Collaborative Effort Yields Successful Projects

In 1963, the City of Virginia Beach, VA, merged with Princess Anne County to create a municipality covering 310 mi.2 and serving a population that has blossomed from 75,000 to 400,000. Over the years, the area’s economic base has also changed, from agriculture to tourism, in part because of its location, bordered by Chesapeake Bay on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and the North Landing River and the Intracoastal Waterway on the south.

Virginia Beach was one of the first cities in the state to require its construction inspectors to be certified in erosion and sediment control, and this led to a program of education and awareness that helped bring the building community up to speed on what city regulations called for and why. “We don’t draw a line between them and us,” remarks Mike McIntyre, construction inspector in the Department of Permits and Inspections. “We treat them the way we want to be treated. We listen.”

This close relationship with the building community and between contractors and the inspection staff paid off when the city found itself with a number of erosion control problems it lacked the resources to resolve.

The sites that were the object of concern involved heavily used public recreation facilities under the management of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. When what needed to be done appeared to outstrip available municipal resources, a group of staff members from departments as diverse as Planning and Waste Management assembled a multidisciplinary team to investigate how they could fill in the gaps.

According to organizers, the success of this Bioengineering Group, which so far has been responsible for $2.85 million in cost savings/cost avoidance for the city and completed projects that would otherwise go begging, relied on three factors: (1) an in-the-trenches, hands-on approach; (2) the use of city labor and equipment on a flex-time or overtime basis, combined with volunteer labor from the community; and (3) donations of labor and materials from local and national contractors and suppliers.

Rick Rowe, the city’s parks and recreation supervisor, calls “systems thinking” key to the group’s ambitious and innovative approach. Lacking the resources to contract out for services, the group, which is composed of representatives from the Departments of Parks and Recreation, Planning, Public Works, Public Utilities and General Services (Landscape Services falls under the latter umbrella), formulates the concept for a project, revises and finalizes project design, coordinates, recruits and identifies required resources, and oversees onsite construction and installation of materials.

“It works because we’ve kept the suits out of it,” states McIntyre. Clay Bernick, environmental management programs administrator in the Planning Department, agrees. “One of the key things that we’ve been trying to do in the city organization as a whole is build a lot more trust and responsibility into the lowest management unit possible. So everything doesn’t have to flow up the pyramid for a decision. The Bioengineering Group is composed of the people who are really vital to making sure a project happens. You don’t want a lot of decision-makers at the top who are not going to be hands-on with what you’re doing.”

Committee members report to the manager of their various departments, who in turn report to the city manager. “The chain of command is very flat,” says McIntyre. “The people from environmental quality might ask me what kind of a plan I have for what we want to do. I tell them the plan’s in my head. I know what I want. I know I don’t need somebody to come out and put stakes out here and tell me how to do it. We don’t have to pay a consultant to tell us we need fill dirt and a slope of 3:1. That’s how we function. Administrators love it. The city doesn’t have to pay $20,000-30,000 for a consultant to come in and tell us, “˜Yes, the banks are eroding.'”

When a project is in the planning stages or ongoing, the group meets “very regularly,” not so much on a routine schedule as when the various phases of the project demand it, ranging from twice a week to once a month or once every other month. Crucial is that those who attend the meetings have their department’s blessing and are the departmental employees who will actively participate in the project. “We bring to the table the people who have the equipment or expertise or resources we’re going to need to get the job done,” says Bernick. “We’ve set it up so the individual department staff works out those kinds of details in their departments and sends the appropriate unit or person to the meeting.”

For their efforts on two major rehabilitation projects, public boat ramps at Munden Point and stabilization of the slopes of “Mount Trashmore” and the shores of its adjoining lake, the group won the 1999 City Manager’s Award. The Munden Point project repaired severe erosion to the banks of the North Landing tidal river. The design and construction plan called for regrading 1,700 lin. ft. of shoreline, removing undesired vegetation, installing erosion control materials, and revegetating with native plants. Over 6,000 ft.2 of concrete articulating blocks were installed along the river in areas that experience exceptionally intense wave action, and 6,600 ft.2 of protection blankets and other erosion control materials were installed along the riverbanks. Finally, 7,000 native plants and 180 shrubs were planted by volunteers under the supervision of city staff members (approximately one supervisor per 10 volunteers; flexible schedules put these supervisors in the field on weekends while allowing them time off during the week).

The rehabilitation plan also called for enhancement of 1,200 ft.2 of existing wetlands and creating approximately 10,000 ft.2 of new wetlands. With most of the work completed on weekends, using city equipment and crews when they were available, the project took five months to complete.

Munden Point also evolved into an opportunity for environmental field trips for local children in elementary and middle schools and several scouting troops. Other community volunteers included the local chapter of the Jaycees, the Chesapeake Bay Youth Conservation Corps, and the sheriff’s work force (which sponsors a program for minor offenders), who replanted the stabilized riverbanks with a combination of smooth cord grasses, big cord grasses, saltmeadow hays, bald cypresses, blackgum, water and willow oaks, wax myrtles, and loblolly pines-all chosen for minimal maintenance and pesticide and fertilizers requirements and their adaptability to the climate and brackish marsh and tide river soil types. The plants also provided valuable wildlife habitat.

The two-part Mount Trashmore project involved the stabilization of the slopes of a 100-ft.-high, compacted solid waste landfill, the slopes of which had deteriorated under natural forces and wildlife and human use over the 26 years that the landfill has anchored a public park, and extension of the banks of a stormwater detention basin in what had originally been a pit dug to supply cover for the landfill and dirt for two nearby interstate exchanges. The original cost of the combined project was estimated at $8 million to $10 million. When a request for that amount was denied, the Bioengineering Group opted to proceed on a limited funding basis, utilizing in-house equipment and personnel and dirt from area contractors. Renovations have included covering a badly deteriorated Soapbox Derby track and complete resloping of the north side of the mountain, which faces the interstate. To date, 75,000 yd.3 of donated material have been utilized in this project, which McIntyre estimates would have otherwise cost the city $1.2 million.

Bernick maintains that the group has had little problem securing permission to use city equipment and arrange for overtime funds, in part because of its insistence on working out detailed implementation plans. “We try to identify where the problems are going to be,” he says. “We knew we would have conflicts using city equipment, so this pointed to overtime and weekends. We knew we would need more help than we could pay for, so we worked with our sheriff’s department to help with installation of erosion control materials and planting on some of the projects.” In total, providing services and equipment and materials for the combined projects has so far cost the city $150,000, funds that were provided through the Parks and Recreation Department’s Capital Improvement Program.

According to McIntrye, who functioned as a resource for donations of materials – and sometimes equipment – in many cases, initial vendor contact was made formally, through a letter that explained the project and its value and asked specifically for the materials that were needed, plus described how the supplier would be acknowledged (ranging from mention in the city manager’s newsletter to photographs and videotapes of the project). “We set them up as demonstration projects,” recalls Bernick. “We wanted to show that a bioengineering solution would work instead of the typical structural approach. Securing donations of material helped convince more traditional-minded staff members. If we could show that these materials worked, this would break down barriers as well as reduce overall costs.”

“In some cases it was just direct contact,” says McIntyre, “like the contractor who charged me half his hourly rate for his truck. With Mount Trashmore, we let contractors know we’d take any fill dirt they wanted to dispose of.”

Bernick offers advice for anyone considering such an in-house, interdisciplinary approach.

Know what you’re doing and what you will need every step of the way. “You almost have to create a shopping list of the various elements that need to come together to do the projects,” he says. “Everything from who’s going to do the earthwork, the erosion control material installation, and the planting installation; who’s going to handle maintenance until everything’s stabilized; and who’s going to do long-term maintenance – do you in fact have a long term maintenance plan? You have to know who’s going to coordinate volunteers and how. Public participation is also important. The community’s going to want to know what’s going on. How are you going to handle their input and feedback on the project? All of these have to be identified up front. Then you need to be specific about who’s going to be doing the work.”

Assign responsibility to people who have the time to follow through and make sure the work gets done within the time frame everyone agrees you’re shooting for. “If certain people think you can get a project done in six months but other people are not going to have the time, then your six months is going to turn into a year,” points out Bernick. “That’s not necessarily bad if you’re doing this type of voluntary approach. But you need to know what you’re getting into.”

Phasing – the sequencing of activities – is important. “You don’t want your plant material showing up when you don’t have the volunteers or the site isn’t ready,” says Bernick. “You’ve got to have regular coordination between the people who are doing the various pieces of the project.”

Start with a small project. “Use a small project to cut your teeth on the process and see what works and doesn’t, and then reevaluate what you’ve learned, what you would do differently the next time. Keep your expectations somewhat lower at first and don’t try to go out there and change the world overnight. It’s better to have one small-to moderate-size project to take on the first year and learn from that one. It’s a given that you’re going to run into problems with weather, if nothing else.”

If your project is dependent to some degree on outside funding, develop a regular dialogue with state and local organizations, particularly those who funnel federal dollars into the local system. Be prepared to think creatively. “You’re going to have to think of your project in terms of such issues as watershed management, stormwater management, nonpoint-source runoff and demonstration projects,” advises Bernick. “It’s a wide assortment of buzzwords, but they are crucial in terms of defining your project for funding. Also, plan ahead. You want to match funding cycles to when you’re going to be ready to do the work you’re seeking the funds for.”

“It’s a little from here and a little there,” says McIntyre. And a lot of thought and preparation. But in the end, say McIntyre, Bernick, and Rowe, the success of such a program boils down to the willingness of people to do what they say they’ll do.

About the Author

Penelope B. Grenoble

Penelope B. Grenoble writes on issues concerning waste operations, equipment, and technology.