By integrating infrastructure, golf course, and residential construction with a focused effort on protecting water quality, the developer has proven that sound development practices provide for extraordinary results, both in the quality of the golf course, the construction of homes, and the protection of our vital water resources.

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