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Commissioners play catchup with Mother Nature


By Leslee Kulba-The Buncombe County Commissioners heard two items pertaining to land use planning. One was reactionary, and the other was a pat on the back for not being reactionary.

The first item pertained to plans to create a solar farm at the Ridgecrest Conference Center. A little over a year ago, AmEnergy, a green energy corporation based in Santa Fe, submitted an application to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to install 90,500 solar panels on 200 acres they would lease from the Southern Baptist Convention. Although citizens were quick to give the commissioners credit for dismantling the plans, Mike Fryar turned the credit back to the citizens. They were the ones who organized opposition to the corruption of viewsheds across a beautiful swath of forestland.

As one strategy to stop the plans, the county began a process of amending its land use ordinances to render the proposed facility illegal. General language was crafted, citing an interest in public safety, that would require an approval process for public utility stations that would occupy more than two acres. Persons wanting to generate power exclusively for personal use would not be affected.

The commissioners unanimously approved the amendments. So, among other requirements, public utility stations will now have to meet buffering requirements, provide protective fencing with a strategy for ingress and egress, complete studies assessing highway and air traffic hazards, and fund a decommissioning strategy.

Before the discussion, Commissioner Brownie Newman clarified that he did not have a conflict of interest precluding him from voting on the amendments. Newman serves as Vice President of Business Development for FLS Energy. He was advised by County Attorney Robert Deutsch that he had no conflict because the matter addressed an industry in general, and direct gain would not inure to his benefit because of his vote. What’s more, state statute required that one in such circumstances vote.

The second item was a response to citizen entreaties to do something about the house sliding down the hill on Black Oak Drive. The problem arose due to excessive rainfall that caused a number of sinkholes and landslides around the county last year.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton told the commissioners the house could not be built today. It was constructed 25 years ago, but the county has since passed steep-slope ordinances and hillside development restrictions. There are also regulations governing stormwater abatement. To build a house in a similar location today, a builder would need a geotechnical survey for the house, the foundation, and the roadway. An engineer would have to sign off on the plans, accepting liability for damages occurring if the site should fail.

Fryar expressed concerns that the county was over-regulating. He argued the house slid down the hill not for a lack of good building standards, but due to defiance thereof. The house was built on a pile of unstable fill dirt. Fryar, himself, lives at the bottom of a hillside development built without the new regulations, and there have been no problems.

Deutsch followed Creighton with a brilliant legal defense. The county has already demolished the house. It procured the power to do so by declaring it a public hazard under the Unsafe Building Ordinance. The neighbors have since petitioned the commissioners to stabilize the slope. But, in order to do that, the county would have to place a lien on the property, and that would require the county to purchase the offending parcel. Acquiring the treacherous piece of real estate was way out of the question.

The alternative would be to declare the Black Oak community a disaster area and call in an Emergency Management Team. That would require an evacuation of the neighbors, and Deutsch was fairly certain that was not what the petitioners wanted. He added that even if they were evacuated, the landowners would still be held responsible for the cost of repairing the slope.

Chair David Gantt summarized the comments. Although the commissioners were deeply concerned about the plight of the Black Oak community, they were unable to provide further assistance.

In Other Matters –

The commissioners approved a budget amendment to hire seventeen more employees to manage income eligibility assessment for social services. Jim Holland, from the county’s Health and Human Services Department, explained the county’s hands were tied. They had to follow state and federal guidelines. As if all the problems with the new NC FAST database weren’t enough, Obamacare was requiring all applications for public assistance to be entered into a central database.

Holland explained if more help were not hired to handle the increased workload, processing times and accuracies could fall short of federal standards, thus racking up “substantial” penalties. The commissioners therefore unanimously approved an expenditure of $213,726 for the remainder of the fiscal year. It will, with an equal federal match, buy the county twelve case workers and five people, as required, to supervise them.

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