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Restoration of Richmond's Rattlesnake Creek Cancelled

A sign urges Richmonders to "protect Rattlesnake Creek." (Photo courtesy of Friends of Rattlesnake Creek)

*Clara Haizlett reported this story

A proposed stream restoration project on Richmond’s Rattlesnake Creek was cancelled last week. A property owner effectively killed the plan after objecting to the removal of roughly 120 trees, necessary to widen the stream, despite plans to plant hundreds of new trees by the city Department of Public Utilities.

The project had been in the works for several years. Due to urban development, Rattlesnake Creek has experienced high levels of erosion and is vulnerable to flooding. The city decided to restore Rattlesnake Creek as part of statewide efforts to reduce stormwater pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay in 2013, with partial funding from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Since the stream is a tributary to the James River, the sediment and pollutants that wash down Rattlesnake Creek eventually end up in the Bay. One of the goals of the proposed project was to widen the stream channel, to slow the flow of water and prevent erosion.

But in November 2020, a group calling themselves “ Friends of Rattlesnake Creek” demanded that the city suspend the project. They saw the same problems, but had multiple concerns with the proposed fix, including tree removal and ecosystem disruption.

One of the group organizers was Jay Tubb, who grew up near the proposed project site.

“I spent my childhood in the ‘60s playing in Rattlesnake Creek, getting minnows and crayfish, finding frog eggs, all those kinds of things,” he said. “I was really wanting to get involved to protect that.”

He says he’s witnessed the gradual erosion of the stream’s banks, especially after the construction of Chippenham Parkway, which bisects the watershed.

“Of course all the asphalt creates a place for rainwater to just roll down into the creek, creating a lot more volume of water than it would have had otherwise,” he said. 

While he agrees that the creek’s status is problematic, Tubb and other members of the group disagree with the city’s approach to fix it.

“It mostly has to do with disruption of the ecosystem,” Tubb said. “That's the resistance from the Friends of Rattlesnake Creek.”

In a city document explaining the project, officials state that although tree removal is undesirable, it needs to be weighed against the consequences of not managing the stream, including: erosion, flooding, habitat loss, and impacts on aquatic life.

The project plans included replanting a mix of over 400 trees and a few thousand shrubs, according to a DPU official. But advocates questioned whether those replanted trees would survive under the stress of invasive species and potential mismanagement.

The project was set to take place on a 1600 ft. stretch of the creek that is all private property. Initially, all of the landowners agreed to the proposal according to the Department of Public Utilities.

But in a recent turn of events, a landowner whose property bordered the site asked that the project be terminated.

Patrick Bradley, the Deputy Director of DPU’s storm water division, said after seeing the final design and realizing the extent of the project, the landowner “wasn't comfortable with that much disturbance.”

Since the DPU doesn’t own the stream, the project could not move forward without all of the landowners in agreement.

A similar stream restoration project was terminated in 2016 at Reedy Creek in Forest Hill after residents organized to express their concerns. Tubb says that precedent helped encourage Rattlesnake Creek advocates. 

Bradley says although the city held multiple public meetings up front, it’s difficult to know how people are going to react to projects like this, but “more communication is always better.” 

For now, Tubb says Friends of Rattlesnake Creek is “in a very celebratory phase.” 

Three of the city’s seven proposed stream restoration sites have been cancelled, including Rattlesnake Creek. The city is currently working on another restoration project in Richmond’s Northside. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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