Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Buncombe County Commissioners Facilitate Hazardous Land Development

Red, orange and yellow color-coding show unstable to marginally unstable areas on this Buncombe County landslide susceptibility map.

When Did They Know?

Buncombe County officials were notified in August 2004 that the mountain land under their jurisdiction was geologically hazardous. This was not the first hazard designation for the county.

In 1998 and again in 2004 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management warned in their hazard rating reports that landslides were significant threats to lives and property in the following 21 western counties: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, McDowell, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Surry, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, and Yancey.

In mid-September 2004 Buncombe County along with 14 other western counties were declared federal disaster areas after rain-induced landslides caused loss of life and massive property damage. ( The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $72 million in aid to the state.)

In February 2005 the North Carolina General Assembly authorized landslide surveys for 19 at-risk counties. The Buncombe County "Is it safe to build here" hazard maps were scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2007 but, for unknown reasons, these studies have been delayed.

Landslide maps are intended to restrict or prohibit hazardous land development and they are a critical component of hazard mitigation planning. Simply stated hazard mitigation is defined as sustained actions that serve to protect the public and their property from recurring natural disasters.

Buncombe County Commissioners knew that the pending landslide hazard reports would focus attention on slope construction standards so they tightened the rules. In March 2006 the commissioners passed new regulations but held them in abeyance for three months. During this open-rule window the Cliffs Communities, Inc., along with other developers, submitted permits for mountain slope subdivisions. The Cliffs at High Carolina project now encompasses 3,200 acres and plans for 1,300 homes.

Excerpts from the following article detail the recent history of hazardous land development in Buncombe County.

“Builders rush to beat stricter slope rules” John Boyle, Asheville Citizen-Times, July 2006

If you had any doubt that developers desire mountainside locations for new homes, consider the recent rush of subdivision applications that recently arrived on Buncombe County planners’ desks.

“ Twenty-three subdivision applications came in before the deadline,” said David Young, a Buncombe County Commissioner. Asheville and Buncombe County have been discovered. Real estate in Florida has tanked, and we’re getting a lot of developers coming in from other places wanting to develop our mountains. It scares me to death.”

The new regulations apply to subdivisions with 11 or more lots, and they control density on slopes greater than 25 % and restrict the amount of cleared area on steep lots. County commissioners passed the regulations in March. They went into effect July 1, a deadline some developers wanted to beat because the new rules likely will increase development costs and prevent them from placing homes on some mountainsides.

Among the applicants that came in at the last minute was one for High Carolina, a 592-lot subdivision proposed for 1,284 acres in Swannanoa. The Cliffs Communities Inc., which is developing the high-end Cliffs at Walnut Cove subdivision in southern Buncombe, is the developer.

Cliffs President Jim Anthony acknowledged that his company submitted the application to beat the deadline….

A Flood Of Applications

Debbie Truempy, a planner with Buncombe County, said the Planning Department usually gets three to five subdivision applications for each of its twice-monthly meetings. The 23 applications in question , which comprise 1,713 lots, came in during the last week of June, although Truempy noted that only a dozen of them were new master plans. The remainder were amendments to existing plans.

Some of the subdivisions may never be built. The application and a plan essentially reserve the developer’s right to build the subdivision under pre-July rules.

Brad Galbraith, president of the Asheville Board of Realtors, said the numbers of applications doesn’t surprise him, given the popularity of the Asheville region for retirees and other new residents seeking a beautiful setting and high quality of life. Some developers are moving into the area, but Galbraith said he knows that several of the subdivisions whose applications came in under the deadline have been in the works for a long time.

But even those developers simply trying to beat the deadline make financial sense. Developers are businesspeople, he said, and have to consider the expense of a project, which will affect investors and buyers alike. To not take advantage of the previous rules that could affect the bottom line would be irresponsible.

“It’s not that anybody is trying to rape anything or exploit anything,” Galbraith said. “They’re just trying to make a good business decision and abide by the rules and regulations in place at the time. It’s not something where all the sudden we’re going to get a lot of skyscraper’s"....
Buncombe County's Hazard Mitigation Plan was finalized on August 23, 2004. The report stressed the need for the governing body to be able to "evaluate and strengthen" ordinances in view of ever-changing conditions, such as rapid development, technological change or a natural disaster.

In January 2007 the Buncombe County Environmental Advisory Board issued an admonishment to the Board of Commissioners regarding the absence of Ridge Top/Steep Slope Development regulation. The Board found that:

A clearly defined, comprehensive, countywide plan is needed to adequately manage RT/SSDevelopment in Buncombe County. The costs associated with a comprehensive strategy to protect these irreplaceable assets and to protect the health and safety of our citizens is minimal compared to the costs of doing nothing further. The present condition of allowing increasing waves of unregulated (or loosely regulated) haphazard growth to occur along our mountain ridges and steep slopes has become an untenable position.
It has been almost two years since the advisory board issued their report and yet the Commissioners have failed to enact a hazardous land ordinance.

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