Why I can’t support the Woodfin de-annexation request

Eric Edgerton


As has been widely reported, the Town of Woodfin has spent the last six months engaged in a dialogue with its residents living on the west side of the French Broad River. These residents have been gracious enough with their time to meet with Woodfin Town Council members, both one-on-one and in a large-scale, well-attended listening session. Given the length to which these residents have gone to communicate with the town, I feel it is my obligation to take the time to explain in detail exactly why I cannot support the current request to de-annex from the Town of Woodfin and will be voting against that request at the town’s meeting on April 16.

Beginning with stormwater

To fully understand the conclusion I have ultimately reached on this issue, one must first be familiar with how the last six months of conversation originally came about. For roughly two months before the notion of de-annexation was ever raised, this was a disagreement about the Town of Woodfin’s stormwater utility fee, which was implemented for the first time in 2023. When the lead organizer for the west-of-the-river property owners, Chip Parton, first came to speak to Council in September 2023, it was solely for the purpose of expressing outrage about the creation of the stormwater fee. Mr. Parton’s remarks remain viewable on the archived stream for the town’s Sept. 19 meeting.

At the town’s next monthly meeting on Oct. 17, it heard from a speaker who referenced a petition that expressed disapproval of the stormwater fee, which apparently had 250 signatures as of that date. In response, that speaker and Mr. Parton, who was in attendance, received an explanation both as to why the town’s stormwater fee had to be created and why it was structured the way it is. That explanation bears repeating here.

Why a stormwater fee?

The Town of Woodfin is a permit holder under the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (aka MS4) program, which is a component of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Under the terms of the town’s MS4 permit, it is required to: (1) regulate stormwater runoff created by development; (2) employ staff members tasked with detecting and investigating instances of pollutants being discharged into waterways; (3) develop and administer an educational program designed to inform the community about the best practices for avoiding water pollution; and (4) construct and maintain stormwater infrastructure within the town’s jurisdictional limits. Despite the significant obligations placed upon the town under its MS4 permit, it receives no money in exchange for implementing and complying with this aspect of the Clean Water Act. It is a classic example of the types of unfunded mandates that are often placed upon local governments like Woodfin.

In recognition of this reality, the N.C. General Assembly has, in General Statute § 160A-314 (a1), expressly authorized local governments to assess and collect a stormwater fee from property owners within their jurisdictions. Despite having held its MS4 permit for more than 30 years, Woodfin did not begin to collect the fee authorized by the statute until 2023, which makes this a change that requires some additional explanation.

The decision to begin collecting a stormwater fee was made because, prior to 2019 and 2020, Woodfin had essentially just gotten away with not satisfying the mandatory obligations of its MS4 permit. Upon realizing that the town had historically failed to meet its obligations under this permit, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality began to fine the town, with the first fine issued in 2020 for over $13,000. If the town continued to fail to meet its permit obligations, the DEQ fines could have increased to $25,000 for each day that the town remained out of compliance.

That is the factual reality that forced the town to decide whether it would begin to assess a stormwater utility fee under the law. This was not a question of: “Should we start spending money on stormwater issues out of the blue?” The choice was whether to actually fund the program needed to meet the town’s legal obligations under its MS4 permit or to continue paying fines to DEQ, which would likely exceed the total cost of a stormwater program. Of the decisions that local governments have to make, that of deciding to actually fund a program designed to improve water quality in Woodfin, rather than paying fines to DEQ, was an easy call.

Designed to be equitable

The only other thing you need to know about Woodfin’s stormwater fee is that it was designed through an enormous amount of deliberation and research to be as equitable as possible. The Woodfin Town Council discussed the design of the stormwater fee in no fewer than half a dozen separate meetings that were publicly advertised and livestreamed in 2023. The result of those meetings and the research done by town staff is a fee structure that minimizes the impact on residential property owners.

By basing the fee on the amount of impervious surface a property owner has, we were able to ensure that large commercial properties pay their fair share, thus alleviating the burden on homeowners. What this means is that for commercial or industrial properties that are almost completely covered with impervious surfaces, their stormwater bills are orders of magnitude beyond that which any individual residential property owner is asked to pay. In real numbers, the Ipex (formerly Silver-Line) plastic plant, situated between Riverside Drive and the French Broad River, has over 1 million square feet of impervious surface, which results in an annual stormwater fee of $22,165. The vast majority of residential properties are billed either $3.42 or $8.10 per month, depending on size.

To date, I have not heard a single argument that the design of Woodfin’s stormwater fee is in any way flawed. Rather, the anger directed toward it is motivated entirely by its existence, not its structure. That is a testament to the Herculean efforts that the Woodfin staff and Town Council put in over five months and at least six meetings to thoughtfully craft a stormwater fee that would both allow the town to meet its MS4 obligations and put the smallest possible burden on residential property owners.

Community pivots to other complaints

The foregoing summary of the reasons why Woodfin was required to implement its stormwater fee and the way Town Council took pains to minimize the burden on residential property owners is virtually the exact same explanation that was given to Mr. Parton and other members of the public at Woodfin Town Council’s meeting on Oct. 17. To his genuine credit, Mr. Parton appears to have quickly realized that railing against the stormwater fee was unlikely to go anywhere, given the legal realities surrounding the town’s MS4 permit (as shown by the creation of the Woodfin De-annexation Efforts page on Facebook four days later). From that point on, no more mention has been made of the petition regarding the stormwater fee specifically. Instead, a petition has been advanced asking for the de-annexation of a large portion of property west of the French Broad River from the Town of Woodfin.

The two principal arguments that I have heard raised in favor of de-annexation are: (1) that Woodfin does not provide the same level of services to the community west of the river as it does that to the east; and (2) that Woodfin zoning regulations are more onerous than those that the community would be subject to if it was to again become a portion of the unincorporated county. On the first point, there has been some apparent confusion over what services the Town of Woodfin does or does not offer. The Town of Woodfin does not own a water system, nor does it own a sanitary sewer system. The town does not have a fire department. Fire, water and sewer services are not offered by the Town of Woodfin to any resident, regardless of whether they are located to the west or the east of the French Broad River.

Notwithstanding that factual reality, it further appears that many members of the community at issue are simply uninterested in the issue of town services. At our meeting on Feb. 1, state Sen. Julie Mayfield asked the crowd present whether they would still wish to de-annex if the town could somehow obtain water and sewer services for them. From my vantage point at the front of the room, I observed roughly 90% of the gathered crowd indicate clearly and emphatically that they would still wish to leave the town. That response strongly suggests to me that the motivation for de-annexation is something other than the issue of services provided.

On the issue of Woodfin’s zoning regulations, I have much happier news to report. We heard from the community that their two principal concerns about Woodfin ordinances are that they limit the availability for manufactured housing and that they can be enforced as a criminal misdemeanor. At its meeting on March 19, Woodfin passed updated ordinances that will make it substantially easier to utilize manufactured housing on properties west of the French Broad River. It further did away with the possibility of having many of its ordinances be enforced criminally. These changes were made specifically based on the feedback we heard from the community on the issue.

What comes next

Now the question becomes where we go from here. I would never be willing to contemplate endorsing a de-annexation request that is motivated by a dislike for the town’s stormwater fee. I know exactly how well that fee was designed, and simple anger at its existence is, as a matter of public policy, something that I reject. In voting to subject all property owners in the Town of Woodfin to a new stormwater fee, myself included, I was motivated not simply by the desire to avoid DEQ fines and meet the basic legal requirements of the town’s MS4 permit, but further by my agreement with the mission of the town’s MS4 program. That mission is to protect and improve the water quality of the French Broad River and its tributaries. Disagreement with assessing a fee to pursue that mission is not a basis upon which I would ever entertain a request for de-annexation.

Notwithstanding that reality, the town is actively attempting to leverage the attention garnered by the de-annexation efforts to obtain changes in state law that would allow it to lower the amount of stormwater fees in Woodfin. Specifically, at its meeting on March 19, the Town Council unanimously approved a resolution calling on the General Assembly to add it to the list of municipalities that, under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A‑314 (a1)(4), are able to include their stormwater fees on property owners’ annual tax bills. Because Woodfin currently has to account for a higher rate of nonpayment because its stormwater fees go out on standalone bills, this one legislative change would immediately allow it to cut its stormwater rates by 15% if approved by the General Assembly.

Turning to the separate arguments that were raised after members of the community heard the explanation surrounding the town’s MS4 permit — a perceived disparity of services and unfair zoning regulations — I am similarly unable to find a basis upon which to support a request for de-annexation. I heard loud and clear from the community at issue that most would still request de-annexation regardless of whether there was a means to extend water and sewer services to their region. Add that to the fact that the town literally does not offer water and sewer services to any of its residents, I am unable to see how this issue could possibly justify de-annexation.

Finally, with respect to zoning, I have a promise to make to Woodfin residents west of the river. We heard your requests for changes to our zoning code, considered whether they are reasonable as a matter of public policy and, after concluding that they were, drove through changes to our zoning code to implement the exact changes you asked for. That responsiveness is not going to be an anomaly. I and my fellow members of Council remain committed to taking up any and all legislative changes requested by the community that we find to be warranted by sound public policy.

In short, although I cannot support this de-annexation request based on the public policy considerations discussed above, I remain committed to listening and responding to any future requests the community may have. And if there is ever a future instance in which I cannot agree to the request of this particular community, I promise to do exactly what I have done in relation to the current de-annexation request — engage with you civilly and provide you with a detailed and complete explanation of why I cannot agree with your position. That is, of course, not going to satisfy many of you, but it will remain my commitment nonetheless.

Eric Edgerton is a member of the Woodfin Town Council.


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3 thoughts on “Why I can’t support the Woodfin de-annexation request

  1. bill wilson

    It is pleasure to see a complex issue condensed down to a single line item. The real story behind the storm water should be completely addressed. This charge can be apart of everyone’s town tax bill period, but the wealthy would pay a much larger part of the bill and the 501C would be charged nothing. As for thee nitre fee/tax wording is everything. The SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
    No. 21–454. Argued October 3, 2022—Decided May 25, 2023
    May end this overreach by the EPA and the state only requires this of Urban areas of 50,000 and above but I could be wrong. The Town of Woodfin did pass a ethics ruling on it counsel members. The by line “BY ERIC EDGERTON” he is a woodfin counsel member and on Asheville’s payroll as a zoning attorney and should be a US Bar card holder giving him the title of JD. It would be nice to know the storm water system will forever remain under the complete control of the town so the MSD problem never happens again.

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