Wednesday, July 23, 2008

WNCA in the Mountain Express!

The Green Scene

Elk Mountain resident Kathryn Geitz watched warily last month as a pickup truck pulled up to Ciel, a high-end development site near her home, and people wearing protective suits set to work spraying an herbicide throughout the property. In the following weeks, patches of vegetation turned brown.

“The spraying affected us and our dogs,” Geitz told Xpress. “We have recovered from the nausea and the vomiting but if you look at the animals, particularly the black bears, they are suffering the most from this act of cruelty to our natural setting.”

Mountain view: Before and after pictures taken late last summer (image on top) and this past April (bottom) show how a lot changed after the forest was thinned and the underbrush turned to mulch. Nearby residents say this land-disturbing activity continued for months, despite the developer’s failure to get a permit for it.

Buncombe County’s Planning Department called it a violation of the subdivision ordinance. The developer, David Zimmermann, had failed to adhere to the limits on land disturbance specified in the permits and spelled out by the county’s steep-slope-development rules. In a June 23 letter, planning staff notified Zimmermann that all existing permits would be frozen and no new ones issued until a plan for full revegetation had been submitted and implemented.

On its Web site, Ciel touts the subdivision as an “environmentally sound, resource-friendly” community.

Geitz, however, calls the county’s action “too little, too late.” She and other neighbors, she says, had called the county repeatedly to complain about tree cutting and land clearing at Ciel, which they believed was a violation, but nothing was done. “When one drives up Elk Mountain,” says Geitz, “one can see a remarkable difference in the landscape toward the top. ... It is like a bomb was dropped. The foliage has been mutilated and is dead, dead, dead.”

This annoyed neighbor isn’t the only one harboring suspicions about the county’s commitment to its steep-slope ordinance. Since April, activists from two local groups—the Western North Carolina Alliance and the Mountain Voices Alliance—have been sounding the alarm via widely dispersed e-mails, maintaining that proposed changes to the subdivision ordinance could weaken restrictions on “land-disturbing activity” in such developments.

Proposed by county staff and Planning Board members, the changes have been submitted to the Board of Commissioners but have not yet been formally approved. Meanwhile, county staffers contend that critics of the rule changes are misinterpreting the ordinance’s language.

At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement about what the current ordinance actually says. The activist groups maintain that one proposed change in particular, which would count land disturbance for infrastructure separately from that allowed for construction, would undercut the law. “This change would allow significantly more land clearing—up to 60 percent of a site, in some cases—than permitted under the current ordinance,” the WNC Alliance claims.

But county planner Debbie Truempy says the change merely clarifies the ordinance’s original intent. “What we’re proposing is to put limits on the [infrastructure] when there are none now,” she told Xpress.

In an e-mail to Elk Mountain residents, a county staffer wrote: “Currently, the Planning Board only applies the land-disturbance limits to the development of individual lots and does not apply any land-disturbance limits to the installation of infrastructure. The perception that we are allowing the developer to clear up to 60 percent of the lot is not the case at all. In the past, the developer did not have any limits on the amount of disturbance for roads, water-line installation, etc.”

But Ryan Griffith, outreach coordinator for the WNC Alliance, maintains that land-disturbance limits for infrastructure have been in the ordinance all along—they just haven’t been enforced. “It appears that the planning staff has never actually enforced the [current] land-disturbance rule,” says Griffith, citing attorneys whom her group had asked to look over the ordinance. “They’ve never actually counted in the infrastructure building as part of land-disturbing activity. ... Now they’re trying to change it so that they can separate that out—which sort of covers their butts for not ever enforcing it.”

Also at issue is the proposed elimination of a requirement that a specified portion of the property “remain in a natural state,” defined as “the condition prior to development or other human activity.”

According to Truempy, this requirement has proved too restrictive because, it doesn’t allow for the removal of invasive plants. Yet this is precisely the basis on which the county found Ciel to be in violation.

Meanwhile, Board of Commissioners Vice Chair David Gantt has also voiced concern. “So they’re doing the roads, disturbing a great portion of the mountain, and then they’re saying OK, we have so much percentage left ... that we can disturb—which was not the intent,” he says. “And [the ordinance] clearly says that. I don’t understand why that’s not being done. We’re going to hopefully get some new Planning Board people on there who will basically look at what we say, instead of just doing their own interpretation. They’re basically saying that you can disturb it all, and ... that’s not what we said the first time.”