Wednesday, April 12, 2006

MONTROSS, Va. — The beavers in the old millpond near Montross do not seem to like it when Bryan Chandler stops by.

“At least one, sometimes two of them will swim around and keep an eye on me. They’ll slap their tails on the water every few minutes to warn the others that I’m around,” Mr. Chandler said.

But Mr. Chandler could not be happier that the beavers showed up at his pond and started gnawing trees a year or two ago. To Mr. Chandler’s delight, the beavers also chewed through a mass of red tape and saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars in the cost of restoring his pond.

“If you want to build a pond, encourage the beavers. That’s the way to do it,” he said.

Weavers Millpond sits in the bottom of deep, forested gullies on a 550-acre farm owned by Mr. Chandler and his brother.

Montross historian W. Buren Pitts said the pond has existed there since the 1700s. Its water once turned the wheels and stones of a grist mill that ground the grain of nearby farms.

Portions of the pond’s 350-foot-long dam probably have washed away several times in its long history. Mr. Chandler said the last breach occurred in the mid-1980s when a flood took out a 20-foot-wide spillway and drained the pond.

A few years ago, Mr. Chandler began to explore ways to repair the spillway and restore the pond, but he quickly learned that two things had changed: The bottomland that once cradled the pond was full of wetland plants, and federal and state regulations to protect wetlands had grown much stricter.

The new regulations mandated a “no net loss” of wetlands. For Mr. Chandler’s six-acre pond, this requirement meant either building 12 acres of new wetlands or buying 12 acres of credits from a wetlands mitigation bank.

Charles R. Roadley of Williamsburg Environmental Group said the costs of credits from wetlands mitigation banks range from $35,000 an acre in Tidewater to $125,000 in Northern Virginia.

As much as he wanted to rebuild the pond, Mr. Chandler said, he could not justify spending between $420,000 and $1.5 million to patch the hole in the spillway.

“This is something we can’t do anymore,” he thought. The thought saddened him because of its implications for the future of Northern Neck agriculture.

“The way the rules and regulations are written now, building a pond is just impossible for an average person to do,” he said. “But big developers can do it because they’ll get enough money to pay for the mitigation.

“The farmer trying to make a living off the land just can’t afford to do it. With what developers are willing to pay, farmers can hardly afford to hang on to their land anymore. Farming is a business now, a tough business.”

Mr. Chandler is a Chevrolet dealer who drives big, new, four-wheel-drive pickups. In February, he drove one of those trucks through the fields and down the steep hill in the woods to the gully bottom where the pond had been.

“I saw water in the pond. The beavers had dammed the spillway up from the bottom,” he said. He called Mr. Roadley in Williamsburg.

“It was fortunate the beavers had dammed it up again,” Mr. Roadley said. Without the beavers, the wetlands impact was fairly significant. The beaver dam took care of the wetlands issue by re-establishing the pond.

“In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved our permit application to repair the spillway with no increase in the elevation of the water over the beaver pond,” Mr. Roadley said.

Mr. Chandler said last week that he hopes soon to get an excavating contractor at work on the spillway.

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