Egged on by the torrent of e-mails and phone calls that had gone out to rally the faithful in the preceding days, an overflow crowd of real estate agents, developers and environmental activists showed up for a Sept. 27 public hearing on Buncombe County’s proposed storm-water-control ordinance. The hearing was part of a Buncombe County Board of Commissioners formal session continued from Sept. 19 (see “Going Against the Flow,” Sept. 27 Xpress).
Due to crowding and technical problems in the meeting room, some 150 members of the public jammed into elevators and stairwells to relocate to a larger seventh-floor courtroom. But a murder trial was in session there, and the crowd descended to a first-floor courtroom, where Chairman Nathan Ramsey called the meeting to order a half-hour after the scheduled 4 p.m. start.
“Last week we had a public-comment session, and I have had a number of contacts over the Internet and by phone,” said Planning Director Jon Creighton to start things off. In response to those comments, said Creighton, he’d made some changes to the draft document. One of the most significant changes — requiring storm-water-system inspections every year instead of every 10 years — was necessary to comply with state law, he explained.
To cover the cost of hiring more enforcement staff, the county will charge developers an impact fee of $400 per acre of disturbed land. Initially the Planning Department will add two technicians and an engineer.
“It’s only fair that this program be supported by the development community,” said Creighton, adding: “This will control development from here on out — not existing problems. This is the No. 1 problem that I hear about in the county. Some people say we need to wait, but it is time to start.”
Arguing that the storm-water regulations are needed in addition to recently imposed slope-development regulations, he said, “Even with the new steep-slope ordinance, there are impervious surfaces that generate storm-water flow.” Acknowledging the cost to developers, Creighton said, “The EPA estimates $150,000 for a 50-acre development and $70,000 for a 5-acre site to put these measures in place, while a small commercial site can run from $20,000 to $60,000.”
Creighton also repeated his previous explanation that rather than create a design manual, “What I’m proposing is that we leave design [of storm-water-control systems] up to the engineer to create the best possible system for a site.” Because the rules kick in at the level of one disturbed acre, he said, “It will not have a large impact on single-family homebuilding. It is aimed at commmercial development and subdivisions.”
In conclusion, Creighton told the commissioners, “I recommend approval as of today.”
A house divided
About three dozen people took their turns at the microphone, representing such diverse groups as the Asheville Board of Realtors, the developers of the planned Bartram’s Walk subdivision in Beaverdam, the Council of Independent Business Owners, RiverLink, the Mountain Voices Alliance, the Western North Carolina Alliance and the Sierra Club’s WENOCA Group. The speakers seemed evenly divided pro and con.
All but three of those opposing the ordinance endorsed the goal of regulating storm water but said the problem requires more study, calling for a delay of 90 or 120 days to permit them to review alternative solutions.
Board of Realtors President Brad Galbraith said: “Please consider further review of the financial impact on builders, on the county, on homeowners’ associations and property owners, and the potential loss in the county’s economic vitality. … If the ordinance is passed, we ask that you include a time line for review of the impact and adjustment.”
Heather Rayburn, speaking for the Mountain Voices Alliance, presented the commissioners with photos of recent storm-water and erosion problems at multiple local development sites.
“This place used to be referred to by the Chamber of Commerce as ‘Cool Green Asheville,'” she noted. “Now the Chamber’s slogan is ‘Asheville, Any Way You Want It.’ The pictures I’m showing today show the truth behind the slogan. Developers are having their way with the natural environment in Asheville.” Rayburn urged the commissioners not only to approve the ordinance but also to impose a temporary moratorium on development in the county, adding, “Besides the stick, we also need the carrot.” She also asked the commissioners to adopt incentives for builders using environmentally friendly designs and creating affordable housing.
Following the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing, four of the commissioners spoke out forcefully in favor of the ordinance. Then Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, who hadn’t said anything, proclaimed, “Enough said: Let’s get on with it!” The ordinance — amended to include the stipulation that both the Planning Department and the Board of Commissioners review its effectiveness in 90 and again in 180 days — passed unanimously.