Commissioners also delayed implementation of the ordinance until March 1, despite warnings by planning staff who cautioned that a 100-day window could allow an onslaught of building applications by developers before the new rules go into effect.
The thrust of the slope ordinance requires developers to hire an engineer or other certified professional to review their earth moving plans if the work exceeds a certain threshold of height or steepness. That threshold was much tighter in the proposed ordinance than the one commissioners passed.
Commissioners defended the last-minute changes to the ordinance.
“I think we have established an ordinance that still protects the public in preventing slides and erosion, but yet still preserves personal property rights,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “I want to err on the side of being less restrictive.”
Kirkpatrick is a real estate attorney and derives income from developers. He said the ordinance commissioners passed is far more restrictive than the status quo, which is no slope ordinance at all.
“We need to get an ordinance on the books and get started and if we need to make adjustments we can,” said Commissioner Larry Ammons. “It’s not got the teeth it started out with, but it’s got teeth.”
When commissioners passed a subdivision ordinance four years ago regulating the slope and width of roads, they also made last-minute changes that watered down the standards initially proposed by the planning board. The planning board had recommended capping roads at a 20 percent grade, but the commissioners upped it to a 25 percent grade.
At the time, commissioners called it a starting place and said they would revisit it in the future and tighten it up if need be. The commissioners never revisited it, however.
This time will be different, said Commissioner Mary Enloe. Enloe wants a built-in review of the ordinance.
“I’ll see that it is put on the agenda,” Enloe said.
Ammons agreed. Ammons said planning staff should be asked to make reports on how the ordinance is working and any loopholes they encounter.
“We need to monitor it so we can eliminate those,” Ammons said. “If we need to revisit it soon I will be in favor of that.”
Last week, Enloe spent the day riding along with the county soil and erosion control officer Marc Pruett inspecting sediment violations. Enloe said it was an eye-opening experience. She said some developments are being done responsibly, “but most of what I saw was not.”
Enloe said she supported the original slope development ordinance the planning board developed.
“I was prepared to put forward the motion two weeks ago,” Enloe said. “I was pleased with the ordinance. However, I’m sure there was some lobbying done perhaps to make some changes. I don’t have heartburn with the changes, although they are not changes I would have made.”
Commissioner Mark Swanger also indicated he would have passed the version presented by the planning board.
“Do I agree with every single thing in it? No. But you have to compromise to get a toehold and get an ordinance we can analyze and strengthen over the coming years,” Swanger said.
Commissioners’ version of the slope ordinance only kicks in when cut and fill slopes exceed 15 feet in vertical height. Anything less than that does not require an engineer’s approval. That means anyone with keys to a backhoe can make a 14-foot, 11-inch tall vertical cut in the side of a mountain and build a home beneath it with no oversight.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a surveyor, said he personally would not live in a home with a cut of that magnitude behind it. He said he did not think it would be safe. Yet the ordinance passed by commissioners will not protect members of the public from buying such homes.
The county planning board spent six months writing the ordinance, followed by a six-month public comment period. A public hearing on the ordinance was held last month. The ordinance that was passed is not the same ordinance represented to the public for comment, however.