published Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

City levies record fine against Chattanooga developer


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga developer Don Walker
Chattanooga developer Don Walker
Chad McClure
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Chattanooga has levied the largest stormwater fine in city history -- $50,500 and counting -- against developer Don Walker.

Officials began to fine Walker $1,000 per day starting in October after he illegally dumped fill dirt close to a nearby impaired stream without seeking permits, according to complaints.

Walker calls the whole situation a miscommunication, and said he wishes officials had called him.

"I sure don't have $50,000 to pay this fine," he said. "If somebody one time had called me and said, 'Don, what you're doing is wrong,' I would have been happy to sit down with them."

But that's not how the city sees it.

"We'd been sending him weekly letters [since Sept. 20]," said Steve Leach, administrator for the city's Department of Public Works.

The most recent letter, dated Nov. 19, cites Walker for dumping illegal material, violating cease and desist orders, disturbing the land without obtaining permits, disturbing a floodway and failing to manage sediment runoff at the Gunbarrel Road location.

"It could have been $5,000 per day," said Doug Stein, a member of the Stormwater Regulation Board. "In Washington state, they sent a guy to jail for five years for doing this."

The problem, Stein said, is that Walker in September began dumping dirt, rubble, wire and other debris next to Mackey Branch -- a state-specified impaired waterway.

"A cease and desist stop work order was placed on a post there on the site, and they didn't stop -- they went right past it for about 10 days," Stein said.

A photo shows the debris blocking the waterway from overflowing its banks, which causes flooding farther upstream, Stein said.

Gary Hilbert, Chattanooga land use planning manager, said Walker finally began cleanup of the area last week. But he will be fined $1,000 a day until the area is stabilized.

Walker accepts blame for initially ignoring the order to stop dumping and later ignoring an order to clean up the site. But he said the fine was too harsh because he applied for a permit when he learned he was violating the law.

"I thought I was following protocol," he said.

Walker didn't take any remedial steps because the city also had issued a stop-work order, and taking those steps could violate the order, he said.

"A stop work order meant stop," he said. "From September until now, we have not touched the site, thinking that we were doing right."

Walker says he was doing the work "in good faith," and hopes officials will "take into consideration our years of doing work in the city of Chattanooga and putting hundreds of thousands of dollars on the tax rolls."

City officials said Walker has the right to appeal in Chancery Court.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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