Fighting back

Serenity Forest. Wildflower. Four Sims Hollow. Seven Falls. These failed developments may not provoke the kind of stark memories that the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Iwo Jima or the Battle of the Bulge did, but they nonetheless extracted their pound of flesh — or, rather, ton of silt — as neglected properties overwhelmed nearby streams, flooded adjacent areas, created landslide threats and left community eyesores in their wake.

In the heady days of Western North Carolina's most recent building boom, people buying lots were promised magnificent views in serene developments boasting world-class golf courses that, presumably, would rest on solid ground. Meanwhile, area residents were regaled with tales of treasure chests of new revenue that would increase the tax base, create jobs, boost property values and perhaps even lower taxes. But if truth is the first casualty in war, it's never been truer for mega-development in WNC.

Many small communities were unprepared for the onslaught. Places like Franklin, Leicester and Etowah were forever changed by callously deployed weapons of environmental destruction: track hoes, bulldozers and even dynamite. Adding to their woes were the unexpected financial burdens that abandoned developments placed on innocent, noncombatant taxpayers. In Leicester, Buncombe County officials were forced to declare a state of emergency when a failed retention pond in the Serenity Forest subdivision created an imminent threat to homes and roads. Homeowners' inability to fix the drainage problems left taxpayers on the hook.

In Franklin, an ill-advised cut in a steep mountain grade triggered a massive, half-acre landslide. Upon closer inspection, Macon County officials questioned the stability of the remaining 30 miles of roads in the 2,500 acre development.

However, no failed development epitomized the Wild West mentality of "growth at any cost" more than Seven Falls in northwest Henderson County. Some 1,400 acres of the most beautiful land in the county were earmarked for an ambitious Arnold Palmer golf course community. But the collapse of the scheme has left the county stuck between a rock and a sediment place: use the $6 million performance bond to repair catastrophic damage to watersheds and slopes, or build basic infrastructure for the few remaining landowners who weren't in cahoots with the developer, the foreclosed who saw the writing on the wall, and the soon-to-be foreclosed. Either way, neither the land buyers, the neighbors nor the regulatory agencies will be happy.

Between 2000 and 2007, Henderson County approved more than 12,800 subdivision lots in a building boom that looked like it would never end. But it did. And though some claim that the financial downturn was what did Seven Falls in, recent criminal indictments tell a different story. Ponzi scheme development became the norm in America during the early 2000s. At Seven Falls, money from initial building sales and loans funded Caribbean vacations, jaunts to the Super Bowl, ski trips and a Gulfstream jet, with the expectation that future revenues would cover actual development costs.

The Army Corps of Engineers revoked Seven Falls' permit to fill in 7,000 feet of mountain streams and 1.4 acres of wetlands after the development repeatedly violated environmental rules designed to protect water quality. The resulting damage led Henderson County and the state Division of Water Quality to assess hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of fines against the developer.

The Corps has ordered Seven Falls to remove all the fill material and restore the streams to "pre-construction conditions," and the state has made similar demands. The county did eventually win control of the performance bond, but the erosion issues alone are estimated to cost more than $8 million to fix.

Some rules, such as those pertaining to sedimentation and erosion, can be violated. Others, like the law of gravity, cannot. Belatedly, WNC woke up to the nasty reality that real estate markets don't always go up, developments don't necessarily benefit the communities where they're built, and when markets go south, they take neighboring property values with them. Perhaps the biggest hangover of all was the taxpayers' rude awakening: When no solvent developer is available to accept responsibility, they're the ones left holding the bag.

We can wave the white flag of surrender — or start defending ourselves now against future forays in this undeclared war on our communities. Let's demand that the state Legislature require every county to issue performance bonds on big developments to cover potential costs if they go sour. Let's empower counties to use bond moneys to remediate damage caused by negligent construction practices, whether it's on the property in question or on adjacent land or waterways. And let's levy significant criminal penalties for irresponsible development that creates imminent public-safety concerns.

Meanwhile, what can individual residents do? Join environmental advocacy organizations such as ECO that are holding malfeasant developers’ and sluggish counties’ feet to the fire.

— David Weintraub is stepping down as executive director of ECO, the Environmental & Conservation Organization, at the end of March. In the meantime, he can be reached at 692-0385 or at eco-wnc.org.

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