Slippery slope

A pair of perennially touchy subjects — crafting regulations to govern development on steep slopes and letting county residents create their own zoning districts — dominated the Buncombe County Planning Board’s Nov. 18 meeting.

The idea of regulating hillside development has been kicked around for at least a year, with the previous Planning Board considering how other communities handle the issue. Currently, there are virtually no restrictions on how steeply sloping property in the unincorporated parts of the county can be developed.

The few rules that do exist are spelled out in the county’s erosion-control and subdivision ordinances. The latter dictates the minimum amount of property required along the roadside edge of a lot to prevent steeply pitched, “suicidal” driveways, County Planner Jim Coman explained after the meeting. Beaverdam and Limestone townships also have minimal rules governing hillside development, he noted.

At last week’s meeting, landscape architect Bob Grasso, president of the Asheville-based Land Planning Collaborative, offered Planning Board members some practical advice about how to craft a hillside-development ordinance and handed out samples of regulations used by other local governments.

Using a project he’d worked on in southern Buncombe County as a model, Grasso noted that the method used to calculate the average slope of a lot under the Beaverdam Township ordinance produces skewed results. That’s because it calculates average slope by simply averaging the percentage of slope on two sides of a lot. By contrast, the method specified in Asheville’s ordinance — calculating the total length of all the contour lines in a parcel, which is then plugged into a formula — yields a more accurate picture, said Grasso.

Under the Beaverdam ordinance, for example, the average slope of one of the lots in question would be calculated at 6.5 percent; under the city ordinance, the same property would be said to have a 50.2 percent slope. In Asheville, average slope is one of the variables used to determine how many homes are allowed per acre.

“We said we wanted to use Beaverdam as a starting point, but we don’t want to walk into any traps,” cautioned Planning Board Chairman Jim McElduff.

Grasso says he’d like to see an ordinance that’s both flexible and encourages good design. One way to achieve this, he suggested, is by setting density limits on a project rather than dictating lot size. That way, developers can build homes in the best spots on a tract of land, minimizing overall land disturbance on the site.

“I want to preserve why I like living here,” Grasso declared. “I don’t want to see a scarred-up side of a mountain from my house.”

After the meeting, Grasso added, “If we’re going to have an ordinance, let’s have one that’s not restrictive to developers but one that encourages responsible and environmentally sensitive design.”

Landowners vs. voters

At the request of the county commissioners, the Planning Board is also working up a recommendation on community-based planning, in which individual communities can choose to create their own zoning. The idea is similar to the township model already in use in Limestone and Beaverdam.

At last week’s meeting, Planning Board members batted around pragmatic details of how people would create planning districts and approve regulations. At issue was the amount of input accorded landowners and registered voters, respectively.

Of the four options floated, board member David Shenaut favored the one that he thought would be easiest to administer. Under that option, a petition to create a planning district would have to be signed by 20 percent of registered voters (51 percent of whom would have to own land in the district); any regulations passed would have to be approved by 51 percent of the district’s registered voters. Two other proposals called for varying percentages of landowners to approve regulations — which board member Karl Koon suggested would defeat the right to a secret ballot. Coman said later that he thought a way could be devised to preserve individual landowners’ anonymity.

Chairman McElduff noted that the matter had come up at a recent meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners. Coman recalled that attorney Albert Sneed had argued for giving landowners’ opinions added weight.

Contacted later, Sneed — a self-declared zoning opponent — said he’s also concerned that if districts were too small, people would tend to zone out any land uses except for single-family residences, as Beaverdam has done. Even with larger districts, he questioned how the interests of the entire county would be served if, for example, every district chose to ban such unpopular — but necessary — projects as landfills. And though Sneed said he still doesn’t like the idea, it would be “a whole lot less objectionable” to him if bigger districts were used that protected the interests of both landowners and the community at large.

The minimum size of any such community-based planning district also remains unclear. Although state law allows for areas as small as one square mile to be zoned, members of the public have told the county commissioners that this is too small an area, Coman recalled after the meeting. As a result, the board is considering using fire-district and/or township boundaries to define the planning districts.

Board members agreed to take up the matter again at their next meeting.

A short history of “no zoning”

Although last week’s discussion seemed cordial, it may merely represent a lull in the long-running battle over land-use regulations in Buncombe County.

The idea of zoning has been kicked around for at least a quarter-century in the county. In November 1999, countywide zoning was put to a nonbinding referendum. Only 33 percent of the registered voters actually recorded an opinion that day, but about 56 percent of those who did vote turned thumbs down on the concept.

In June 2001, the previous Planning Board unanimously endorsed a proposal to let county residents in areas as small as four square miles set up community councils that could enact their own local zoning regulations.

Two months later, the Planning Board surprised the county commissioners by recommending that they consider implementing countywide, multiple-use zoning. The skeletal rules of multiple-use zoning would have required that potentially objectionable new projects — including asphalt plants and adult-entertainment venues — obtain conditional-use permits. The rules also would have required new structures to be set back 10 feet from property lines.

But the very next day, the commissioners countered by directing the Planning Board (on a split vote) to conduct four public hearings before certifying the maps for the proposed zoning. The Planning Board refused.

The commissioners then embarked on a series of public “growth management” meetings held throughout last winter and spring.

Last June, the commissioners revamped the nine-member Planning Board, with one appointee representing each school district plus two at-large appointees. In the process, all but two members were replaced; one of them has since resigned. Three-and-a-half weeks later, the zoning proposal died after Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, the swing vote, declared that he wouldn’t support countywide zoning.

Then, in July, the commissioners asked the new Planning Board for a recommendation on community-based planning.

The Planning Board’s next meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 2, in the county training room, 199 College St. in downtown Asheville.

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