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News Planning Board scrutinizing steep slope development ordinance

The workgroup tasked with drafting an ordinance regulating slope development in Macon County has completed the technical content of the proposed statute. At a meeting last Thursday, members of the workgroup presented the proposed ordinance to the county planning board, which will now review the document before sending it on to the county’s board of commissioners for consideration.

The workgroup, a sub-committee of the planning board, has been studying the issue of slope development regulation for almost two years. After a joint meeting in February, commissioners directed the planning board to make drafting the ordinance one of the top priorities for the year.

At last week’s meeting, Dr. Ed Haight, presented the technical aspects of the ordinance. Haight, a semi-retired engineer who has dealt extensively with earth movement cases, noted that the first step in drafting the regulations was to look at other ordinances in Western North Carolina. He said the the workgroup consulted similar ordinances in Haywood, Jackson, and Buncombe counties, the city of Asheville, as well as White County in North Georgia.

Design professional servicesThe following are estimated costs associated with services of design pofessionals that would be necessary for compliance with the slope development ordinance being proposed. The slope development workgroup presented the quotes to the planning board at last Thursday's meeting. The design firm Greem Solutions of Franklin and consulting engineer Michael Wagner helped develop the estimates.
Hazard map investigation: $200 per acre (up to $500 for 50 acres)
On site investigation: $600 per acre (up to $3,600 for 50 acres)
Comprehensive professional design for steepest slopes: $2,100 per acre (up to $14,900 for 50 acres)

“Going through those, we tried to take the good and get rid of the bad,” said Haight of the drafting process.

The ordinance first outlines general requirements on proposed land-disturbing activities on all sites in the county, Haight explained. After complying with general requirements, the sites would be placed into one of four categories under the ordinance. In some cases, the developer would be required to hire a licensed and insured design professional for testing, planning and inspections of land disturbing activities on the site.

Haight noted that satellite maps generated for the North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program and slope movement hazard maps created by the North Carolina Geological Survey would be used for slope estimations and determining the category of the site. Haight went on to explain the definitions and requirements for each category.

Category 1, covering 0-30 percent slopes (0- 16.7 degrees), would entail no actions after meeting the general requirements. Category 2, covering slopes greater than 30 percent but less than or equal to 40 percent (21.8 degrees), could require a design professional. For the steepest sites (greater than 40 percent), Category 3 would require the services and ultimate certification of a design professional.

The final category, Category 4, would not be dependent on the magnitude of the slope, but would entail those sites which lie in a High or Moderate downslope hazard area on the NCGS Downslope Hazard Map. Such sites, while they may have minimal or negligible slopes, could be in the path of hazardous debris flows, explained Haight. In this category, a design professional would be required to prepare plans and specifications and to consult on locating development activities in the safest area of the site.

“There’s not a single word in this proposal that says you can’t build on some site,” remarked Haight at the conclusion of his presentation. “This proposal gives a way to build on every single site in Macon County if one can engage a design professional to advise how to do it and who is willing to put a stamp on it and say it can be done.”

Slope Development Committee member Stacey Guffey, a former county planner who consults on environmental issues, estimated that more than 500 volunteer hours over the course of almost two years have been put into the development of the ordinance so far. In the course of its research, the committee held numerous public meetings and tried to hear from as diverse a group a people as possible.

“We heard from property owners, engineers, geologists, hydrologists, developers, fire and rescue personnel, homebuilders, among many other professions, including two engineers with Ph.D.s familiar with geotechnical engineering and who have worked on cases involving earth movement,” Guffey said.

Guffey noted that in the last five years, 29 structures and one life were lost due to landslides on slopes altered by development in Western North Carolina. In Macon County, 165 landslides have been identified. Fifty-six percent of those were on modified slopes, said Guffey.

“Slope movements that are caused by poor development practices can put people both upslope and downslope at risk,” said Guffey, explaining the core reasons the committee believed an ordinances is necessary. He added that such practices put rescue workers at risk, violate the private property rights of neighboring property owners and place a financial burden on taxpayers as well as burdening banks.

In addition, said Guffey, sub-par slope development practices have the potential of diverting investment away from the county and depressing real estate sales. Guffey also noted that the lack of regulation in the county fosters a litigious environment “where people are involved in lawsuits over the way roads were constructed, the way house sites were constructed, neighbors who’ve got things moving off their property onto other property owners.”

“We believe we are presenting a proposal that is fair, that’s technically and scientifically based, and which will help promote public safety and minimize property damage, without being unduly burdensome on the citizens of Macon County,” said Al Slagle who heads the slope development committee.

Planning board member Susan Ervin, who also serves on the committee, remarked that the workgroup has proposed an extremely moderate ordinance compared to what is seen in some communities. “In fact, there will be a lot of people disappointed at some of the things they might have wanted to see [that are not included],” Ervin told the board.

Ervin listed the many aspects of slope development, including stronger environmental provisions, aesthetic regulations, and other issues that the committee chose not to address. “We chose to focus on simply saying that if you’re going to disturb an area that has a tendency to be destabilized, then do it safely. That’s all this ordinance says.”

Ervin also remarked that before the current economic downturn, development patterns had been changing radically over the course of a decade or more. “We hit a real slowdown, but buildings were being built in places and ways that they never had before,” she explained. Referring to the now infamous case of slope failure on the Wildflower subdivision in Macon County, Ervin asked the board to consider what would have happened if the mostly deserted development had been built out at the time.

“A lot of us saw this as an opportune interval to take a look and try to make sure that what is done is done safely because we see it as a growing problem, and something that is going to be much bigger in the future than it has in the past,” said Ervin.

Ordinance overkill?

After the presentation, members of the planning board asked questions and discussed their impressions of the proposed ordinance. Reflecting the controversy that has surrounded the ordinance in the community, not everyone on the board is convinced that such an ordinance is necessary for the county, and some remain steadfastly opposed to the idea.

“As a property owner, it scares me to death,” said planning board member Lamar Sprinkle. “I think it’s way overkill.”

Sprinkle said he would support an ordinance that would cover road standards, but that he did not see evidence of a problem in Macon County that would warrant the extent of regulations proposed by the ordinance and the associated costs. “You’re talking about adding a lot of cost for people building a house. Instead of discouraging people from coming here and building houses, we ought to be trying to encourage people to come here and build houses.”

While acknowledging that the 2007 Peeks Creek slide in which one resident died was devastating, Sprinkle said such events are a unique phenomena. “That’s probably never going to happen again,” said Sprinkle. “Does the county have a obligation to protect people from themselves?”

“What about protecting them from their neighbors?” responded planning board member Mark West.

Others on the planning board also questioned Sprinkle’s assumption that the ordinance would discourage development in the county. According to county planner Derek Roland, statistics from other counties that have had similar ordinances seem to indicate that the ordinances did not negatively impact development. Citing one example, Roland noted that Buncombe County incorporated slope development standards into its subdivision ordinance in 2003 and still saw an increase of 13 percent in permits issue over the next three years.

“What we’re asking for is a small investment and a small amount of rules to protect people’s lives and property,” said Guffey, who presented estimated costs that would be associated with the ordinance.

Jenny Sanders, Executive Director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, who attended the meeting, later commented on the fact that only one person is known to have been killed due to slope failure in Macon County. “Is one not enough?” she asked. “I think what they’ve outlined is very reasonable, innovative and there’s nothing like it anywhere else, and all it requires of people is to stop, use common sense, and take the tools that are available and apply them to your decision making,” Sanders said of the proposed ordinance.

The planning board scheduled a continuation meeting to review the technical recommendations of the ordinance on June 16.

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