When Minneapolis-based developer KLP Pinners EAT LLC applied to rezone 73 acres for a mountaintop development near Pinners Cove Road last December, it was not prepared for the community pushback. Led by 30-year resident Scott Kuhlman, neighbors of the property formed the Say No to Pinners Cove Rezoning group and got to work. They collected hundreds of signatures on an online petition against the project, displayed yard signs and even purchased a billboard.
When the rezoning application came before the Buncombe County Planning Board Jan. 24, over 40 residents had already submitted written public comments, and roughly the same number voiced their opposition during the meeting itself. Concerns focused on the lack of available infrastructure to support a large development, environmental damage from erosion and loss of the area’s rural character.
The Planning Board subsequently voted 7-1 not to recommend the rezoning to the county Board of Commissioners, and the developers pulled their request before the commissioners could consider it.
“We were thrilled, but we knew that this developer was going to figure out [an]other approach,” says resident Mignon Durham, one of the most vocal opponents of the development.
In May, KLP filed a new application for the same 176-acre property (avl.mx/c4q). This time, instead of a rezoning request that would have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners, the company submitted a site plan for a 269-unit major subdivision over 90 acres. Major subdivision plans are created in conjunction with the Buncombe County Planning & Development Department using the guidelines of the county’s Land Development and Subdivision Ordinance — an administrative process with no avenue for public input.
According to Nathan Pennington, Buncombe County’s planning director, county planners receive 15-20 such subdivision applications every year and review their technical specifications for compliance with county rules. “If the application meets the standards, then permits are issued,” he says.
Despite the new process, the Pinners Cove residents say they have no intention of backing down. “Transparency is really important, and I don’t feel like we’re getting it on this particular development,” Durham says.
As an example of a process he feels is taking place behind the scenes, Kuhlman points to a series of emails between Buncombe staffers and representatives of the project. He only obtained the information after submitting a public records request to the county.
The conversations show county planner Gillian Phillips working with developers to determine the best application path for the Pinners Cove project. Initially, KLP had applied for a “conservation easement hillside development subdivision,” which allows for greater housing density on part of a property if the remainder is set aside for conservation under the stewardship of a nonprofit.
But in a set of June 23 emails, a construction firm working with KLP shared that it could not find a nonprofit willing to accept the land. Sunny Beddow, senior counsel for Bloomington, Minn.-based Doran Companies, wrote to Phillips, “it’s too small to interest [any of] them.”
In her reply, Phillips suggested that the developer instead apply for an “alternative path hillside development.” Those rules also allow densely clustered building if 30% of the parcel’s land is set aside for conservation and managed by the development’s homeowners association.
A meeting was scheduled for June 30 involving county staff, Warren Sugg of local engineering firm Civil Design Concepts and staff at Doran, but no further information was included in the email chain. KLP did not respond to requests for comment.
For Pinners Cove residents, finding that so much discussion about the project is happening without their knowledge or input was frustrating. “My problem with development in the county is that it happens in secret,” Durham says. “It [is] very difficult for ordinary citizens to mobilize and get anything accomplished.”
When asked about changes to the transparency of Buncombe’s development process, Pennington says that the county is updating its Accela Citizen Access system to provide more information to the public.
Living in Pinners Cove, Durham says, are people from all walks of life, income brackets and political leanings. What unifies them is the main artery of Pinners Cove Road, which would be one of two access points for the proposed development; the other would be Chapel Hill Road.
Even though tractor-trailers are not permitted on the road, Durham estimates that one gets stuck on a switchback approximately every 10 days after being led there via GPS systems. “This road gets closed for four and five hours at a time, because it takes volunteers to come help get [them] out,” she says.
At the January Planning Board meeting, many residents also expressed concern about the impact of additional traffic on nearby Mills Gap Road and Sweeten Creek Road. Because the N.C. Department of Transportation has pushed back plans to widen Sweeten Creek Road until 2033, they said, additional cars would only aggravate existing congestion problems.
Others are worried about a lack of sewer infrastructure for the proposed project and the potential for heavy storm runoff from the mountain slope. Pinners Cove resident Susan Van Ness says that despite land conservation and stream restoration work in the area, a bridge on Pinners Cove Road over Robinson Creek often floods during heavy rains. “If the road or bridge are washed out due to flooding, it could potentially eliminate access in and out of this community,” she says.
Those concerns no longer have a dedicated time to be aired before the county Planning Board due to the shift in the developer’s application. Instead, Pinners Cove residents have shifted their focus to Board of Commissioners meetings, where they are raising objections about the county’s subdivision regulations in general. As part of the county’s municipal code, the process to approve major subdivisions can only be changed by the county commissioners.
According to county spokesperson Kassi Day, “The [best] opportunity for the community to effect change would be in the Comprehensive Plan process.” From December through February, she says, the public will have its final opportunity to comment on the draft plan, which will set Buncombe’s strategy for land use and infrastructure over the next 20 years, before it goes to the commissioners.
In the meantime, Say No to Pinners Cove Rezoning will keep speaking out. “A lot of people said, there’s nothing we can do,” Durham says. “Well, I don’t ever buy that.”