Slip-sliding away

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Oct. 5 meeting

  • Public hearing on state community-assistance grant
  • Oct. 30 named Kids Voting Day

After years of controversy and delays, the Buncombe County commissioners unanimously approved tougher regulations governing steep-slope development at their Oct. 5 session.

Supporters said the new zoning ordinances will help preserve mountain views and reduce the risk of landslides and runoff pollution.

"God has entrusted us with these mountains, and we have to take care of them," board Chair David Gantt asserted as he cast his vote. "You can't undevelop things once they're developed, so you have to go slow and do it the right way."

Vice Chair Bill Stanley agreed, noting, "We need to protect these mountains. I've lived in them for a long, long time, and hopefully it'll be a lot longer, and I want to see them stay beautiful."

Commissioner Carol Peterson, meanwhile, declared, "This is the right thing to do, and it's the right time to do it, and I couldn't be prouder.”

Years in the making

Plans to revise the regulations concerning development on ridge tops and steep mountain slopes have been in the works for several years. The existing rules were approved in 2006, when Buncombe lacked countywide zoning, so the hillside-development standards were written into the subdivision ordinance. Since then, however, many observers have argued that those rules — based on research conducted in the Piedmont’s flatter terrain — needed to be strengthened to reflect the substantially greater risk of slope failure in the mountains.

In 2006, as the commissioners were revising the subdivision ordinance, developers hastily submitted building-permit applications for 23 projects planned for steep slopes — all of which were approved — before the new rules kicked in.

There are 11,309 subdivided lots on steep slopes in Buncombe County; to date, building permits have been issued for 2,516 of them, according to attorney D.J. Gerken of the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center. Even previously permitted projects will have to comply with those new standards concerning aspects (such as screening with vegetation) that weren’t covered by the 2006 rules.

Among other things, the new rules limit the width of roads, the number of buildings, their height and width, and the amount of impervious surfaces allowed. In addition, the downhill side of projects must be screened with plants, and developers must consult with geotechnical engineers to evaluate landslide risk.

County Attorney Michael Frue said the new rules could affect about 3,500 planned subdivision lots. And although there’s no grandfather clause, developers who've already made a significant investment in a particular project could seek a variance from either the county Planning Board or the Board of Adjustment, he explained, saying, "Look at all this … money and time I spent planning and pursuing my dreams."

But Gantt, at least, made it clear that this should not be a significant loophole. "We want variances given in only the most extraordinary situations,” he told Xpress. “If we find that variances are given commonly, we're going to have to go back and tighten up the law and/or consider replacing people on the Planning Board that are not following the policy we set."

Only time will tell

The new standards will apply to development on slopes with an average grade of 25 percent or more (meaning they rise at least 25 feet per 100 feet of horizontal extent). The planning board had
recommended a less-restrictive 30 percent standard, but the commissioners opted to follow the planning staff's recommendation of keeping it at the existing 25 percent. Both proposals called for more stringent standards for areas above 2,500 feet with a slope greater than 35 percent.

In discussing the proposals, Planning Board Chair Scott Hughes acknowledged that although board members had agreed on the need to revise the rules, "You can't please everybody.

"We have concerns about how restrictive this gets, because people still need to be able to develop their property," he continued. "There is no doubt that what we're proposing today will raise construction costs. …What the impact of this will ultimately be won't be known for a number of years."

In the past, critics have complained about the high percentage of Planning Board members who work in fields related to construction and/or development.

And Gantt maintained that the new regulations were needed to keep irresponsible developers in check.

"This ordinance will impact people — it will impact developers who do crummy developments," he asserted. "It will impact developers who develop on slopes with no regard to those who live below them. It will impact people who have no regard or respect for the mountains and don't care, and want to make a buck and leave."

Most of the roughly 20 residents who spoke during the public hearing seemed to agree that the new rules were necessary.

"The tops of the mountains look like they're being blown apart," said Arden resident Aaron Penland. "Asheville was rated as one of the best places to live because of our mountains. We can't put a dollar value on that."

Before casting her vote, Commissioner Holly Jones noted that she sees the rules as "a work in progress.

"This is part of the major frustration of zoning: It's never done," she maintained. "We all have to be open on both sides to making it better."

— Susan Andrew can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at sandrew@mountainx.com. Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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