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Growth worries prompt Swain to create planning board

Swain County commissioners informally agreed to consider mountainside development regulations at a meeting last Tuesday (July 11) during what amounted to a free-form discussion between commissioners and audience members about growth.

The discussion was prompted by a group of residents who appealed to commissioners to address runaway development on steep slopes.

“The concern of our group is that Swain County appears to have no control of development to inside and outside interests,” said Andre Gunter, who spoke on behalf a group called Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development.

Commissioners will appoint an 11-member planning board in August to write development regulations for the county. The top concerns Gunter listed were the safety of steep, narrow roads, the stability of mountainsides where development is occurring, and the impact hundreds of wells will eventually have on the groundwater table.

But Gunter also spoke about less tangible concerns, like the loss of culture and heritage that is occurring as a result of large-scale development.

“We’re going to lose control of our county if we don’t do something about this,” said Gunter, a resident of Alarka who has deep roots in the area.

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Gunter asked commissioners to appoint a committee to write development guidelines for the county — and in the meantime adopt a moratorium to stop a flood of developers from seeking building permits before the regulations go into effect.

At first, it appeared the commissioners were not going to discuss the issue.

“You do have some legitimate concerns here,” said Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones. “All I can tell you at this time is that we will take it under advisement.”

Discussion seemed to be going nowhere at that point until Commissioner David Monteith piped up.

“So you are asking this board to appoint a committee to look into this?” Monteith asked Gunter.

Gunter said he was not only asking for that, but also a moratorium until guidelines are adopted.

“The builders will rush to get their permits. It will be like shutting the barn door after the horses are already gone,” Gunter said. “These are fast operators.”

Monteith said he shared Gunter’s concerns about the groundwater supply being jeopardized by the volume of development.

“If they come in and drill these wells all over the mountain sides, people’s springs are going to start drying up,” Monteith said.

Chairman Jones questioned the capacity of the ground to absorb all the septic systems being put in.

“Where’s all that sewer going to go when it’s down in the ground?” Jones asked.

Discussion was now on a roll. Commissioner Jeff Waldrop expressed concern over the stability of cut and fill slopes — created by carving out part of the mountain and piling the dirt on the downhill side to create a flat spot. The fill is prone to sliding down the mountain, however, along with whatever is built on top of it.

“The bad thing is half the road is built on fill,” Waldrop said. “If they can’t build a road better than that, they don’t need to be building a road.”

“Not only are the roads going to start kicking out, but the house sites, too,” Monteith said.

Waldrop made a distinction between responsible and irresponsible development.

“I don’t have a problem with a man building a house on his land. I have a problem when they don’t build it right,” Waldrop said. “I think this is something that we need to jump on.”

Gunter pointed out that many development companies are limited liability corporations, witnessed by the LLC tacked on to the end of the company’s name. If a hillside crumbles causing roads and homes to collapse, the developer is insulated by the LLC and can’t be held responsible.

“They can pack up their bags and be gone. We’re talking about millions in damages,” Gunter said.

Earl Jones, an audience member also from the Alarka area, said limited liability corporations that insulate developers and keep them from being held accountable should not be allowed.

Jim Douthit, who is running against Glenn Jones for commissioner chairman in a tight election this fall, was in the audience and also spoke up.

“Everybody has fell in love with the mountains and they want to live here. They want their little piece of heaven,” Douthit said. “What we thought would never be developed is being developed. It’s gotten to the point we’re going to have to protect what we’ve got. It’s not too late to look at steep slope zoning.”

Chairman Jones replied that the issue has not cropped up overnight. Douthit said that is has finally reached a critical mass, however.

“It is an issue that needs to be tackled,” Douthit said.

Douthit said Swain County is not alone. Haywood and Macon counties are currently writing steep slope ordinances. New Jackson County commissioners slated to take office in December expressed a desire to tackle steep slope development during their primary election campaigns. Douthit recommended a commission to adopt steep slope development policies across the region.

“It should be universal so everyone in Western North Carolina knows what’s going on,” Douthit suggested.

Douthit pointed to a slope development ordinance in the town of Waynesville that uses a sliding scale. The steeper the slope, the less land can be disturbed.

“You can have sustainable development,” Douthit said.

Commissioner David Anthony said not too long ago, he could look at Bear Cove without seeing a single light on the side of the mountain. Not so now.

“I think this is something we need to look at,” Anthony said.

Chairman Jones said that they should take their time and do it correctly, however.

Monteith brought up Gunter’s idea of a moratorium on steep slope development in the meantime to stop a flood of construction permits before guidelines take effect.

Chairman Jones questioned whether that was legal.

“We don’t want to cripple the whole county,” Jones said.

“But we want to have a county left when we’re done,” Gunter countered.

In an interview several days after the meeting, County Manager Kevin King said the commissioners have opted not to do a moratorium, citing it as too extreme.

“It is a consensus of the individual board members that they do not want to do that,” King said. It is unclear whether King asked all the commissioners their opinion on a moratorium, or only some of them.

Another round of discussion was prompted over access for emergency vehicles. Developers are building roads that are too narrow and steep for fire trucks and ambulances to get up, commissioners said. Earl Jones of Alarka said it was the county’s responsibility to look out for the safety of citizens and ensure rescue vehicles can get to homes. He said volunteer rescue workers cannot be expected to risk their own safety trying to get vehicles up some of these mountain roads.

An audience member, Ken Jones, compared Bryson City to a town he once lived in Florida.

“It used to be a sleepy little town, but people discovered it just like they are discovering Swain County,” Ken Jones said. “By the year 2000 it was an entire disaster. It was complete uncontrolled growth. I would hate to see that happen here.”

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