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Jackson planners cut student apartment project slack in slope engineering rules

Developers of a large college student housing complex in Cullowhee got an OK from the Jackson County Planning Board to deviate from engineering rules on man-made slopes. 


The county’s development regulations require benches — akin to small terraces — at regular intervals when excavating hillsides to make the slope more stable. But the rule would pose a hardship for the proposed Western Carolina Apartments, a 200-unit project catering to college students, according to the project’s engineer, John Kinnaird.

Developers plan to carve into a hillside behind the housing project along the Tuckasegee River to create a flat building site. They want to install fewer benches than typically required. Instead, they proposed using a special type of erosion control mat to stabilize the soil.

“We’re trying to get out of disturbing more area,” Kinnaird said.

Per the county’s subdivision ordinance, a 5-foot bench is required every 20 vertical feet. That would mean three benches on the hillside behind the apartments, aimed at preventing slope slippage and erosion.

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Instead, the University Housing Group overseeing construction of the apartments, asked to create only one bench and a drainage ditch about halfway up the 50-foot high slope. Kinnaird said the specialized matting will do the work of the missing benches and keep the slope secure.

He pointed out that the geo-matting his company will be using is heavier duty and more effective than materials used on many slope stabilization projects.

“The track record is very good,” he said. “It’s not the stuff you normally see.”

Kinnaird made his case to the Jackson County Planning Board at a meeting last Thursday.

Anita Oser, a neighbor across the road from the future apartment complex, spoke up at the meeting to express her doubt about the safety of the project and the excavated hillside. She said the north-facing, denuded slope was a recipe for disaster once precipitation, freezing and thawing have their way with it. It also poses a danger for drivers on the adjacent roadway, University Heights Road, she said.

Oser doesn’t like the idea of exceptions being made in ensuring the slope’s soundness, good track record or not.

“I’ve seen a lot of walls that were ‘guaranteed’ slide down,” she said. “It’s a safety factor you know — you can technically have a perfect plan, but from a safety point of view, it might not be that perfect.”

The county approved preliminary plans for Western Carolina Apartments in May. However, when submitting their final plans in August, developers proposed the alternative plan for the hillside.

The Jackson planning board voted unanimously to allow the modifications. The request was deemed a modification rather than a variance, so the issue doesn’t come before the county’s board of adjustment.

Before voting, the planning board members discussed the exception. Board member Clark Lipkin, a surveyor based in Cullowhee, questioned whether the benching requirements are off the mark in general.

“Is our ordinance incorrect in that we are asking for these benches, or is there something special about this site?” Lipkin said. “Are the benching requirements too much?”

Planning Board Chairman Zac Koenig said the county’s rules were set out as a minimum standard, but equally safe alternatives that make use of more sophisticated slope plans should be allowed.

“The benching regulations are there in lieu of more engineering and controls,” said Koenig of Koenig Homebuilders in Cashiers. “These guys are simply replacing their benches with more engineering.”

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