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Wednesday, 18 January 2012 14:02

Haywood cuts slope engineer because of construction slowdown

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The construction downturn has led Haywood County to lay off its steep slope engineer, a position created during the heyday of mountainside home building.

The county can no longer justify having an engineer on its payroll to oversee steep slope regulations, according to County Manager Marty Stamey.

“Because of the downturn in the economy and construction and development, there wasn’t enough work to support a fulltime county engineer,” Stamey said.

The county brought an in-house engineer on board in 2007, shortly after passing steep slope building regulations. When the rules were being mulled over and hashed out, the construction and building industry contended that the county would need an engineer to oversee the technical aspects of the ordinance.

But then came the building crash.

“It just tapered off and slowed down so much,” said Mark Shumpert, the former county engineer who has landed a new position with an engineering firm in Greensboro.

Over the past two years, Shumpert estimates fewer than 10 mountainside construction projects have been subject to the county’s steep slope ordinance.

The county engineer isn’t the only one laid off by the county because of the construction slowdown. Fewer homes being built means fewer septic tanks to inspect, fewer building permits to issue, fewer land deed transactions to record, fewer construction sites to monitor for erosion. Nine county employees who interfaced with the building and real estate industry have been laid off over the past three years as a result. In addition, several employees in related departments have seen their work weeks cut to only 36 hours.

As a certified engineer, Shumpert was among the 10 highest paid workers in the county, with an annual salary of $75,000.

The job of overseeing steep slope construction will now fall to Marc Pruett, the head of the erosion control department.

“With Marc’s expertise, I feel very comfortable with his knowledge and staff being able to do it,” Stamey said.

Builders, earth-movers and contractors were nervous at first about working within the guidelines, fearing they would stymie development. That’s not the case anymore, Pruett said.

“I think the grading community and the contracting community has gotten used to it after all these years,” Pruett said.

The standards only kick in when slopes exceed a certain threshold — namely being too tall and too steep. Judging by the number of construction projects that actually meet that threshold, it has proven fairly liberal. Very little mountainside construction exceeds the too-steep or too-tall threshold to trigger the slope ordinance.

“People are building under the threshold,” Pruett said.

In the rare case the ordinance is triggered, it doesn’t make the particular slope off-limits for building. It simply requires the builder or grader to submit a slope plan penned by an engineer or similar professional — intended to make sure the construction is done in a safe way and won’t collapse.

Initially, the theory was that a certified engineer was needed to inspect plans being submitted by builders and their respective engineers.

While it turned out not to be as complicated — or restrictive — as feared by the development industry, it was helpful to have an engineer overseeing the ordinance the first couple years, Shumpert said.

“We ironed out a lot of kinks,” Shumpert said. “It had to be put into effect and worked with.”

Part of Shumpert’s job was simply meeting with developers and builders to explain the regulations.

“A lot of it is an education to let folks know what is acceptable,” Pruett said.

Having an in-house engineer also came in handy when landslides hit, but the county can always hire an engineer on an as-needed basis, Shumpert said. The same holds true if a big mountainside subdivision comes along needing a higher level of critique.

“There are ways around it without having a fulltime person there,” Shumpert said.

There’s likely another reason an in-house engineer didn’t turn out to be such a necessity after all. The steep-slope ordinance was watered down by county commissioners serving at the time of its passage. What was ultimately passed was a weaker version of the rules initially suggested by the county’s planning board, meaning fewer mountainside construction projects actually meet the threshold for slope review.

Over the past year, Shumpert ended up working almost fulltime for the county’s landfill operation. The landfill was being expanded, and Shumpert oversaw the excavations, as well as designing the best configuration for trash deposits.

Pruett said Shumpert was always fair to developers while making sure the ordinance was followed.

“He was a good person to work with. He was a real honest straight up person,” Pruett said.

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