Buncombe County Commission

Editor’s note: A small portion of this article, which was found to be in error, was removed on Feb. 6, 2008.

In a move designed to protect viewsheds and limit erosion and runoff problems, the Buncombe County commissioners voted 3-1 to tighten regulation of big developments on steep slopes. Chairman Nathan Ramsey cast the lone opposing vote at the March 21 formal session; Vice Chairman Bill Stanley was absent due to illness. A required second vote on the ordinance is slated for April 4.

Opening the public hearing,  Planning Director Jon Creighton and Zoning Administrator Jim Coman presented a proposed amendment to the “subdivisions” section of the county code, designed to relax regulation on shallow slopes while imposing new controls on steep terrain. The overall effect of the changes will be to require larger lots, limit the size of impervious surfaces, require engineering analysis in certain circumstances, and mandate easements for stormwater drainage ditches and culverts, to allow access for maintenance.

The new rules apply to developments involving 10 or more home sites on property with an average grade of 25 percent or more. That represents a liberalization of existing law, which imposed density limits on grades of 15 percent or more.

The existing regulations, said Creighton, were passed in June 2003 and modified in June 2005, but they have not reined in unsightly and environmentally damaging development. The proposed rules address five goals Creighton laid out at the commissioners’ Feb. 21 retreat (see “Dreaming Buncombe,” March 1 Xpress).

“We wanted engineering on slopes over 30 percent; a drop in density; to start slope requirements at 25 percent instead of 15; to look at disturbed area and impervious surface and impose a 30 percent maximum disturbed and 15 percent impervious; and to eliminate the bonus for density on steep slopes with sewer service.

“The proposed ordinance addresses all of those issues,” he said, adding, “This involves more than aesthetics; it addresses safety and environmental issues as well. Disturbing soil and cutting trees can contribute to safety problems.”

To illustrate the proposed changes, Creighton used two maps of what he called an “unnamed development.” The first was of the controversial Reynolds Mountain subdivision; the second showed how the same tract would have been treated under the new rules—with about one-third fewer lots.

Director Gary Higgins of the Soil and Water Conservation District voiced strong support for the revisions. “We are not opposed to development in Buncombe County, but what we are concerned about is that as you move up steeper slopes, you cannot apply the same rules of construction that you do lower down. They are more likely to erode and to cause downstream problems.”

Construction on steep slopes causes very high rates of soil erosion, Higgins explained, and erosion-control measures are less effective on such terrain. Among other things, it’s “very difficult to establish ground cover on such areas, because excavation goes down into subsoil and such soils are shallow and poor, often with a high mica content.” In addition, said Higgins, cuts going down to bedrock create slowly permeable surfaces where runoff is greatly increased.

He then showed a series of slides depicting serious problems on some area slopes.”

The pictures depicted severe erosion, prompting Commissioner David Gantt to observe, “We’ve got to find a balance between preservation and reckless development.”

Creighton then distributed a chart showing current and recommended densities, including eliminating density bonuses for developers who incorporate sewer lines in their projects. “This will not affect existing lots or family-owned subdivisions,” he assured the commissioners. “It will affect developments of 10 or more house sites.”

“Tell us about the two extremes,” urged Commissioner David Young. “In one scenario, what happens if we totally miss it with this change and overregulate, so people are unable to find houses? How will we address it?”

Creighton: “In Buncombe County, if we made a mistake, we’re going to fix it.”

Young: “The other extreme is we’re still having huge developments with massive erosion problems. What do we do then?”

Creighton: “Even if we pass this, there will be other issues that need to be addressed. If this doesn’t work, we’ll address it.”

Coman offered further reassurance concerning the impact of the new rules. “The way you calculate slope on a subdivision, you first calculate the overall slope. Over 25 percent, the hillside regs apply, but only the portions of the mother tract that exceed 25 percent would be affected. The parcels on less steep land would not be affected at all.”

And hinting at why the rule change is needed, Coman added: “Within the next couple of years, you will see at least a half-dozen developments that go to the top of the ridges. View lots are going for premium prices.”

“These developments are ringing Buncombe County,” chimed in Commissioner Carol Peterson.

Coman responded: “We have a gentleman who is proposing a development similar to Mountain Aire [Golf Club and gated community in Ashe County] two miles beyond Barnardsville. There are people moving in here who have a one-hour commute and feel great about it. They’re moving in from places where commutes were much longer.”

Opinions expressed during the ensuing public-comment period were evenly divided.

Albert Sneed, an attorney involved in numerous development projects who also chairs the county’s Land Conservation Advisory Board, said: “This was run through the Planning Board before the development community had a chance to examine what it would mean. We agree with much of what has been said. What we disagree with is where they ought to kick in.

Since staff is recommending that you not implement this until July 1, we would ask that you put off a vote on this so we can look into the real effect of this ordinance.”

Leicester resident Jerry Rice disagreed, declaring, “I am very concerned. I would say let’s make it a little more stringent. We’ve sold our souls for years because it’s all about money. We need to look at the safety of people, the lives of people here. I think you ought to pass this and raise it up higher. Let’s err on the side of safety. You-uns have let this thing creep in here because you want the property taxes.”

Steve Sloan, who serves on the county’s Environmental Advisory Board, asked: “What do the numbers 130, 27 and five have to do with this ordinance? Locally, there were 130 landslides [in Western North Carolina] caused by Hurricane Fran and Hurricane Ivan. There were 27 homes destroyed, and there were five deaths. These revisions and percentages were calculated by professionals, taking into consideration the geology and the economy. The No. 1 issue with county residents is insufficiently planned steep-slope and ridge-top development.”

People are moving here because of the natural beauty, noted Sloan, making preservation an economic issue. “With the new tax valuation, you are likely to see a lot of big tracts on the auction block. If you’re going to build on our steep slopes, you need to consider safety and the long-term economic effects.”

Leicester resident Alan Ditmore opposed the measure. “Except for the 15 to 25 percent change, much of what is in this proposal is elitist and violates density and smart-growth principles. You say you want to work with the city, but Mayor Bellamy has repeatedly called for increased density. If you want to limit cleared and impervious surface, do it on a per-unit basis, rather than as a percentage of land owned. You assume 4,960 square feet of impervious surface per unit; I suggest using about half that. It would encourage smaller units.”

Jupiter resident Don Yelton, meanwhile, used the comment period to push for a complete change in the way the county assesses property. “You’ve got a tiger by the tail,” he declared. “Everybody loves Buncombe County, and we’re going to love it to death. What you’ve seen here is an attempt to control nature. But it’s almost an impossible task, because each site must be evaluated separately. The current rules for stormwater runoff cause erosion—they don’t prevent it. The simplest thing we can do is change to river-basin-based taxation. If you want to control development, don’t tax vacant property.”

Asheville resident Ed Stein said: “One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the cumulative impact of water coming off the mountains. That water goes into our aquifers and reservoirs. Channeling the runoff means treating our valuable resource as waste.”

Andrew Houston of Arden proclaimed, “It’s time that Buncombe County catches up with other high-value East Coast mountain areas and protects ridges, streams and valleys.” Global warming will continue to produce an increase in weather extremes due to exceptionally heavy rainfall, he warned. Houston also talked about the basic costs associated with unlimited sprawl, saying, “We need to facilitate public-transportation options, [and] that requires density.” Houston is the former secretary of Smart Growth Partners, a grassroots nonprofit promoting compact and orderly development and redevelopment.

Candler resident Terry Trull brought an additional urgency to her remarks. Brandishing a sheaf of paper, she said: “We’re facing development of land above us. I came with a petition to request that these changes be done quickly. We’re destroying the very things that people come here to see. They don’t want to see rooftops—they want to see trees. I brought this petition signed by everyone in our valley. We want you to act quickly.”

Finally, Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny spoke in favor of a go-slow approach. “I’d like to ask that you delay this at least until [all the commissioners are present]. You’re talking about controlling property; it needs to be soaking into people’s minds. They need to know for a longer period of time, to digest what this ordinance is going to be dealing with. If we start restricting density within city limits, the growth will start moving out. As land prices move up, the increasing values and taxes will push out older natives.”

In response, Young noted, “Our rules are that since we don’t have a complete board here, it will be voted on again.”

Gantt commented: “This is an incentive-based ordinance. Everyone wants to keep this place nice. What we are saying is that you can do what you want on lower elevations, but we are making it tougher on higher, steeper slopes.”

In full agreement, Peterson observed: “This is the No. 1 issue that people talk to me about. We are stewards of many things as commissioners—of the land and water and the things we will leave to our children. I am very proud of the work our staff has done, and of this plan.”

Ramsey disagreed. “I think this ordinance is overboard. It applies to the steep slopes and to the valleys as well. It doesn’t address the issue of the large cuts—this ordinance does not change that one iota. What I have proposed is that we develop a stormwater ordinance that requires developers to deal with runoff.” Ramsey then moved that the matter be tabled until April 4, but the motion failed for lack of a second.

Gantt moved that the ordinance be adopted, and Peterson seconded. If the change is approved again on April 4, it will take effect July 1.

Ramsey concluded the hearing by stating, “This ordinance we have adopted today is more strict than that of the city of Asheville.”

Leases and loans

In other business, the commissioners:

• Approved a 20-year lease of property at the corner of College and Oak streets to Northwest Property Group LLC, which plans to erect a mixed-use structure of up to 100,000 square feet.

• Authorized a $2.5 million increase in expenditures for recently approved public-school projects. This will require a corresponding increase in COPS bond borrowing (see “COPS and Voters,” Jan. 25 Xpress).

• Unanimously passed a resolution calling on all municipalities within the county to impose a moratorium on annexation until an economic-impact study is done.

• Made the following board appointments: Bill McElrath and Herb Watts (Board of Health); Kassie Day (Animal Control Appeals Board); Carol Peterson (Land-of-Sky Regional Council); and James Wilson (Board of Adjustment). Board of Health Chair Marsha Stickford was named liaison to the Department of Social Services Board.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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