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Improving the science of development

When Bob Brannon saw a newspaper announcement last spring seeking developers to participate in a pilot mapping project, he already had most of the planning for his development, Mountain Watch, in place.


He’d penciled in roads, marked off lot lines and was nearly ready to apply for his permits from the planning office. But the pilot mapping project touted by Haywood Waterways Association intrigued Brannon enough to put his plans on hold and his name in the hat.

“We were doing the traditional thing that developers have done for years, which is putting in roads first and then lotting it off,” Brannon said. “This was a new concept. They do it in reverse.”

Developers usually lay out the road first and then draw their lot lines — house sites are shoehorned in later and driveways are an afterthought. The approach of the Haywood Waterways pilot project was exactly the opposite. Pick the best house sites first, including room for the driveways, then layout the roads and lot lines around them. Sounds simple, but novel nonetheless.

Soil types, slope, proximity to creeks and myriad other factors would be collected during a “boots on the ground” natural resource assessment of the property, then plugged into a high-resolution computer mapping program. The result would be more sustainable slopes, reduced erosion, better house sites and, in all likelihood, both cost savings and higher returns for the developer.

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Judy Coker, the new owner of a 164-acre tract adjacent to her family’s Cataloochee Ranch, also heard about the pilot project and applied. Coker loathed developments with houses hanging off the mountains and ugly scars from over-zealous grading. She hoped participating in the project could set an example.

“We wanted to encourage this sort of thing in the county,” Coker said. “So many of these developers are coming in from out of the area and don’t know the dangers of what they are doing in the mountains. They just aren’t educated to it. If people would take this advice, the developments will be a lot more environmentally sound.”

Brannon and Coker were selected out of nine developers who applied.

“I thought ‘that sounds like a very interesting program’,” said Brannon. “I wanted to put my best foot forward and acquire all the expertise I possibly can.”

Brannon was so impressed by the outcome he redid his original plans.

“It’s a remarkable technology,” Brannon said. “It is the technology of the future and will be more in demand. As soon as developers learn what is available and how to use this tool it will be the future of development in Western North Carolina.”


Drafting the way

The idea behind the pilot project was developed by Gordon Small, a former employee with Haywood Waterways and a long-time volunteer for the organization. Small had long observed poorly planned developments in the mountains — the crumbling roads and slipping foundations, streams decimated by erosion and slopes cut so steep stabilization was hopeless.

In most cases, the environmental and construction nightmares could have been avoided with better planning up front.

“We are coming from a wise-use perspective. We’re saying ‘Hey, we’re going to have development. Let’s do it well,’” Small said.

Haywood County’s subdivision and slope ordinances do nothing to encourage a holistic approach to development planning. They impose marginal limits on the slope of roads and cut-and-fill construction — limits that aren’t even strict enough to prevent major development failures or ensure safety.

“It doesn’t tell you how to relate your development to the resources you are laying on,” Small said.

Small’s ideas was to follow the old “ounce of prevention” adage. The best way to avoid landslides: stay off unstable soils. The best way to avoid run-off: move grading back from the creeks. The best way to avoid erosion: locate house sites and driveways more carefully.

“Normally, developers just laid out the lots and didn’t do any investigation until later,” Small said. “If you draw perpendicular lot boundaries and end up with a lot on a 40 percent slope, you are going to have a fun driveway.”

Small came up with the idea of a pilot project that would put a new approach to work starting with a natural resource assessment of the property.

“The assessment examines what is the suitability of the land. It is not an engineering plan, but the results of the assessment should guide the subsequent design,” Small said. “It’s a different way of doing it. You look at your property with a new perspective.”

The results of the natural resource assessment would be superimposed on a map of the development using 3-D GIS computer modeling. They would offer the work for free to two developers to see whether it worked.

“We wanted to be sure. Do we really add value when we do that and how useful is that GIS model? Is it all smoke and mirrors or is it beneficial?” Small said.

Small had no trouble soliciting partners to help with the pilot project: Pete Kennedy and Blair Bishop, instructors at Haywood Community College, Dwayne Van Hook at the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District and Doug Thomas, a soil scientist at the Natural Resource Conservation Service all agreed to help with the surveys.

The Haywood Community College crew agreed to take the raw data collected on the ground and translate it into the GIS mapping program. The Haywood County commissioners endorsed the project and had the county attorney draft a hold harmless agreement Haywood Waterways could use with the developers.

“To me this is a great example of the strength of Haywood Waterways,” Small said. “This is a project where a lot of people are interested but no one wanted to be the designated spear catcher.”

It also fits with Haywood Waterways mission: clean water. Mud running off construction sites is the number one polluter of creeks and streams. Better placement of house sites and roads could prevent a lot of the mud, Small said.


Raw data, high-tech

For Blair Bishop and Pete Kennedy, GIS instructors at Haywood Community College, the opportunity to find this kind of application for the high-tech systems they teach students about everyday was something they just couldn’t pass up.

“We first got involved in 2004 when Gordon was talking about this concept. It turned into a showcase for global information systems and global positioning as a way of helping with planning and development,” said Bishop.

Much of the data used by Kennedy and Bishop came from government-funded projects. Haywood County’s Land Records office had aerial imaging completed a couple of years ago that mapped the entire county in 5-foot contour lines. The state had also produced detailed imaging of the western counties following the floods of 2004, and that data was also valuable, said Kennedy. In fact, recently completed imaging work make this information available throughout the state, so developers everywhere could be using it.

But to make this project work, the pair had to spend days out on the two tracts, walking the swells and coves, finding out where massive rock formations and small springs might be hidden, noting slope variations on what were originally slated to be single lots. That knowledge, combined with information from soil scientists and the GIS data, gave them a picture of the land that most developers just don’t have.

“We designed roads based on streams, watersheds, slopes, soils, and then drew the parcel lines,” said Kennedy.

“Some sites on the original plans were too steep. What we found was that arbitrary plats often take a lot of extra time and money to make them workable,” said Bishop.

The new recommendations for roads and home sites should require less work to develop and less upkeep, thereby minimizing their impact to habitats and the environment in general, said Kennedy.

During the project, the pair saw that many regulatory authorities unknowingly encourage the wrong type of development.

“Those folks want a plat that they can either accept or deny. We’ve set up a system in many cases that encourages us to do things backwards,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy said the input from the soil scientist was crucial in determining the best home sites. “Certain soils will hold up on steep slopes while others won’t. That is very important in determining the best house sites,” he said.

Bishop said Haywood Community College considers part of its mission to do this kind of outreach, but the amount of time necessary makes it impossible for the instructors to do this on a regular basis.

“This would be a natural job for engineering companies or others to begin offering,” said Kennedy.

The whole concept though — using the latest technology to protect the environment — has an inherent appeal to Bishop. He said it also fits nicely with HCC’s focus on sustainability on-campus and in the community.

“What we’re trying to do here is reduce the impact of development,” said Bishop. “That’s really what conservation is, the wise use of resources.”


Making it work

When Brannon applied for the pilot project, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But he believed in embracing the latest technology and new approaches to old problems — a philosophy he’s lived by his entire life. He is also not a novice to stewardship. He was chairman of the Save Lake Logan committee in the 1990s and served on the board of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

Brannon is the developer behind Brannon Forest, a large development in Jonathan Creek. His latest undertaking, Mountain Watch, sits on 270 acres adjacent to Brannon Forest. Brannon and his father purchased the property in the early 1950s. They farmed the property for years, but that had long since fallen by the wayside.

“I was in a situation with property ownership a lot of people are facing,” Brannon said. “I have a sentimental attachment to the property having grown up with it. I want this property to be treated as properly and kindly as it can be environmentally and make it a place people can enjoy and be satisfied living on. With that background of care, I thought this might be the answer.”

Brannon opened his property to the team of resource surveyors sprouting GPS antennas from their backpacks to plot what they found.

“They analyzed the soil and the rocks and where the road should fit so it has the best grade on the slope and where the soil is the type that will compact the best and prevent erosion,” Brannon said. “They can determine where the rock formations are, which means less blasting and the least amount of soil disturbance. We did a slight back up after that we were so impressed.”

The first phase of Mountain Watch calls for 35 houses on 45 acres. Brannon plans to launch the sales and marketing this summer.

The assessment not only tells you where to locate houses and roads, but where not to. A section of Mountain Watch falls in this category, so Brannon is considering a conservation easement for that portion of the property.

“That’s another benefit. It helps you point out areas that are not productive for development,” Brannon said.

Of course, that’s something some developers might not want to hear — namely those trying to cram too many houses on ill-suited slopes. The result, however, is often lots that don’t sell. The developer would be better off with fewer, better-oriented lots.


Another kind of conservation

The other participant in the pilot project, Judy Coker, is in a different boat, but one increasingly common for mountain landowners. Coker loathes being referred to as a developer. She is a long-time advocate for conservation. She sits on the board of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. She is also a local spokesperson for Land for Tomorrow, an initiative to set aside $1 billion in state money to preserve farmland and create new parks.

She recently bought a 164-acre tract to save it from development, but now must sell off a handful of lots to help pay for it. The tract is adjacent to Cataloochee Ranch, a high-elevation resort above Maggie Valley that’s been in Coker’s family for 70 years. She grew up playing and riding horses on the adjacent tract as if it was part of the Ranch itself. Her family had always hoped to acquire the land and had been granted first-right of refusal. Then one day in 2003, the call came. The owners were ready to sell.

“The Ranch as a corporation didn’t feel they could afford to do this, but I couldn’t stand to see it go,” Coker said. “My children and I decided we’ve got find a way to make this work.”

Despite other suitors eyeing the land for development, the Campbell family who owned the land were willing to sell it to Coker for less due to her intentions to preserve it. Coker planned to place a large part of the property in a conservation easement, and only sell off a few tracts to help pay for the purchase. The tracts that are sold will have strict covenants — from a maximum house size to nighttime lighting restrictions.

Meanwhile, Coker’s son Richard saw an announcement in the paper seeking volunteers for the pilot project. They applied and were selected. Coker was highly impressed with the results.

“They would help me come up with a good way to put in the road, to put in your driveways and locate your home sites. They would locate areas of particular environmental concerns, how to protect your water, where to cross it, where not to cross it, how to find your best views,” Coker said.

The natural resource assessment would also reduce the impact to the land.

“They walked all over the property and found these flats. Every house site is going to be on flat so you don’t have to cut the mountain,” Coker said.

The handful of house sites sold off on the property will be surrounded by a conservation easement with hiking and riding trails. The lots will sell for top dollar, even though they won’t be that big.

“It’s a proven fact when you have a conservation easement that the adjoining land becomes more attractive,” Coker said. “You can get a higher dollar for land beside a conservation easement.”


Where to go from here

Whether it’s a full-scale development like Brannon’s or a landowner looking for a little income by selling a few house sites, the pilot project clearly showed the positive benefits of conducting a natural resource assessment in concert with GIS mapping.

“Everybody recognizes intuitively you really need to look at these things ahead of time so you can avoid bad situations,” Small said.

But will they? If a developer had to pay for the work, Small estimates it would cost $5,000 to $6,000 for a 100-acre development.

“This was a demo project. The question is how do we institutionalize this? How do we take it to the next level?” Small said.

Benefits for developers willing to participate are numerous. For starters, they’ll likely have an easier time navigating county regulations and permits.

But they will also see higher returns. Haywood Waterways is working on a certification program so buyers will know their lot was developed under the natural resource guidelines.

“If I was going to spend my money and I didn’t know zip about living in the mountains I would like to know that professionals had passed judgment on the suitability of a home site,” Small said.

As a developer, Brannon wholeheartedly endorses the project. He suggests Haywood County Home Builders Association host a presentation for its members to learn about the new method.

Brannon also can’t say enough about the team that did the work: Haywood Waterways, Haywood Community College, Haywood Soil and Water and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“We are so blessed in Haywood County to have such highly qualified technical professionals. Throughout this process I‘ve been really impressed with their expertise,” Brannon said. “I’m also pleased with the fact it gave us an insight into the proper aspect of development, which has been needed here in Western North Carolina for a long time.”

Haywood Community College, already renowned for its natural resources program, is one of only two community colleges in the state that offers a degree in GIS. Brannon sees it as a growing field and potential niche for HCC graduates.

“There is a great need for this type of technology training in the construction industry,” Brannon said.

Brannon was so impressed with Haywood Waterways he has now joined the organization’s board of directors. Brannon said he has supported various national conservancy organizations during his lifetime, but called Haywood Waterways one of the “best kept secrets of conservation organizations” right here in our own backyard.

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