By Jesse Wood
After holding a public hearing, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to enact a 60-day moratorium on high impact land use development in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) in order to review county ordinances.
The vote fell along party lines with Democrats – John Welch, Billy Kennedy and Larry Turnbow – opting for the moratorium, while Republicans Perry Yates and Jimmy Hodges opposed a moratorium.
The commissioners listened to constituents and enacted the moratorium on Monday because the N.C. Supreme Court ruling upholding the abolishment of the Town of Boone’s ETJ goes into effect tomorrow.
Yates and Hodges of the GOP felt no moratorium was needed because the previous board, which featured a GOP majority, already reviewed and amended the county’s Ordinance to Regulate High Impact Land Uses after the N.C. General Assembly passed Sen. Soucek’s 2014 bill targeting Boone’s ETJ.
“If we do a moratorium in 60 days we’ll find ourselves basically in the same situation we are right now,” Hodges said.
“We haven’t given these ordinances a chance to work,” Yates said. “How about seeing what works and what doesn’t work? … Let’s give our ordinances time to see what happens and see where we go down the road from here.”
Yates was speaking about the relatively new 750-foot buffer between a Category 1 High Impact Land Use and the nearest property line of a residential dwelling and the new 1,500-foot buffer between a N.C. Scenic Byway or Blue Ridge Parkway and a Category 1 High Impact Land Use.
Nearby property owners are also now required to be notified if a high impact land use permit is sought before the application is approved or not approved. In the case of the proposed Maymead asphalt plant off U.S. 421 (Doc and Merle Watson Scenic Byway), the public didn’t become aware of that proposal until about four years after the permit was approved. During that time, the permit also was sold.
A previous 1,500-foot buffer already existed for educational and childcare facilities, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, public outdoor recreation areas and churches. The educational-facility buffer prevented an asphalt plant from being built off of Rainbow Trail Road, which was on the border of the ETJ.
Both Hodges and Yates stated that some of the ordinances needed to be “tweaked” but felt overall that a moratorium was unnecessary. To which Kennedy responded, “I agree there are things that need to be tweaked. That’s why I am in favor of a moratorium. We need to look at this … 60 days is not going to make or break a project. If you come into Watauga County to build a project and you can’t wait 60 days, there’s something wrong.”
During the public hearing, 17 people spoke before the commissioners. The majority of those speaking were in favor of the moratorium, although both sides were well represented.
“I am glad the Town of Boone’s control of my property has come to an end,” said Braxton Eggers, a property owner in the former ETJ. “Don’t use this time as an excuse to make a power grab against your taxpaying property owners.”
Jeff Templeton, who has long opposed the town’s ETJ, suggested that Watauga County avoid a “one-size-fits-all approach” and “work with neighborhoods to create new zoning areas without negatively impacting the rest of us.”
Doris Isaacs has lived in the Seven Oaks area of the ETJ for about 10 years now, some of which time residents and the Town of Boone fought a concrete plant in operation. Isaacs said that she moved from two other previous homes primarily because of the influx of student housing.
“We’ve moved different times to try to improve our environment,” Isaacs said. “I just wanted to emphasize that we are interested in protecting the environment, protecting our neighborhood, promoting areas for families to grow and proposer and also to work with the county and hopefully come up with solutions for these types of neighborhoods.”
Mary Ballard owns a home in the ETJ and said that the town’s regulations were one of the appeals of purchasing that property.
“I opposed the dissolution to the ETJ and the protections offered me and my neighbors. I support the moratorium and I support continued protections even if the word ‘zoning’ is involved,” Ballard said.
Currently, the county doesn’t have countywide zoning. Valle Crucis and the Grandfather-Foscoe areas, however, are zoned. As one commenter noted, it’s difficult to achieve voluntary zoning because near unanimous consent is required of property owners.
Also individuals spoke in favor of and in opposition to the Mountain View Speedway off of Roby Greene Road. While raceway fans say the venue provides family-friendly entertainment, nearby homeowners complain about the noise emanating from the speedway on race days. The speedway didn’t operate for about 17 years before racing started up again in 2015.
Before the commissioners voted, Watauga County Planning Director Joe Furman addressed the commissioners regarding anything he wanted to clear up after listening to the comments from the citizenry.
Speaking to the raceway, Furman said that state laws say that a county may adopt a temporary moratorium on any “county development approval required by law” except, for example, residential uses. “Racetracks, among other uses, aren’t currently regulated by the county, so are not a development approval required by law,” Furman said.
He said the moratorium also isn’t legally allowed to halt residential development, including multi-family housing. Student housing has been one concern of advocates of the ETJ and Boone’s regulations – or protections, depending on your point of view. Currently, the state residential code prohibits more than five unrelated individuals living in a home constructed under the residential code.
Also according to state statutes, Furman said a zoning area must originally contain at least 640 acres and at least 10 separate tracts of land in separate ownership. The former ETJ in Boone is primarily comprised of three sections, known informally as east, west and south ETJ areas, which fall under that qualification. However, a couple areas, including a section off of State Farm Road are within the former ETJ but aren’t allowed by law to be affected by the moratorium.
Chairman John Welch said that a joint effort would take place between county staff, the planning board and the commissioners in deciding what changes to make to county regulations during the moratorium period.
The Watauga County Planning Board will meet next on Monday, Jan. 23, at 5:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ boardroom in the Watauga County Administration Building.
Action from the Boone Town Council Meeting on Monday
The Boone Town Council also met on Monday to discuss this issue. They met in the morning.
According to Town Clerk Christine Pope, the following actions were taken:
“The first motion was for the mayor to represent the Town at the County’s public hearing, and to provide a statement that includes recognizing that the Town has spent many resources to protect the extraterritorial jurisdiction as it has been an important planning tool, the Town is disappointed with the decision of the Supreme Court, but has been working to provide an orderly transition with the County, including Town staff meeting with County staff to transfer all records, and a statement that the Town hopes the County will consider measures they can take to protect the residential areas in the extraterritorial jurisdiction.
The second motion was to instruct staff to review all Town ordinances and to update them in regard to the decision from the Supreme Court in areas involving extraterritorial jurisdiction, including the UDO, Water and Sewer Ordinance and any other plans impacted.”
For more background on this issue, click to previous stories here.