By Jesse Wood
On Wednesday, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners scheduled a public hearing on whether or not to enact a 60-day moratorium on high-impact land uses while county staff and commissioners study last week’s N.C. Supreme Court ruling upholding the abolishment of the Town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) authority.
Before a local government can institute a moratorium in North Carolina, a public hearing must be held. The commissioners voted 4-1 to hold the public hearing on Monday, Jan. 9 at 5:30 p.m., which is one-day before the N.C. Supreme Court ruling goes into effect.
The 60-day time period would also give the county staff, the planning board and the commissioners a chance to revisit the Ordinance to Regulate High Impact Land Uses, which the county revised last year because of this same topic.
Commissioner Perry Yates, a Republican, was the lone nay vote.
“I think we need to look at this thing slowly and make wise decisions,” Yates said. “I don’t think we need to make knee jerk reactions.”
The moratorium would only affect land areas within Town of Boone’s ETJ, which extends about one mile outside of the town’s limits. The high-impact land use ordinance, which separates uses into three categories with varying stipulations, applies to the following uses:
Category 1. Asphalt Plants, Cement Mixing Facilities, Quarries/Stone Crushers, Chemical Manufacturing, Chemical Storage Facilities, Explosives Manufacturing, and Explosives Storage Facilities, Chip Mills, and Electricity Generating Facilities (excluding Wind and Solar Power Farms).
Category 2. Automotive Graveyards, Propane, or Gasoline, or Fuel Oil Bulk Storage Facilities, and Junk/Scrap Yards.
Category 3. Electric Substations, Commercial/Industrial Development with aggregate building footprint 50,000 square feet or greater, Recycling Facilities, and Solar Power Farms.
Watauga County Planning Director Joe Furman led off the meeting by giving some history regarding this issue. In the summer of 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed Sen. Dan Soucek’s legislation abolishing the town’s ETJ, effective Jan. 1, 2015.
The town sued. In the meantime, the county held a public hearing that summer to listen to concerns of residents in the ETJ and directed the Watauga County Planning Board to make some recommendations. The planning board held three community meetings out in the ETJ areas.
The vast majority of the 150 or so folks speaking at those meetings and at the public hearing wanted more protections from high impact land use industries setting up shop next to their homes and neighborhoods. The commissioners also approved a temporary moratorium, effective Jan. 1, 2015, as it further studied the high impact land use ordinance.
But just before 2015 began, a panel of N.C. Superior Court judges granted the town a preliminary injunction until the matter was settled in court – as the N.C. Supreme Court did last week.
Taking into account Watauga County Planning Board’s recommendations, the commissioners established more stringent spacing requirements in relation to homes than previously existed. Below are the current spacing requirements; note that only the first category existed previously. The third category was instituted in light of the proposed asphalt plant on U.S. 421 (Doc and Merle Watson Scenic Byway), which is outside of the ETJ.
(1) Category 1 & Category 2 High Impact Land Uses may not be established within 1,500 feet of a public or private Educational Facility, NC licensed Child Care Facility, NC licensed Assisted Living Facility, NC licensed Nursing Home, Public Outdoor Recreation Area, or Religious Facility. In order to establish required spacing, measurement shall be made in a straight line, without regard to intervening structures or objects, from the nearest portion of the building, structure, or outdoor storage area utilized by Category 1 or 2 Land Uses, to the nearest property line of the above-listed facilities.
(2) Category 1 High Impact Land Uses may not be established within 750 feet of a dwelling. In order to establish required spacing, measurement shall be made in a straight line, without regard to intervening structures or objects, from the nearest portion of the building, structure, or outdoor storage area utilized by a Category 1 Land Use, to the nearest property line of a dwelling.
(3) Category 1 High Impact Land Uses may not be established within 1,500 feet of the right-of-way line of a roadway designated by NCDOT as a NC Scenic Byway or within 1,500 feet of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As was noted in the meeting, the moratorium won’t cover any residential or multi-family housing, such as student apartments. By law, the moratorium can’t affect residential uses, and Watauga County Attorney Andrea Capua said that – to avoid a lawsuit – it’s “safest to interpret” that residential uses include multi-family housing.
Watauga County was an intervening party, siding with the State of North Carolina, in the lawsuit against the Town of Boone over Soucek’s ETJ legislation. The Watauga County Board of Commissioners featured a GOP majority up until the November election.
Commissioner Jimmy Hodges, a Republican, asked if instituting another moratorium would make the county more vulnerable to lawsuits. While not guaranteeing anything, Capua responded that she “wasn’t aware of any reason why it would be more risky” as long as the county follows general statutes.
During the meeting, Watauga County Planning Director Joe Furman said he’s heard people say that Watauga County doesn’t have any regulations. Pointing to a project of the county’s website listing ordinances, Furman said, “We have a few regulations.”
He noted that The Standard development, which is located off of Blowing Rock Road and Faculty Street in Boone, wouldn’t be allowed under Watauga County regulations because the density is to great for the acreage.
“Probably what’s going to happen is there’s going to be student housing development in the former ETJ. The developers are going to need water and sewer, and they are going to need higher density, so they are going to need to be annexed most likely, so that won’t be an issue that we’ll be dealing with very much I don’t’ think unless there is a very large tract of land that the developer can construct on-site water and sewer facilities, which are very expensive and not a shoe-in that they will get approved by the state,” Furman said. “You have to have a lot of property to do that. The Cottages were able to do that. That tract was 75 acres.”
Furman said that the largest impact to the county is probably on the fire marshal’s office with regard to taking over fire-code inspections for a “couple hundred different existing buildings” that were previously enforced by the Town of Boone.
The public hearing before the commissioners is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 9 at 5:30 p.m.