Proposed JCPS School Pits Conservation Against Education
The proposed sale of land to build a new middle school in southeast Louisville places the needs of Jefferson County Public Schools at odds with efforts to protect the Floyds Fork watershed.
Development is well underway in the last undeveloped corridor of Jefferson County where new subdivisions and five acre-properties abut streams, wetlands, farmland and floodplains among rolling hills and dense forest cover.
The growth has middle schools outside the Gene Snyder Freeway practically bursting at the seams. Five of the closest middle schools in the area average about 95 percent capacity for students. To accommodate the influx, JCPS is negotiating the purchase of 40 acres to build a middle school beside habitat that is critical to the least spoiled waterway left in Louisville.
Development has already impaired the Floyds Fork watershed and conservationists are worried the construction of a 1,000 student-school, detention basins, sewer lines and a new pump station threaten to tip the scales and destroy the delicate ecosystem that remains.
JCPS would not make anyone available to discuss the proposed school for this story, except to say the Jefferson County School Board plans to discuss the need for a new school in eastern Jefferson County at its February 25 work session.
“We know that right now we have middle schools that are extremely overcrowded in east Louisville and more homes are being built by the day in the community,” said JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio at a public hearing in January.
2605 Echo Trail
Under a gray sky on a cold morning in early February, Jeff Frank and I walked the banks of Long Run Creek, a stream that joins Floyds Fork near the planned site of the school. Spark, Frank’s “wonder dog” ran ahead, but we traversed carefully. The stream was flowing fast from the previous days’ rainfall and the bedrock underneath our feet was slick with dew and bright green moss.
Frank is the founder of the Friends of Floyds Fork, an advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation of the 62-mile creek that passes through Jefferson County on its way to meet the Salt River, and eventually, the Ohio River.
Frank acknowledges the need for a school in the area, but opposes any land deal that would add development so close to the creek, especially here, near the confluence of Long Run Creek and Floyds Fork.
“We’re urging JCPS to follow their environmental standards and get off the buffer area and when they do build, build as gently as they can,” he said.
Floyds Fork is the crown jewel of the Parklands of Floyds Fork, meandering through a series of four parks, farmed fields and forest in the eastern half of the county. The Parklands is spread across nearly 4,000 acres, connected by more than 60 miles of hiking, biking and paddling trails.
“Rolling hills, floodplains, wetlands, a lot of forest cover, if we are serious in Louisville about trying to keep 40 percent tree canopy, this is our bank,” Frank described as we walked the creek.
The Echo Trail property JCPS is interested in is located uphill not far from where I walked with Frank, just across the street from the Parklands.
Frank pointed out over Long Run Creek, describing it as the “walking wounded:” impaired and at a tipping point.
“We shove that balance too far the wrong way, we’ll never get it back,” he said.
He motioned to the bedrock at our feet.
“This should be gravel the entire length of the stream bed, but it’s been scoured out,” Frank said.
That’s the result of what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would describe as a “flashy” stream, which means it’s subject to flash flooding — an indicator of poor health.
Saving Homes For Aquatic Insects
Subdivisions, the filling of wetlands, concrete, asphalt and lawns change the way water flows over the land and are already affecting the hydrology of the area, said Andrew Reed, Army Corps project manager for the Floyds Fork Restoration Project.
Rather than absorb water like a field, these hard surfaces allow water to run straight into the watershed. During large storms, flash floods erode banks and fill the water with sediment that can clog the gills of aquatic organisms and suffocate their eggs.
The gravel, known as substrate, is also critical habitat for aquatic insects and other macroinvertebrates. Caddis fly, stone fly and mayfly larvae all rely on the pebbles that makeup the substrate along Kentucky streams. And those aquatic insects are the base of the food chain. But when flash floods wash away the substrate, the impacts cascade all the way up, Reed said.
“You start to see disappearances in the diversity of fish that you have in that stream, then the birds and the mammals that eat the fish,” he said.
The volume of water is only a part of the problem. The runoff is filled with chemicals, fertilizers and grease. Because of that runoff, the Division of Water already lists Long Run Creek and Floyds Fork as impaired near the site of the proposed school.
The additional sewage from 1,000 students poses another problem. JCPS would build a pump station on the property to help usher the sewage to the Floyds Fork Wastewater Treatment Plant where it would be treated and released back into the creek, according to the Metropolitan Sewer District.
MSD estimates the school would contribute an additional 20,000 gallons of treated wastewater to the creek everyday.
Despite its problems, Reed says the Floyds Fork watershed is the most intact riparian corridor in Jefferson County and has been for a long time. But the more Floyds Fork becomes a suburban environment, the more degraded the ecosystem will become, he said.
“I’m trying to think of a superlative word for incredibly important,” Reed said. “You can’t separate the need for clean water to the ability to sustain life,” Reed said.
Long Run Creek Properties LLC
People are moving out to southeast Jefferson County because that’s where the land is and that’s where developers are building new homes, said development attorney Bill Bardenwerper.
Bardenwerper represents Long Run Creek Properties LLC, the owners of 2605 Echo Trail who are currently negotiating with JCPS.
Long Run Creek Properties has at least two subdivisions in the works near Floyds Fork: Covington By the Park near Fisherville and Echo Trail — 549 single family lots on 209 acres located right next door to the proposed site for the middle school.
Bardenwerper said JCPS came to his clients looking to build a school.
“The price was right, obviously it costs a heck of a lot more to buy a site on Shelbyville Road than it does on Echo Trail,” he said.
Altogether, Bardenwerper said Long Run Creek Properties owns about 332 acres on Echo Trail.
The Jefferson County Property Valuation Administration assessed the approximately 230 acres at 2605 Echo Trail at nearly $3.5 million in 2019.
Bardenwerper, like JCPS, declined to comment on the details of the negotiations for the 40 acres of land to build the school.
Legal Challenges To Development
Frank, with the Friends of Floyds Fork, is currently in court litigating the approval of the Echo Trail subdivision. In that case, Frank’s attorneys argue the Louisville Metro Planning Commission failed to do the environmental review as required under special development guidelines for the area known as the Floyds Fork Development Review Overlay.
The purpose of the overlay is to protect the quality of the natural environment including the prevention of soil erosion, stream siltation and the destruction of wildlife habitat. Frank said the proposed site for the school also sits within the overlay district and would blatantly violate the rules set in place to protect Floyds Fork.
But Bardenwerper said they’re just guidelines. It’s up to the planning commission to review the potential environmental impacts and decide whether the property meets the necessary protections, he said.
“They’re not standards like, ‘can’t do this, you must do this, you shall do this,’” he said. “They’re a bunch of, as I call, ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda's.”
If developers can design remedies sufficient to protect the surrounding environment, the planning commission can approve the project.
Designing An Environmentally Friendly School
JCPS’ own statement of environmental principles says that it’ll “safeguard all habitats affected by our facilities and operations.” Acting COO Glenn Baete echoed those sentiments during the public hearing in January.
“We are definitely aware of our proximity to Floyds Fork and the responsibilities associated with construction in this area,” he said.
Baete added JCPS is excited at the prospect of using the school to provide “environmental opportunities” for students.
Professor Tamara Sluss researches rivers and streams for the University of Louisville. She too recognizes the risks of development in the area, but also believes the proposed site of the school could be a one-of-a-kind opportunity for environmental education.
“It all provides an opportunity for students to learn about forests, about pollinators, about stream water quality and about mitigation measures and the built environment,” Sluss said.
If JCPS wanted to take steps to offset the school’s environmental impacts, they could start by ensuring a healthy buffer zone along the creek that includes a diverse population of trees of different ages and species, she said.
Sluss recommends the school build rain gardens to capture runoff and add rain barrels to capture stormwater from rooftops. Another possibility would be using specialty concrete that allows water to be absorbed before it runs off, she said.
“I do think that with buffers, with some rainwater capture, some green infrastructure design, I do think a lot of the impacts to the creek would be mitigated,” Sluss said.
This post has been updated.