NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The explosive growth in Middle Tennessee has driven up demand not only for residential development but also commercial development. While big companies like Amazon and Oracle are building in downtown Nashville, there are small businesses moving out of the city seeking more economical spaces.

“We started focusing on urban infill industrial properties several years ago. And a lot of times you see, you know, like a junkyard in the middle of Myatt Drive, which is where this project was,” said Meg Epstein, CEO of CA South.

“We started doing our due diligence on the project to build an industrial building, specifically to meet the demand of smaller business users that can’t really afford to operate in Nashville anymore.”

CA South is a real estate development company based in Nashville, which started up within the last ten years and was founded by Epstein, who is one of the top female real estate developers in the country.

She said as Nashville and the surrounding area undergoes explosive growth, her firm is environmentally focused.

“We always try to incorporate, you know, greener building practices and walkability and a lot of greenery and landscaping into our projects,” Epstein said.

Developers must go through a series of planning and environmental surveys before building. In many cases, months or even years of planning could be thrown out due to the discovery of certain environmental impacts.

That’s a decision CA South had to face when construction began for a logistics development on Myatt Drive.

“We started doing our due diligence or geotechnical reporting, civil engineering, those type of things, and we found an endangered salamander species on the site. And typically, this would, you know, almost preclude the development from happening and stop it,” said Epstein.

Her company decided to take an unprecedented approach. After working with TDEC, TWRA, Metro Stormwater, and others, CA South decided to move forward with the project but with conservation in mind.

“Instead of kicking the salamanders off the site, we built them a habitat on the site and arranged our buildings and constructions around the salamander habitat,” said Epstein.

Driving by, you wouldn’t know there’s a replacement habitat for endangered Streamside Salamanders next to the two warehouses.

“The custom habitat is about the size of an Olympic size swimming pool,” explained Epstein.

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Streamside Salamanders have been discovered in many Middle Tennessee communities before, but CA South said it’s the first official sighting of the creatures in that area.

“I wouldn’t have even thought to look at the site because the habitat that was there was so atypical from what is accepted as an appropriate habitat. I wouldn’t even had anticipated,” said David Withers, who is a Natural Heritage Zoologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation or TDEC. 

He still remembered getting the call from a colleague who was surveying the land and came across the Streamside Salamander.

After looking at photos of what was discovered, Withers responded, “Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck.”

“I went out, and sure enough, I couldn’t say it was anything else. Because it was so strange, I got permission from the wildlife agency to collect a few to hold them briefly and then the Nashville Zoo to rear them,” he continued.

Withers said he even got DNA confirmation from Tennessee State University that it was in fact Streamside Salamander and not their close cousin, the Small-mouth salamander.

“It was new. It was novel. It’s the only known sight in the Dry Creek Watershed,” said Withers. He added that he has tried and “failed miraculously” in locating other Streamside Salamanders in the same area.

Streamside Salamanders were designated by the state as endangered species in 2018 due to habitat loss.

“The big reason, I think, is that they happen to like the same habitats that we love to build in – residential, commercial, industrial, whatever. And honestly, they’re not enough of us on the ground to know with certainly where they all are. They’re not in every stream. It may look like it when you see some of the distribution, but they’re not,” said Withers.

However, it’s not really known just how endangered they are because the species is very rarely seen.

Withers added the fossorial species stick to a specific “hydro period.” Only coming above ground during breeding season which lasts between December and April.

“They are underground as adults or terrestrial juveniles for at least 90% of the year. They only come topside, either by accident, say you’re excavating a sewer line. But, they’re underground all the time in their own burrows, or in small mammal burrows, or in crayfish burrows. That’s the life they live. They only come up during breeding season. And then they’re gone in the blink of an eye,” said Withers.

They’re usually found in limestone areas close to creeks. But, the habitat at the Park at Myatt is different because it has a significant amount of development over the years.

Withers said at this site before the replacement habitat was built there was almost no slab rock for the salamanders to lay their eggs on.

“What Streamsides will do when they have no other choice, the girls will drop eggs on earth. And rarely, they’ll attach them to say a stick or what have you, some other objects including, oddly enough, a rubber boot that was at the site.”

Withers said thanks to this discovery, they’re able to learn a lot more about the habits and characteristics of the species.

“They make do with what habitat they’ve done,” said Withers. “But, if you present them with a slab rock, a propped up slab rock with water below it, they immediately use it.”

Withers added not only is it rare to find Streamside Salamanders in the area, but it’s also rare that a company would take extra measures to conserve them.

“A very new, very novel idea, to my experience anyway, to attempt to create something (replacement habitat), I can say safely,” said Withers.

He was directly involved with CA South and the building of the replacement habitat. He said for the construction of the habitat they had stockpiled the current soil to use as the top layer of the habitat.

“I was down there one weekend just checking on things, and I saw salamander tracks going through one of the new pools,” he remembered. “So, these animals have a place memory of where the water is supposed to be.”

Epstein has encouraged other developers to consider taking similar steps to conservation as the city continues to grow so fast.

“It’s something that we should consider as a city and keep as a priority,” said Epstein, who also sits on the board of Civic Design Center.

“Certain neighborhoods have completely transformed and look nothing like they did five years ago. And you want to make sure that you have enough parks and you know, are building the infrastructure to develop sustainably. So, that’s just something that’s a focus for us, and I just would impart that on Nashvillians, as they are participating in all this growth.”

And Withers has advice on how developers could keep conservation in mind. “Avoidance, minimization, mitigation.”

He suggested developers first contact the state to use the database that tracks occurrences of rare, threatened, endangered plants, and animals in Tennessee.

“The earlier anyone could do that the better,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s best to plan to coordinate with TWRA.”

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