“Everybody up here is not in favor of this development. … It is frustrating to be up here and find we can do nothing.”
— Commissioner David Young
Upward of 100 irate residents packed a Buncombe County meeting room on Aug. 15, only to be told by the Board of Commissioners and County Attorney Joe Connolly that the board lacks the power to halt a controversial subdivision planned for Beaverdam. The development plan is one of about two dozen submitted shortly before tighter slope regulations took effect.
During the lengthy public-comment period, more than 20 speakers pleaded with the commissioners for a moratorium on development, stricter land-use regulation, adherence to federal storm-water rules and closer examination of claims made by developers. No one spoke on behalf of the Beaverdam Land Conservancy LLC, whose Bartram’s Walk project on Wolfe Cove Road has mobilized community resistance.
At press time, Dr. Michael Zboyovski, the LLC’s registered agent, had not returned phone calls. (Ironically, the state incorporation papers list a Beaverdam address for the LLC.) At an Aug. 1 community meeting, however, architect Tom Daniel of the Atlanta-based Omni Consulting Services, which designed the project, said the investors are unwilling to make any changes in their plans to accommodate the concerns raised by neighborhood residents (see “Bartram’s What?” Aug. 9 Xpress).
Sporting “Save Beaverdam” buttons and armed with petitions signed by more than 900 residents of the Wolfe Cove Road/Beaverdam community and Town Mountain Road, the standing-room-only crowd applauded and cheered successive speakers until Chairman Nathan Ramsey, who had repeatedly gaveled the audience to silence, threatened to clear the room.
At the outset, Ramsey asked county Zoning Administrator Jim Coman to explain the legalities surrounding Bartram’s Walk. Under the slope regulations in effect at the time the project was approved, said Coman, the developer could have created 1,400 lots on the 160-acre property, but because the parcel falls under Beaverdam zoning regulations, only 117 lots were permitted (plus an additional four on outparcels). New county land-use rules that took effect July 1 would have reduced that number to 103 lots.
“What were the changes the developer sent back recently?” asked Commissioner David Gantt, noting that a revised development plan had been submitted to the Planning Department. A few lots have been eliminated, said Coman.
“So there are other hurdles to clear before it is approved?” queried Commissioner David Young.
The revised plan, said Coman, must be approved by the county Planning Board. City Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek and Gary Higgins of the county Soil and Water Conservation District may also have to sign off on the project, noted Coman.
The first member of the public to speak was K. Lee Wright, a former Beaverdam Community Council member who provided background information. “Beaverdam Road is the second-oldest road in county,” she noted, “and when the state took it in, it didn’t obtain proper rights of way. Some homes practically sit on the highway.” At current land prices, said Wright, the cost of obtaining sufficient right of way to widen the road or install sidewalks would be prohibitive. “Remember there is other land to be developed in Beaverdam, which has no other route of access,” she warned, adding, “Remember the fire on Elk Mountain a few years ago? … We were literally bottled up for hours.”
Beaverdam resident Glenn Metheny told the commissioners about his experience with a much smaller development in his neighborhood. “I believe the designers believed they had used appropriate erosion-control methods,” he said, showing photographs of the site. After each of four rain events this summer, he explained, his property was flooded with silt and water. “It’s obvious that the professionals don’t have any idea how to control the runoff,” said Metheny. “The established design concepts … are inadequate as presently applied in the Beaverdam area.”
Town Mountain resident Joe Sechler presented a petition opposing the development, signed by more than 200 people living along Town Mountain Road. The road, he noted, is already heavily trafficked and often hazardous in winter. The petition read, in part, “We therefore respectfully request that approval be delayed pending the completion of a joint DOT/county/city traffic study … completion of an environmental-impact study … and an analysis of the likelihood of dangerous mudslides.”
Sechler declared: “The most egregious part of the process is that you commissioners have no authority over the plans. … Clearly development in this county is a runaway train, and you need to get control of it.”
Bobbie Burdett, an 18-year Wolfe Cove Road resident, presented a second petition containing more than 700 signatures, which she said had been collected in just four days. Burdett said the development is projected to add as many as 1,000 auto trips per day on her road, and she questioned the safety of pedestrians — including children — walking to school buses.
“Have any studies been done to ensure our safety?” she asked.
Runoff regs don’t apply
Beaverdam resident Cindy Byron, an Asheville native who’s been active in organizing opposition to the project, said Buncombe County should adopt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Stormwater Phase II rules and that they should apply to the Bartram’s Walk subdivision. She displayed a poster-sized array of photographs of current excessive water and sediment runoff from much smaller projects already under way along Wolfe Cove Road.
Ramsey then asked Planning Director Jon Creighton to speak to that issue.
“Currently in North Carolina, counties are exempt from Phase II regulation,” said Creighton. The state, he explained, “is in the process of implementing storm-water regulations for counties.” Creighton added, “There is an Environmental Affairs Board, and it will address some of these concerns.”
Wolfe Cove Road resident Catherine Ball, a Buncombe County native, stepped up to thank Vice Chairman Bill Stanley for a promise he’d made at the board’s previous meeting. “Mr. Stanley, you said that ‘if we have made a mistake here, then we’re ready to make it right.’ Thank you. Your words are powerful and courageous. Now I have summoned up my courage to ask you to take the first step toward ‘making it right.’ Make a motion to call a moratorium on the 20-some projects that submitted high-density plans just before the tighter slope laws went into effect.”
“You all have the power,” Ball continued. “We depend on you; our communities depend on you; and in fact, the very integrity of our mountains depends on you.”
Following Ball’s lead, Weaverville resident Julie Brandt said: “You decided in March to have more restrictive development rules on steep slopes, and then we have all these developments approved. How did this happen? The three-month delay was like an invitation to developers to come on in.” Brandt added: “I noticed in the paper today that the developer calls itself the Beaverdam Land Conservancy. That’s an insult. … Please consider a moratorium.”
After the meeting, Coman told Xpress that most of the projects submitted before June 30 have received preliminary approval, while some are still pending. But all development plans submitted before July 1 must be evaluated under the old rules. The commissioners, said Coman, knew that many developers had land under contract and had already spent months on design-and-engineering work. “They realized it would have been unfair to stop those who had already made substantial investments, and they intentionally gave them a few months to complete their work,” he explained.
Town Mountain resident Andrew Willet, an architect, sounded a similar note at the meeting, asking, “Can you place a moratorium on steep-slope development?
At Ramsey’s request, the county attorney replied: “We visited this issue some years ago, dealing with the city of Asheville in our efforts to have some zoning in [extraterritorial jurisdiction] areas. The issue of notice is going to be the dominant issue. Clearly this board today cannot pass a moratorium without notice.
“Secondarily,” continued Connolly, “once you have allowed these people the time through the end of June [to submit proposals] … my initial impression would be that even after giving the notice, I question whether this board could impose a moratorium on these projects.”
“What is the required notice?” shouted someone in the audience.
Connolly replied, “It would be required to give extensive procedural notice.”
Gibson Road resident Elaine Lite asked, “If you won’t take responsibility, who do we hold accountable?” Then, reading a note passed up from the crowd, she asked that the commissioners pass a resolution asking the Planning Board to permit no variances on the project.
Stanley immediately concurred with that suggestion. Young then earnestly assured the unhappy residents, “Everybody up here is not in favor of this development. We are looking for ways to slow this down. In some ways our hands are tied. It is frustrating to be up here and find we can do nothing.”
Zoning opponents and number-crunching
Longtime zoning opponents Eric Gorny of Swannanoa and Candler resident Jerry Rice both sympathized with the Beaverdam residents but used their time at the lectern to argue that the situation proves that zoning doesn’t work. “This is a zoned area of the county,” said Gorny. “Obviously zoning isn’t the answer.”
Gantt, a zoning proponent, responded that without zoning, the development could have included more than 1,000 lots. “We are working on developing zoning rules,” he said, “but we need your help to do it — and it’s too bad that it took something like this to get you out here. We want your input; this is great. But we have to go through the protocol to do this.”
He continued, “Maybe we can do something about this; maybe we can’t. But we need to make rules so it won’t happen again in the future.”
Beaverdam Knoll Road resident Steve Simon, speaking to Metheny’s concern about inadequate rules, cited two reasons for the failure. “First, the rules don’t require accurate measurement of slopes. I’ve analyzed all the lots in this development and found that at least a third are 10 percent steeper than the developers have estimated, while another 15 lots exceed the estimated slope by 4 to 9 percent. The roads also exceed estimated slopes.” Simon also questioned the developer’s assertion that the existing culverts on the principal watercourse through the property could handle any additional runoff created by the development. “I’d like to know what estimates were used to calculate that,” he said.
Stanley asked Simon to hand over his calculations, saying, “I’ll take it to the Planning Board.”
The public comment continued for more than an hour before all the residents had had their say. When they were done, Young wrapped up the session, saying: “Thank you all for coming. It does mean something that you were here.”
In the end, following a closed session to discuss legal matters associated with development regulations, the commissioners voted to request a joint meeting with the Planning Board to discuss new developments and directed the Planning Board not to approve any variances that involve erosion, health, safety or traffic issues.
In less-contentious business, the commissioners quickly approved spending $500,000 to design a $9.5 million parking deck to be built adjacent to the Buncombe County Health Center, with entrances on Woodfin and College streets. The facility will provide between 500 and 550 spaces, said Creighton.
Chris Collins of the county’s Human Services Support Team reported on uninsured residents and options for improved health-care management.
The commissioners also made the following board appointments: Crissy Stewart (Women’s Commission); Gwen Fisher (Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee); and Dan Muse (Recreation Services Advisory Board).