Buncombe County Commission

“We are going to solve the runoff problems in Buncombe County.”

— Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton

Elaine Lite
Picture this: Beaverdam resident Elaine Lite used photos of severe erosion problems to underscore her case for a moratorium on development. photo by Jonathan Welch

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners moved toward quick approval of comprehensive storm-water regulations at its Sept. 19 session. Just two weeks earlier, the commissioners had directed county planning staff to deliver a plan and to make it available for public comment in advance of Tuesday’s meeting. By Sept. 15, a 14-page proposed ordinance had been posted on the county’s Web site.

Assistant County Manager and Planning Director Jon Creighton presented the staff proposal, beginning with a statement of purpose that read, in part, “Regulations of this article shall protect, maintain and enhance the public health, safety, environment and general welfare by establishing minimum requirements and procedures to control the adverse effects of storm-water runoff associated with new development.”

Creighton noted that agriculture, forestry which adheres to best-management practices, permitted mining, commercial developments under one-half acre, and residential developments under one acre would all be exempt from the rules, as would developments already approved.

The proposed regulations are stricter than the state-mandated storm-water rules that will take effect next July. A significant difference is that Buncombe’s new regulations would be countywide, whereas the state rules will apply only to unincorporated areas.

If the county ordinance has the intended effect, runoff from new developments during rainfall of up to 3.02 inches in a 24-hour period will be no greater than it would have been before the construction began. Creighton said this would cover most heavy rain events, though he cautioned, “It’s impossible to plan for Katrina-type events.” An expanded county staff would be needed to enforce the new rules. Creighton suggested immediately adding three positions, to be funded by a fee of about $300 per acre.

“This is not window-dressing; this is not a baby step,” he declared, vowing, “We are going to solve the runoff problems in Buncombe County.” Creighton said the proposed rules are flexible, because he believes engineers need to be allowed to design to the site. Rather than create a thick rule book, the intent is to encourage creative solutions to achieve compliance, he explained.

The new rules would require developers to post a performance surety bond amounting to 125 percent of the projected cost of installing storm-water-control systems. The money would be refunded upon successful completion of the project.

Developers would also have to provide a formal operation-and-maintenance manual that must be updated every 10 years, and property owners would be responsible for maintaining the system in accordance with the specifications.

“This will be an increase in the cost of development in Buncombe County,” noted Creighton.

Commissioner David Young commented, “I would like to re-emphasize again that there can be no additional water or erosion permitted below [a new development].”

Creighton responded: “That’s right. That’s the whole point of a storm-water ordinance.”

Young added: “It’s also good that you didn’t require a certain system to be used — that you left it up to the engineer. I think that will work better for our terrain here.”

Commissioner David Gantt asked, “Are we the only county in WNC doing this?”

“Yes,” said Creighton. “There are some municipalities but no other counties.”

Gantt then queried, “Why is there a management manual for owners?”

“To let the owner know what must be done to keep up the plan designed by the engineer,” answered Creighton.

Gantt asked about possible fines, and Creighton said the draft ordinance includes fines of up to $1,000 per day.

Vice Chairman Bill Stanley said, “I want to jack that fine up around $5,000 to get their attention,” and Creighton agreed. Stanley added: “The fee should go up too. The county is going to have to provide staff to enforce this.” Later, he predicted: “For the most part, our local builders will follow the rules. It’s these crooks from way down South that cause the problems.”

Chairman Nathan Ramsey observed: “The critical difference in storm-water versus erosion control is that erosion control is just during construction, but storm-water will be in effect from here to eternity. It will impose an enormous responsibility on the county staff.” He added, “We appreciate your efforts to keep this as simple as possible.”

Overwhelming public support

During the public-comment period, county residents voiced nearly unanimous support for the proposed rules. Many urged even stronger measures — including a temporary moratorium on all new development.

Philip Schaefer of Weaverville, one of 16 county residents who spoke, said: “The proposed new regulations affect future development, but many of us are concerned about projects currently under way. Since erosion control and storm-water management are interrelated, would you commissioners consider requiring that any development that hasn’t yet had its erosion-control plan approved be required to comply with the new rules?” Schaefer emphasized that “the language should include that there will be no more water leaving the site than was leaving it beforehand.” He also suggested, “If the county sees that the system is not working as designed, there should be some requirement that it be fixed.”

Steven Williams, also of Weaverville, voiced concern about the misuse of agricultural exemptions. “Somebody bought 20 acres next to us; [he] got an agricultural exemption, then got a subdivision permit the following year,” Williams told the commissioners. “Nobody has control of agriculture use; there should be a required waiting period so there’s not a big loophole. Our roads were really affected. Even the silt fences they put in got overburdened during rainfall.” He added, “I think bigger developments and bigger homes should pay more to fund it.”

In response, Gantt asked Creighton to look into imposing a waiting period on future development if exemptions are granted.

Heather Rayburn, president of the Five Points Neighborhood Association, said: “I really appreciate you doing this work. I’m on the board of [the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods], and we get so many pictures from people who are being flooded by people upstream.” Agreeing with Stanley that $1,000 a day is too low a fine, she asked, “Could there be an incentive put into the law so that if a developer goes above and beyond what they have to do, they might get a break?”

Rayburn then noted: “Storm water is just one part of a whole area of planning that we need to address in Buncombe County. We’ve done some research and found that Charlotte had a one-year moratorium on subdivisions and in Lancaster, S.C., a moratorium gave Council time to change the makeup of their Planning Commission and create new ordinances.” She concluded, “We are growing so fast here, we need a moratorium to give us all a break.”

The sole opposition to the new rules came from real estate agent John Carroll, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, who said: “We recognize that storm water has to be addressed, but we don’t want you to do anything hasty. We’ve struggled here to bring up wages. Right now we’re prospering economically, but we need to take into consideration that people need to make a living and feed their families.” He continued: “There are people who need affordable housing. Some who are driving 50 miles or more to work in Asheville.”

Director Gary Higgins of the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District countered: “This is an incredibly important issue in Buncombe County; we’ve been working on this for years. Most often it involves a single family being affected by development above them, but it goes beyond that. I would encourage commissioners to go ahead and take that step and approve the ordinance. It’s an important issue in the environmental-resource realm and urgently needed.”

At the end of public comment, Ramsey noted that a public hearing on the storm-water ordinance would be held Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 4 p.m. in the commissioners’ chamber.

Health Center/DSS merger

The commissioners approved a resolution presented by Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone urging the Legislature to change state law to permit the merger of Buncombe County’s Health Center and Department of Social Services. Under current law, only counties with populations above 425,000 are allowed to combine such functions; Buncombe’s population is about 220,000, according to the latest census data. If the General Assembly complies, the commissioners will still have to vote to approve the merger.

Retiring Health Center Director George Bond told the commissioners that he’d consulted with his counterpart in Wake County, which recently merged the same two departments, to find out how things are going there. “I got positive feedback from them, and I don’t see that there has been particularly extensive restructuring — it is a lot like Buncombe’s current system.” He added, “Most of what we’re going to be able to merge, we’ve already done.”

In other business, the commissioners appointed Robert Sipes to the Economic Development Coalition and Farrell Sylvest to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee.

Due to the extensive public comment, the meeting ran past 7 p.m. and was then continued to Sept. 27.

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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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