Strong talk by the Buncombe County commissioners concerning a moratorium on new subdivisions suggested by Commissioner David Young went soft by the end of their Sept. 5 meeting.
Although the chamber was packed with county residents crying foul about new, large-scale development on steep slopes, the commissioners unanimously agreed to fast-track new storm-water rules rather than halt new development until a comprehensive ordinance could be drafted and considered.
Commissioner Carol Peterson — who typically says little during meetings — introduced an elaborate motion giving county staff just two weeks to draft a storm-water ordinance and have it ready for a vote. According to Peterson’ timetable, public notice on the draft storm-water rules would be given Sept. 6, with a draft ordinance posted online by Sept. 15. The commissioners’ regular Sept. 19 meeting would instead be a public hearing on the rules, and the board would vote on the new ordinance on Sept. 26. The board approved the motion on a 4-0 vote (Vice Chairman Bill Stanley was absent).
At the commissioners’ Aug. 15 meeting, however, Planning Director Jon Creighton said the state “is in the process of implementing storm-water regulations for counties.” Storm-water runoff is the No. 1 subject of complaints the county gets, he noted. The recent stir about steep-slope development seems only to have amplified those concerns. Currently, Buncombe County has no storm-water ordinance, and its sedimentation regulations date to the Nixon era.
A number of speakers during Tuesday’s public-comment period called for a temporary halt on new development. Beaverdam resident Elaine Lite presented County Attorney Joe Connolly with a sheaf of signed petitions demanding a moratorium. “We have hundreds of signatures and will have thousands before this is over,” she said.
Weaverville resident Martha Claxton echoed Lite’s concerns. “The citizens of Buncombe County are begging for tighter restrictions,” she declared. “Someone at an earlier meeting said, ‘The sky is not falling.’ But I say that these mountains are falling and that yes, things are as bad as they seem. You’re leaving the citizens to pick up the pieces.”
Bad for business
Several speakers representing real estate and development interests denounced the specter of a moratorium.
Michael Butrum, legislative committee chair for the Asheville Board of Realtors, asked the commissioners whether it was “the county’s intent to stop the modest growth of subdivisions?” Butrum added, “Moratoriums are at best a questionable approach.”
Leicester resident Jerry Rice, who faithfully attends Board Of Commissioners meetings, questioned Butrum’s right to speak at all. “The realtor association shouldn’t be here,” argued Rice. “They don’t care about anything else but making money. They don’t care who they get in bed with.”
Brian Bartlett, a professional surveyor who serves on the county Planning Board, also argued against a moratorium. In light of recent citizen concern about the influence of developers on Planning Board decisions, Bartlett took pains to note that he was speaking not in an official capacity but as a county resident.
“I say this not as a Planning Board member,” said Bartlett. “I feel the moratorium would have a dramatic effect on the county as a whole. The [economic] trickle-down effect will last for years.”
The extended public comment turned what might have been a brief session into a nearly three-hour meeting. The chamber was hot and crowded, and several people folded their agendas into makeshift fans and waved them desultorily in front of their faces.
“Staff, we’ve got to think about getting seating out in the hall and a monitor, so people can watch this,” observed board Chair Nathan Ramsey. “We run the risk of violating fire code in here.”
Sturm und drang
Earlier in the meeting, the tone of the discussion seemed to sugggest that a county storm-water ordinance was nowhere near being ready for approval. “We don’t even know what our ordinance is yet, so how are we going to accept comment about it?” wondered Commissioner David Young.
But as the meeting rolled along, board opinion seemed to shift in favor of the storm-water ordinance, and support for a moratorium faded. County Manager Wanda Greene said drafting storm-water rules would not pose an undue challenge, noting that staff was “pretty far along” in the process already.
In an apparent nod to county residents complaining about the Planning Board’s weak enforcement of development rules, Ramsey — who said he’d opposed a moratorium from the outset — observed, “We need to find out which Planning Board members are not supporting [county] policies and replace them.”
Commissioner David Gantt said he didn’t see it that way, observing, “The buck stops here.”
“My perception,” responded Ramsey, “is that we’re trying to hide behind the Planning Board.”
Gantt retorted that the success or failure of the new storm-water rules would amount to a referendum on the commissioners’ overall performance. “If we can’t protect you, then you probably have to get someone else who can,” he told the crowded room (see sidebar, “Destroying Mountaintops”).
Really mobile homes
Planning and Development staffer Stephen Hunter reported on the county’s progress in removing decrepit and abandoned mobile homes from private property. The voluntary program, funded by a $50,000 annual county appropriation, has disposed of more than 100 trailers in the last three years, said Hunter.
Not every attempt is successful, he added. “We had one woman who called us to have a trailer removed. We did, and in a month’s time she had another one — in even worse shape — moved in.”
As the program has gotten more popular, said Hunter, “it’s gotten to be abused.” For instance, the service is free to property owners with the understanding that they won’t sell the affected property within 12 months. But some developers, he said, have bent the rules.
The board unanimously approved language strengthening the mobile-home-removal guidelines.
In less weighty matters, the commissioners presented a resolution congratulating the Erwin All Stars baseball team on becoming Babe Ruth League state champions; another declaring Sept. 18 to 22 “Minority Enterprise Development Week,” and another declaring Sept. 25 Family Day to encourage families to eat supper together.
“How ironic that we’ve got to pass a proclamation about that,” commented Ramsey.
The board finished its meeting by making several appointments: Joseph Quinlan to the Abandoned Cemeteries board of trustees; Susan Fisher to the Airport Authority; Larry Wilson to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board; and Louise Becker to the Reorganizing Commission.
Shortly before 7 p.m., the board went into closed session to consider two potential legal matters, two economic-development matters, and one property-acquisition matter.
A Sept. 5 meeting between the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the county Planning Board prior to the commission’s regular session — undertaken in response to resident concerns about new development in the county — produced no tangible results and little agreement concerning proposed moratoriums on both new subdivisions and variances.
Outraged at the 11th-hour approval of a host of development plans immediately before new slope-development rules took effect July 1, members of the public had pressed the commissioners to put on the brakes. But there was no evident consensus on either board as to whether anything would or could be done.
Commissioner Carol Peterson asked if there’s a common thread in subdivision variances; many involve driveways, she was told. And Planning Board members seemed to agree that most variances are granted to reduce rather than increase the environmental impact of development. (At their Aug. 15 meeting, the commissioners had directed the Planning Board not to approve any variances involving erosion, health, safety or traffic issues.)
Opposing the whole idea of moratoriums, Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey said, “If we have a good ordinance in place and if they’re having storm-water-control issues or erosion-control issues, either the developer isn’t following the rules or we need to change the rules.” Ramsey added: “My personal perspective is that you should be allowed to grant variances, because we should trust you to grant them for the right reasons — to improve the developments. And if we can’t trust you to do what’s right, we should replace you with someone we do trust.”
But Commissioner David Gantt, who seemed to favor the temporary moratorium suggested by Commissioner David Young, concluded his remarks with this observation: “I would like for us to have some idea how many mountaintops we are destroying. I think we have a moral obligation to our children to be able to say, ‘We destroyed 100 mountaintops while we were in charge, and you can’t ever get them back.'”
– Cecil Bothwell