Buncombe County Commissioners preview: Steep slope revisions

At this week’s Oct. 5 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will consider competing plans to revise the rules that govern development on steep slopes.

The Buncombe County Planning Department staff’s proposal recommends strengthening “hillside standards” for new subdivisions on slopes that average 25 percent or more (defined as slopes that rise 25 feet or more in 100 feet of horizontal distance).

In contrast, the Buncombe County Planning Board’s proposal recommends that hillside regulations shouldn’t take effect unless slope averages reach a 30 percent threshold.

Both plans would toughen rules on new subdivisions above 2,500 feet in elevation, but the staff version offers tougher regulations on infrastructure such as roads and sewer lines.

Plans to revise the regulations have been in the works for several years. In 2006, Buncombe County didn’t have a comprehensive set of zoning ordinances, and hillside development standards were written into the subdivision ordinance. Since then, many observers have argued that those standards—developed for a set of lower-risk conditions in the Piedmont—needed to be strengthened in the mountains, where the risk of slope failure is considerably higher.

In 2009, as the Commissioners moved to develop stronger standards during their annual retreat, developers rushed to get approval for some 23 projects that were planned for steep slopes, many of which were approved. Currently there are 11,309 subdivided lots on steep slopes throughout the county, although building permits have been issued for only 2,516 of them.

Both the planning board and staff revision plans were drafted after the Buncombe County Environmental Advisory Board advised the Commissioners to strengthen the steep slopes ordinance.

“These proposals are the product of careful research conducted in response to specific requests by the County Commissioners at their most recent planning retreat,” according to DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Buncombe County needs these changes.”

Gerken argues that the Commissioners best choice is obvious: “They must enact the new overlay zones and also adopt the staff proposal for the hillside standards, which adds needed updates and flexibility to the county’s hillside ordinance, instead of the planning board proposal, which would weaken the hillside standards.”

However, some developers and their advocates have said the new rules go too far and infringe on private property rights.

The board will meet at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 5, in the commissioner’s chambers, located at 30 Valley St. A short pre-meeting review of the agenda will begin at 4:15 p.m.

— Jake Frankel and Susan Andrew, staff reporters

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