Macon takes a hard look at floodplain ordinances

The Little Tennessee River in Macon County has flooded before, and officials fear it will again. Braulio Fonseca photo The Little Tennessee River in Macon County has flooded before, and officials fear it will again. Braulio Fonseca photo

Proposed revisions to Macon County’s flood damage prevention, soil erosion and sedimentation control, and water supply watershed protection ordinances have resulted in a flood of input from the public, many of whom cite the deadly Peeks Creek disaster of 2004 as a reason to keep strict restrictions in place. 

“These back-to-back hurricanes led to widespread flooding and the catastrophic debris flow on Peeks creek which claimed the life of five people and destroyed 15 houses,” said Jason Love of Mainspring Conservation Trust. “It is not a matter if another flood event of this magnitude strikes Macon County, just a matter of when.”

At the behest of members of the public who came to commissioners with complaints about a few aspects of the three ordinances, commissioners directed the planning board to review them as they are currently written. The planning board came up with some recommended changes and put the ordinances, as well as the decision to revise them or keep them as they are, back in the hands of the county commission.

“These are not things that I pulled out of thin air, these are real issues that people in the public, people in the community have come to me about over the years,” said Commissioner Josh Young.

After the flooding caused by hurricanes Ivan and Frances in 2004, then Macon County Planning Board underwent a process to tighten restrictions on county ordinances that pertain to its waterways.

The state of North Carolina requires a set of minimum standard guidelines municipalities must abide for such ordinances but allows for a range of more strict protocols as needed. In most cases, Macon County has chosen tighter restrictions than the state minimums in an effort to preserve safety and the environment. The Town of Franklin, on the other hand, has ordinances that follow the state minimum standards in most cases.

Related Items

The first of the recommended changes the county is considering involves the soil erosion and sedimentation control ordinance. The state requires county ordinances to stipulate plans for soil and erosion control on any project that disturbs one acre of land or more. Macon County’s current ordinance is stricter, requiring such plans and restrictions for land disturbances of half an acre or more.

The second possible change would remove the clause that says RV parks are not eligible for Special Non-residential Intensity Allocations (SNIA) in Macon County’s watershed ordinance.

The third change, as currently recommended, removes restrictions on fill material in the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA).

Several people attended the May 14 meeting of the Macon County Commission to voice their opinion on the ordinances and recommended changes, seven of whom spoke against the changes, or at the very least counseled caution and consideration before making the changes. David Culpepper, current member of the Franklin Town Council, was the only member of the public to speak in favor of the changes to the ordinances.

“Whatever the intentions of the floodplain ordinance were then, we know that it’s not operating as good as it could,” said Culpepper. “We know that it’s trapping people, we know that landowners are being turned into criminals for things as simple as putting a driveway in. That’s not really fair.”

But other speakers touted the importance of the county ordinances in protecting people and the environment, despite how strict they may be.

“Weakening the floodplain ordinance risks damaging our unique ecology, our scenic beauty and our cultural heritage surrounding the river,” said Otto resident Sarah Johnson. “Otto has a lot of underrated beauty in its waters. As a kid, I got to see the beautiful but endangered Turquoise Shiners. I want my son to see them too.” 

Love said that the floodplain ordinance was strengthened in 2004 as a direct response to the deadly impact of hurricanes Ivan and Frances.

“We’re traditionally not an advocacy organization and rarely wade into state or county issues. However, the issue of weakening the existing floodplain ordinance is too important an issue for us to sit on the sidelines as it impacts our core mission,” said Love. “I’m here on behalf of mainspring to urge you to keep the existing county floodplain ordinance. At the very least I urge you to allow the planning board to do its due diligence and better understand the consequences of allowing fill and associate development into the floodplain so that this information can be relayed to you our commissioners so you can make an informed decision regarding any changes to this.”

Kelly Penland, a local real estate agent urged caution and consideration in making any changes to the floodplain ordinance noting that doing so could create a range of outcomes for citizens requiring flood insurance.

“That’s where I’m coming from as a real estate agent concerned for my clients,” said Penland.

Aquatic conservation biologist Bill McLarney gave commissioners 12 reasons why he thought it best to preserve the floodplain ordinance as it is currently written. Among them public safety, the unique biodiversity of southern Appalachia, preserving floodplain farmland, recreational use, insurance costs and property damage.

“The existing ordinance is the result of an awful lot of hard work by an awful lot of people for a period of months and years — county commissioners, planning board, watershed council, experts of various kinds and ordinary citizens,” said McLarney. “Fortunately, right now, the correct decision is the easy decision. We have been given an excellent tool for managing our floodplains and I think we should retain that rule.”

Angela-Faye Martin of Alarka Expeditions echoed McLarney’s concern for the biodiversity of Macon County waterways if the ordinances are revised and also touted their importance for ecotourism.

“Ecotourism is not a huge industry in Macon County yet, but I’ll tell you… it’s going to be growing and I want it to be viable in the future for this watershed,” Martin said. “My favorite thing for tourists who come here that are thinking about moving here is to make them care as deeply as we all do in this room and want to be stewards of this place like you all are stewards … of this beautiful, fragile watershed. We want them to care about it and that’s part of why I do what I do.” 

Several speakers noted that the state sets minimum requirements so that municipalities can put more strict standards in place as needed to protect individual environments.

“What works in Raleigh does not work in Western North Carolina,” said Lewis Penland, planning board member following the flooding of 2004.

Susan Irving was also on the planning board when the current floodplain ordinance was crafted.

“A sizable portion of our personal property is in the floodplain, and we have stress and mess from existing flooding and would definitely suffer from additional flooding if there is much fill in the floodplain,” said Irving. “The fact that fill raises flood levels is not an opinion, it’s fact. Filling one small piece might not cause problems, but filling many pieces definitely would cause problems.” 

Macon County Planning Director Joe Allen offered a similar stance, noting that small changes allowing some fill in the floodplain would not immediately spell disaster.

“We don’t need to say, ‘no you cannot fill in the floodplain.’ I don’t believe that,” Allen said. “But I also don’t believe we need to say ‘you can fill anywhere you want to fill in the floodplain.’ I don’t think we need to be on the extreme of anything. We need to be somewhere in the middle on this thing as a county. I think that’s best for people who want to develop, that’s the best for people who want to protect the environment. Show us that you’re not going to hurt anybody else, we let you do it.” 

In order to achieve this ideal middle ground, the commission and the planning board are creating a subcommittee tasked with examining potential revisions to the floodplain ordinance.  

“Heeding the call to establish a subcommittee, we demonstrate our commitment to forcing a collaborative, informed decision-making process within our community,” said Penland. “Furthermore, I believe that embracing the proposal put forth by our planning board not only reflects positively on our willingness to engage with stakeholders but also reaffirms our dedication to prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of our residents.”

Members to the committee have not yet been named, but it will likely contain two members of the county commission and two members of the planning board.

In an effort to determine the best and safest revisions to the ordinance, the committee will speak to members of the public on both sides of the issue. Those like McLarney, advocating for the preservation of wildlife, Martin, familiar with the needs and benefits of ecotourism, and Culpepper, calling for increased capacity for development.

“Together we can work towards developing solutions that not only address the immediate concerns raised by our community but also lay the foundation for a more resilient and sustainable future,” said Penland.

The entire process could be a lengthy one. After any final revisions are proposed to the county commission, they must still be reviewed by state flood mapping as well as FEMA. Once the revisions are cleared by those entities the county is required to hold a public hearing before approval.

While revisions to the flood damage prevention ordinance will be considered by the subcommittee, county commissioners did decide to move ahead to public hearing with two revisions to separate ordinances.

Pending approval from state and federal agencies, commissioners will hold a public hearing July 9 to change the soil erosion and sedimentation control ordinance requirement from half an acre to a full acre, reverting to the state minimum requirement. On the same day, also pending state approval, the county will hold a public hearing to follow the state model ordinance and remove the clause that says “RV parks shall not be eligible for SNIA” in the water supply watershed protection ordinance.

Commissioners were unanimous in their support for both the creation of the subcommittee for the flood damage prevention ordinance and moving forward with public hear ings for soil erosion and watershed ordinances.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.