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Steep-slope ordinance slides out of reach

The likelihood of Macon County imposing development guidelines for houses and roads on steep mountainsides grew increasingly remote after the planning board, embroiled for months in a series of heated debates over the matter, tabled the proposed ordinance last week.

“We’re a hung jury, basically,” Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland, in a fish-or-cut-bait moment, told the 10 members of the 13-member board who attended last week’s meeting.

Penland attempted to salvage at least a portion of the work done over the past two years by the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. He convinced the planning board to drop work on the proposed steep-slope ordinance, and instead work on general construction standards. Penland said the planning board would return to the steep-slope ordinance at a later date, but did not indicate whether that would be in six months, six years or 60 years from now.

The construction standards would govern dirt-disturbing activities, such as road building and house-pad building, by dictating how steep cut-and-fill slopes can be or ensuring house pads are properly compacted before foundations get poured. Macon County has had a number of poorly designed and built roads that have simply washed away or fallen off mountainsides in recent years.

The construction standards would still go a long way toward improving building practices. They date back to the steep-slope subcommittee, intended as a mere baseline for developing a set of more comprehensive steep-slope rules. Now, they might represent the sum total of what the planning board members can find common ground on when it comes to the steep-slope debate.

After an hour-and-a-half discussion, the planning board unanimously agreed with Penland’s recommendation to table the ordinance and study general construction guidelines — with the exception of surveyor Lamar Sprinkle, a vocal opponent of any suggestion raised at the planning board meetings. He abstained from voting.

The construction standards, if adopted by the planning board and then by the Macon County Board of Commissioners, would become part of the already-existing soil erosion ordinance. The construction standards — unlike the steep-slope ordinance — don’t touch on controversial slope percentages or landslide-hazard maps.

Al Slagle, who served as chairman of the steep-slope subcommittee, endorsed Penland’s compromise suggestion but had his say about the matter first.

“What we came up with is squarely in the middle,” Slagle said of the subcommittee’s original recommendations. “It’s something that protects property rights, and the same time it’s efficient and as easy to use as possible — something that places the least possible burden on property owners.”

Susan Ervin, who like Slagle served on the subcommittee, also backed Penland’s compromise. She, too, defended the entire steep slope ordinance, defining it as “a very moderate proposal that limited the scope to the most critical aspects of slope development.”

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, liaison for the commission board to the planning board, endorsed Penland’s suggestion, saying he believes construction standards would help solve development nightmares in Macon County.

He pointed to two particular recent construction projects that utilized questionable development practices: Wildflower subdivision off U.S. 441 and Blossomtown Road, above Ruby Cinemas.

“Can these be solved by construction standards? Yes, I think they can,” Kuppers said, adding he’d take the matter up with the full board of commissioners in a meeting this week.

Sprinkle, however, issued a flat contradiction of the expert opinion of others who have surveyed the landslides and building issues in the 2,200-acre Wildflower subdivision, defending the development. He said people just weren’t mentioning all the good roads built there, but were concentrating on the ones that had actually fallen off the mountains.

“There are some problem places, but most of those roads are all right,” Sprinkle said.

His assertion was greeted with astonishment by other board members, including Slagle, who said he totally disagreed with Sprinkle.

“There are a tremendous number of those fill slopes that are failing,” Slagle said.


How did we get here from there?

By homing in on general construction standards instead of an overarching steep-sleep ordinance, Macon County Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland steered his rickety planning-board ship away from two points it was foundering on. One was how steep a slope had to be before it would trigger safety regulations. The other was how to incorporate the landslide hazard maps.

The state started mapping the probability of landslides in the state’s mountainous counties following the Peeks Creek disaster in Macon County in 2004, when five people were killed and 15 houses were destroyed. While experts agreed the Peeks Creek landslide was a natural occurrence triggered by excessive rainfall, the event laid bare a fundamental, and haunting, safety question for local governments: should people be discouraged from building in areas identified as hazardous?

Only Macon, Watauga and Buncombe counties had maps completed before the GOP-led General Assembly this year cut the project.

Macon’s steep slope debate mired in details

In a somewhat surreal meeting last week of Macon County’s planning board, progress on developing regulations for steep slopes were stymied by turn-of-the screw technical discussions and semantic stumbling blocks.

The accuracy of GIS maps, the accuracy of the state’s landslide hazard maps and the meaning of the word “may” dominated the two-hour long meeting. Sorting through the debris, the biggest sticking point on developing a steep-slope ordinance for Macon County is, at least for now, planning board members’ ability to define an “influence zone.”

An influence zone, in theory, means that what you do on your land could be regulated if it impacts or threatens your neighbors.

More technically, and as debated for at least 30 minutes, an influence zone would be any area that “may be subjected to the effects of earth movement” from construction on another piece of property.

“The influence zone completely scares me to death,” Planning Board member Jimmy Goodman informed his fellow members.

Goodman’s fears, however, were expressed well into the discussion, long after the debate started over the meaning of the word “may,” at least as used in this context. Planning Board member Larry Stenger questioned why use “may” — instead just use “shall.”

But the larger question is what happens once the influence zone is determined, in otherwords what regulations would then be triggered?

Ed Haight, a steep-slope subcommittee member, directed the group to another section of the proposal. Essentially, tougher regulations apply if the “influence zone” of a construction site is on a slope greater than 40 percent or a high landslide hazard area — even if the construction site itself doesn’t fall within that treshhold.

If your land lies in the high landslide hazard area or on a slope greater than 40 percent — or apparently if any work on your property “may” impact other property that is — the property owner must consult an engineer or other “design professional” before building.

For property-rights advocates such as Goodman and fellow planning board member Lamar Sprinkle, a local surveyor, such government regulation clearly seemed intrusive. What wasn’t clear is whether the two men were trying to deliberately sandbag the debate over steep-slope regulations by raising tangential issues, at best.

Sprinkle, in an out-of-left-field kind of way that seemed to raise the hackles of longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, among others, veered from Stenger’s concern over the word “may” into questioning the use of county GIS maps to determine property lines when it comes to a proposed steep slope ordinance.

“If you look at the GIS maps, that property line may not be accurately marked,” Sprinkle said.

“What is the point?” Ervin asked.

“If you are going to say what he’s got to do by the line of that map, and it ain’t right,” Sprinkle said, trailing off before Goodman jumped in.

“He (the presumed male hypothetical builder) may have to do geological work on someone else’s land,” Goodman finished.

“Not at all,” Ervin said.

“We’re just trying to do a site plan based on the GIS,” planning board member Al Slagle tried to interject. “It’s a preliminary way to look at it and hold the cost down for the property owner.”

“If that map is wrong, what are you going to do about that?” Sprinkle said.

Ervin asked what his point was, again, and Haight noted the process was “just a screening tool.” He might as well have thrown a pebble in to dam the flooding Mississippi River.

“I’m not arguing,” Sprinkle said before doing just that. “Have you ever been back in the mountains?”

“Yes, Lamar, I have been back in the mountains. Lamar, please tell us what is your point?” Ervin said.

“I’m telling you that if you are telling that man (the hypothetical male builder) that he has to do something based on those maps …” Sprinkle said before his conversation drifted off, then was interrupted by Slagle: “If it’s wrong, he’ll have an option to go to an administrator if he wants to appeal it, and he’ll have an appeals process,” Slagle said. “It is the same in any ordinance.”

Sprinkle, still undeterred, unabashed and unapologetic, then wanted to know about slope percentages in the event the GIS map lines were wrong.

“I’m thinking of all the difficulty a man’s going to have getting a building permit,” Sprinkle said. “Those maps are overlays … and a lot of them are grossly wrong, with lines running through houses.”

Haight asked how frequently that type of error actually does occur.

“You could come down to my office and stay there for about a year and see what I’ve seen,” Sprinkle suggested.

“Well, we’re moving on now,” planning board head Lewis Penland said, but to no avail. His board members weren’t done with the influence zone.

“I get worried when I see the word ‘may,’” Stenger said again, bringing the conversation full circle.

Lawyers for the county, Penland suggested, would work out such technicalities as “may” versus “shall,” and the debate eventually fizzled out without immediate resolution.

The planning board did manage to go completely through a list of definitions for the proposed steep slope regulation. Board members said they want commissioners to let them know if they want an actual draft ordinance written or not.

“I don’t want to sit here and waste my time writing an ordinance if it’s going to be shot down,” Slagle said, adding that was one point he and Sprinkle (who by then had left for another appointment) could agree on.

The planning board is set to meet again July 21 at 5 p.m. to discuss whether they are for or against individual sections of the proposed regulations.

Macon steep-slope ordinance inches forward

Macon County’s commissioners want their planning board, if possible, to finish up work on a steep-slope ordinance by August.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers last week also asked planning board members not to give up on the proposed ordinance, but to see it through as commissioners had requested.

“Let’s finish the conversation,” Kuppers, who serves as the county commissioner liaison to the planning board, urged members.

This after what Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland wearily described as a long few weeks, in which members have drawn the ire and criticism of local anti-planning advocates. Coupled with less than enthusiastic support of even the concept of a steep-slope ordinance from some of its own members, there have been difficult times, he said.

The steep-slope subcommittee presented its recommendations to the full planning board May 19.

“We need to finish this document,” Penland said. “If we don’t, then two years worth of work (by the subcommittee) would have been in vain.”

The previous board of commissioners sanctioned the creation of a steep slope ordinance and even signed off on guiding principles developed by the committee. But two of the five commissioners are new to the board of commissioners since the last election, Republican Ron Haven and Republican Kevin Corbin.

Corbin said it’s too soon to speak on whether he will support a steep-slope ordinance.

“They have not presented us with anything – it’s still with the planning board, so there’s nothing to approve or disapprove at this point,” he said this week. “They’ve got to go through the process on what the planning board actually wants to present.”

Haven could not be reached for comment before press time.

During the planning board’s meeting in May, member Lamar Sprinkle said of the proposed ordinance, “as a private property owner this scares me to death.”

He added that while he felt that road standards did need to be addressed, there was simply no need to go to the level of detail contained in the proposed ordinance.

Sprinkle, a local surveyor, said he felt the recommendations would “be a detriment to development” in Macon County.

Penland urged members, including Sprinkle, to set aside for-and-against feelings and concentrate on the task at hand — a line-by-line, technical review of the recommendations.

“There’s a time and a place for the other discussions, and we’ll have those,” Penland said.

The planning board reviewed basic definitions contained in the proposed ordinance, and discussed the finer points of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a device similar to Radar that can be used for slope measurements. Members also began discussing the slope thresholds used in the proposed ordinance.


Points from Macon County’s draft ordinance

• Regulations vary, with rules becoming stricter as slopes get steeper. Certain rules would apply everywhere regardless of slope.

• The draft makes use of landslide hazard maps prepared by the N.C. Geological Survey. Areas at risk of landslides must comply with stricter parts of the ordinance even if their slope is not terribly steep.

• The proposed ordinance establishes an “influence zone” that includes both on-site and off-site land that might be influenced by land-disturbing activities. At a minimum, the influence includes the “grading envelope” plus an area defined by a line located 35 feet beyond the grading envelope.

• A design professional, typically an engineer, is only required or the steepest or potentially most hazardous sites.

• The proposed ordinance does not contain any language that precludes building on any site in Macon County, no matter how steep or potentially hazardous it may be.


Crafting a sliding scale

Basic rules would apply to every building site in the county, regardless of how steep the slope is. Those include:

• Graded or structurally stabilized slopes cannot be higher than 30 feet.

• Fill slopes must have a minimum compaction of 92 percent standard proctor density and must be benched.

More stringent measures are required on the highest risk sites. Construction sites are placed into one of four categories, three of them dependent on how steep the slope is, and one dependent on the landslide risk.

• The least steep slopes or no slope at all — less than or equal to 30 percent — are only required to comply with the general requirements. No additional action required.

• Intermediately steep sites — having slopes greater than 30 percent but less than 40 percent — may be approved by the county slope administrator as submitted if they meet certain conditions.

• The steepest sites — with slopes greater than 40 percent — require the services of a design professional such as an engineer to prepare plans, specifications and a written report for development of the site.

• Sites classified with moderate to high risk on the state landslide hazard map even though they may have minimal slopes, may be in the path of hazardous debris flows. These sites also require the services of a design professional.

Missing maps provoke discussion at Macon steep-slope meeting

No one could specify exactly who made the decision to remove the maps or when precisely that occurred, but some members of a Macon group studying steep-slope safety want them returned to the county’s website.

The taxpayer-funded Slope Movement Hazard maps were prepared by the N.C. Geological Survey to highlight potential landslide-danger spots. They were taken down without warning from the county’s website “a few months ago,” according to members of the county’s steep-slope subcommittee. The maps remain available through the state’s website for those willing to go in search of them.

View the maps online

This, however, is not particularly helpful to a majority of Macon County residents, area real-estate agents and people considering buying property in the county, said Stacy Guffey, a member of the steep-slope subcommittee and former Macon County planner.

Guffey said he believes people should be able to tap into county-related information (landslide potential, flood dangers and so on) in one easy-to-find location. Subcommittee Chairman Al Slagle agreed, but backed off forwarding the suggestion to the planning board after two subcommittee members — who sell real estate professionally — opposed the idea. Reggie Holland and John Becker explained they believe the maps cause more harm than good. This, they said, because the maps lack meaningful context for laypersons trying to interpret trained scientists’ work.

Additionally, the men raised questions about liability. Lewis Penland, chairman of the planning board and a professional golf-course designer, tried to assuage their fears. He said his understanding is that a real-estate agent’s responsibility ends with directing prospective buyers toward qualified experts. Penland added, however, that attempts to have this interpretation rendered in the form of an actual stand-up-in-court legal opinion hasn’t proven successful.

Slagle, saying he wanted consensus, promised the matter would be discussed again later. Guffey endorsed Slagle’s call for a harmonious resolution and postponement of the discussion, perhaps because there hasn’t been too much getting-along-together-even-when-we-disagree happening these days in Macon County.


Don’t live in Macon, so why should you care?

Good question, but there’s an equally good answer: because the ramifications of what’s taking place in Macon resonates in other Western North Carolina counties. Voters’ decision during the mid-term elections to hand control of state and county governments to Republicans and GOP-backed Independent candidates means land planning, if it occurs at all, is likely to look very different.

The fight for now is taking place in Macon County. Tomorrow, it might well erupt in Jackson, or some other WNC county.

Here’s what happened in Macon County: the county planning board appoints the steep-slope subcommittee. The planning board, in turn, is appointed by Macon County’s Board of Commissioners. The board of commissions fractured internally and came under intense fire recently for placing, in a 3-2 vote, an anti-planning advocate  — Jimmy Goodman — on the planning board in place of Subcommittee Chairman Slagle.

Goodman helped found the Tea Party chapter Freedom Works, and won no small favor among some in Macon County with his arguments that the planning board he now serves on should take a hiatus. Goodman was previously a member of the planning board. He was not reappointed because other members wanted Goodman removed from the board for what they deemed obstructive behavior. At least that’s how Democrat Commissioner Ronnie Beale described the problem. And it was Beale who found himself unexpectedly on the losing side when the aforementioned 3-2 decision came about.

Goodman, for his part, told The Smoky Mountain News he has every intention of working hard on the planning board. And that he doesn’t want to get involved in politics. Though, as a point of fact, Goodman of his own accord recently became deeply enmeshed in politics — the professional cabinetmaker ran an unsuccessful campaign against Republican Jim Davis, a Franklin resident, in the May primaries. The two men were vying for a state Senate seat.

Not confused enough yet by these internecine political plays? Here’s one more important point: Davis, a Macon County commissioner, ultimately ousted John Snow, D-Murphy, for the 50th Senate District seat. Perhaps as a consolation prize for Goodman and in a gesture toward Macon County Republican Party unity, Davis, in nearly his last act as a commissioner, seconded the nomination for Goodman to be placed on the county planning board.


What purposes the maps might serve

The steep-slope committee headed by Slagle has been working on a set of proposed regulations since June 2009.

Macon County in 1994 experienced a massive debris flow in the Peeks Creek community. Five people died. This was a natural, not man-created event — though in saying that, one must overlook the truth that this obliterated portion of the community was built where the more than two-mile long debris flow did actually occur.

Additionally, Macon County has been the site of several landslides that have been blamed on improper road construction and inappropriate building sites or techniques.

Would the currently available geological maps have helped? That’s probably an unanswerable question. But these are precisely the type situations the maps might help prevent in the future — plus, they could serve to warn where it might be best to avoid land disturbance through building and construction. Or, at the very least, signal whether an expert should render an opinion on how best to minimize or avoid any dangers if building and construction does move forward.

“It just points out areas from a slope stability, public safety standpoint (where) it makes sense to have a closer look,” said Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C Geological Survey.

The General Assembly ordered the geological survey to put together maps for the state’s 19 westernmost counties. In Macon County, Wooten said 600 to 900 locations were studied, and the following maps were the result:

• Slope Movements Deposit Map: Where the ground has moved or is still moving.

• Stability Index Map: Where a landslide seems more likely given the right set of weather conditions.

• Debris Flow Pathways Map: The likely path of a landslide.

Wooten said draft maps have been finished for Henderson County. Work is under way in Jackson County.


Want to get involved?

The Macon County steep-slope committee is set to meet next at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5, in the agricultural building, formerly the health department in Franklin. The committee wants to finalize its recommendations by February for the county planning board to consider. To that end, the committee plans to meet “as often as possible” over the next few months, Al Slagle, the subcommittee’s chairman, said.

Planning board sends steep slope proposal to Macon commissioners

The Macon County Planning Board voted unanimously March 18 to forward the recommendations of its steep slope committee to the county commissioners.

“What I would like to ask is that the planning board take this document before the commissioners and say, ‘This is the basic idea, let’s develop an ordinance,’” said slope committee chair Al Slagle.

Slagle and the other members of the steep slope committee spent the better part of a year hammering out the underlying principles of the proposed regulations.

The county commissioners will have a chance to review the committee’s findings at their meeting on April 12 and decide whether to send it back to the planning board with directions to draft an ordinance.

Macon eyes steep slope ordinance

The Macon County Planning Board is in the beginning stages of developing an ordinance that would regulate development on steep slopes.

Haywood and Jackson counties shared presentations on their steep slope ordinances with the Macon planning board last week. Marc Pruett, program director for Haywood County Erosion Control, presented a slide show with pictures of houses and roads that have collapsed as a result of being built on steep slopes.

He showed several pictures from Maggie Valley in which houses slid off the side of cliffs, like a recent slide there, and destroyed the home. One house he showed a picture of had not been built a year and was already beginning to slide off the side of the mountain.

The Macon County Planning Board wanted to hear presentations from Haywood and Jackson counties to get ideas about what it might want to put into its ordinance.

Before the planning board officially begins working on putting together an ordinance it must receive the go ahead from the county commissioners, which has not been granted.

Macon County Director of Planning, Permitting and Development Jack Morgan said a steep slope ordinance is something that may be a part of a future comprehensive plan for the county.

Developing a steep slope ordinance may not happen without some backlash from the Macon County Homebuilders Association and Realtors. Such organizations often fight against rules that restrict home development.

Haywood County’s slope ordinance was actually endorsed by the Homebuilders Association there, after a round of revisions that loosened the standards from what was originally proposed. Jackson County Planning Director Linda Cable said the ordinance in her county did not get that kind of support. Jackson’s ordinances are tougher and more comprehensive than Haywood’s.

The Macon County Homebuilders Association was not invited to the meeting, said President Reggie Holland. Holland said he is unfamiliar with any plan to develop an ordinance but thinks his organization would like to have some input on it.

“We would like to be included in the process,” Holland told The Smoky Mountain News.

Holland was unable to say whether his organization would oppose an ordinance if the county indeed decides to pursue one.

Planning Board member Susan Ervin advocates a steep slope ordinance for many reasons, including safety, environmental and aesthetic. Building homes on steep slopes can be dangerous for those who live in the home and below it, Ervin noted.

Such development can also cause environmental problems when land is stripped, resulting in erosion. When slopes are disturbed rain runs off faster and the groundwater is not recharged as well, Ervin noted.

Putting so many houses on the side of the mountains also damages the views, Ervin said.

As far as property rights go, Morgan said they stop at someone’s property line. Building on slopes presents an “inherent danger” and should be addressed, Morgan said.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Larry Stenger was not at the meeting but said he whole heartedly supports developing a steep slope ordinance.

Sedimentation can run off the side of mountains and get into creeks and damage marine habitat, said Stenger.

The key to responsible steep slope development is education, said Stenger. Realtors need to let their clients know about developing on steep slopes, he said.

Over the years several roads in Macon County have washed out because they were built improperly on steep slopes, Stenger noted.

Developers should not be allowed to get a permit to build a home until they go to a seminar about building in the mountains, said Stenger. Much of the problem comes from “shyster” developers trying to make a profit building roads and homes without concern for their future stability, said Stenger. And people from out of the state come in and buy the homes ignorant of the potential dangers, Stenger said.

Rapp tries to round up support for slope development bill

When back-to-back tropical storms hit the mountains with heavy rains in 2004, the saturated soils triggered more than 140 landslides. Some were small, others big, but all pointed to how vulnerable some mountain slopes are to the forces of nature — namely gravity.

Mountain protections gained wide support in 2007

For those of us who have been beating the drum about the need for mountain communities to get serious about land-use planning, it’s been an eventful year. Not only was a lot of real progress made in 2007, but signs point to an even brighter future as many progressive candidates won seats on county and town boards throughout the region.

Gauging the fallout: Opinions vary on effect of Jackson’s proposed development rules

As Chuck Bennett rang up a sale at his electrical supply store in Cashiers, he showed no fear of the business slowdown some predict as fallout from a slate of development regulations coming down the pipe in Jackson County.

The public weighs in Jackson residents speak out on proposed development regulations

A procession of impassioned speakers pleaded with Jackson County commissioners to slow the rapid pace of development on mountainsides during a public hearing Monday (June 11).

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