The humming car engines and busy storefronts lining Lima and Dupont roads make the intersection an unlikely candidate for environmental preservation.
But Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had to consider the environment when it decided to put a Supercenter on the corner. The retail giant and HJI Inc., the developer that sold the land to Wal-Mart, could not build there without filling in about an acre of wetlands, HJI Vice President Jim Wilhelm said. That meant the company was legally required to replace the ecosystem in another location.
Wal-Mart turned to landscape architectural and environmental consulting firm Earth Source Inc. To help Wal-Mart comply with environmental laws, Allen County-based Earth Source and related company Heartland Restoration Services Inc. designed and built a replacement wetland several times larger than the parcel affected by the store’s construction.
Area developers routinely hire Earth Source to check sites for wetlands and to help decide how best to deal with any that are found.
By navigating the middle ground between environmental protection and unrestrained growth, Earth Source and Heartland allow economic development to occur. Earth Source designs wetlands; Heartland installs and maintains those ecosystems.
“We’re not an environmental group and we’re certainly not a development group,” said Eric Ellingson, president and owner of Earth Source and Heartland, “but we’re working with both to make the best use of the land we can.”
Wetlands are marshes, bogs, swamps and other areas where water covers the soil at least part of the year. These ecosystems help protect water quality, reduce flooding and provide a habitat for plants and animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Heartland maintains 270 acres of wetlands near its office west of Huntertown. That land compensated for wetlands swallowed up by the relocation of Indiana 3 and six smaller projects, including the Lima Road Wal-Mart Supercenter under construction, Ellingson said.
Rebuilding the wetlands near Earth Source’s Hand Road office served a dual purpose, Ellingson said. In addition to replacing wetlands destroyed during the expansion of Indiana 3 in 1994, the wetlands protect the Huntertown Aquifer’s most sensitive point. The aquifer – the source of a third of Fort Wayne’s drinking water – is only 18 feet below ground level there. Any use besides wetlands could risk polluting the aquifer, he said.
Rare bird species ranging from bald eagles to piping plovers visit the wetlands, Ellingson said. Sandhill cranes nested there this spring. The wetlands’ forested areas and stretches of open water contained about 220 different wetland plants and 60 to 70 prairie plant species during the last inventory, he said.
Heartland and Earth Source next plan to apply their skills to a proposed wetlands mitigation bank, which would charge developers a fee to meet their wetlands replacement requirements. The companies have teamed up with brothers Ron and Randy Bjustrom, who want to develop a 250-acre bank near Huntertown.
Other developers have tried to make the concept work, but the project will involve removing 2 to 4 feet of dirt from across much of the site, Ron Bjustrom said. As president of potting soil company Green Thumb, he could economically use that soil at the firm’s Avilla plant.
The wetlands mitigation bank could serve projects stretching from Steuben County to Logansport in north central Indiana, Ellingson said. The bank would likely be developed in phases starting next year.
Wetlands mitigation banks take the responsibility of replacing a wetland off the developer, said Don Ewoldt, president of the National Mitigation Banking Association, an industry group based in Orlando, Fla. After the developer buys a credit, the bank assumes responsibility for building and maintaining the wetland, said Ewoldt, an independent contractor who sells credits for the Lake Station Mitigation Bank near Gary.
“The developers love them because all they have to do is write a check and they’re off the hook,” he said.
Most companies want to handle wetlands issues responsibly, but they are not always sure how to do that. Rob Young, president of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, said having an expert such as Earth Source is an important asset for the region.
Companies such as Earth Source recommend replacing wetlands off-site only as a last resort, Ewoldt said. Laws require developers to first try designing buildings around the wetlands. If that doesn’t work, developers must try replacing the wetland on the site, he said.
Paying one of the country’s 400 wetlands mitigation banks for off-site replacement can be costly. Ewoldt said he charged the Indiana Department of Transportation $50,000 an acre last month.
The cost deters some developers from building on wetlands, said Ric Zehr of the North Eastern Group, a local subdivision developer. The North Eastern Group designed the Falls and Rapids of Keefer Creek subdivisions around existing wetlands, leaving them as open space. When the company could not avoid building on less than an acre of wetlands in Acacia Creek, North Eastern Group hired Earth Source to build a larger, replacement wetland at the northeastern Allen County subdivision, he said.
Developers who use mitigation banks pay more upfront for credits, but Ewoldt said it can be cheaper than the cost of maintaining wetlands over time. The Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies that oversee wetlands mitigation can require developers to maintain a newly planted wetland for five years. Developers also can be required to replant an unsuccessful wetland and bear the added cost, he said.
Prices haven’t been set for the Huntertown-area wetlands mitigation bank yet, Ellingson said.
The project would need to be approved by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Army Corps of Engineers and other state and federal agencies. Earth Source is completing permit applications, Ellingson said.
Heartland is expanding into another aspect of the wetlands creation business. The company, which already produces prairie and wetland plant seeds, plans to start constructing two additional greenhouses west of its Allen County office this month. Those greenhouses – part of the firm’s 20-year plan – will allow Heartland to raise the plants as well as seeds, Ellingson said. Currently, Heartland sells the seeds and buys back the mature plants from other greenhouse operations.
“It just adds another facet to what we’re able to provide,” Ellingson said.
The company expects to invest about $125,000 in the greenhouse project, Ellingson said. Heartland plans to hire four to six full-time workers and additional seasonal help. Wages for those positions will depend on experience, he said.
As they expand, Heartland and Earth Source will keep the same basic approach to development.
The companies want to support construction projects while minimizing the effect they have on the environment, Ellingson said.
“We are trying to have the softest footprints we can for the development that’s going on,” he said.