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Watauga Commissioners Send Subdivision, Multi-Unit Ordinance Back To Planning Board

By Jesse Wood

The Watauga County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing on proposed amendments to the “Ordinance to Govern Subdivisions and Multi-Unit Structures.” After listening to three comments from citizens, the commissioners decided to send the ordinance back to the Watauga County Planning Board for another review.

The commissioners agreed to revisit this ordinance after Watauga County took over the jurisdiction of the Town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, which was abolished by the N.C. General Assembly, at the beginning of the year. 

Nathan Miller, a local lawyer, expressed concern about the “essentially steep slope” and greenspace requirements in the ordinance. The ordinance reads that a “minimum of 33 percent of the total land area must be dedicated to permanent green space,” and “maximum [cut and fill] slopes shall be [2:1 ratio horizontally and vertically].”

Miller stated, “That may be all well and good in the Town of Boone but we aren’t just talking about Boone. This is the entire county … If someone wanted to put up in Bethel an apartment complex on an acre of land, now 33 percent of that has to be greenspace. I talked to Mr. Furman about this and 33 percent, according to him, would constitute the septic tank. But that’s his interpretation and that’s not what you are voting on here. Mr. Furman may be our planning director forever but I doubt it. So the next one might have a totally different interpretation, so what you say there matters.”

Miller added that he sees the 2:1 ratio also adding expenses to build.

Jim West, a former member of the Watauga County Planning Board, submitted a few “technical” suggestions for the commissioners to reconsider, such as a standard definition of greenspace. “What do we mean when we say greenspace?” West said. “So let’s clarify that.”

After the public hearing, Commissioner Jimmy Hodges said, “We keep putting more and more of a burden on developers and people wanting to use their land for whatever … I think we have enough rules and regulations.”

The changes don’t apply to individual lots.

Furman responded that he disagreed with the characterizations of some of the proposed amendments.

“I totally disagree to the objections of the 33 percent. I admit that there is no magic number. It could be some other percent. The current ordinance says you must have ‘substantial’ open space. It doesn’t say how much you must have. We are giving the 33 percent bonus to the developer if they will cluster and then just saying well you have to have some open space.”

Furman noted that the watershed ordinance calls for twice as much open space. Furman also said that nobody could build apartments on an acre of land because of current density regulations that limit six units per acre if you have public water and sewer.

“So if you are out in the county, out in Bethel and want to build apartments on a one-acre lot, you are going to get to do two, a duplex, and that ordinance won’t even apply to it,” Furman said.

Furman also noted that the 2:1 slope is considered to be a “good and stable slope.” He noted that retaining walls or other methods to stabilize the slope can be utilized. “It’s not a fixed requirement. There can be relief from there,” Furman said.

“The current ordinance calls for slopes that are sufficient to retain vegetation and this is an attempt, again, to put a reasonable number on it,” Furman said.

Commissioner Billy Kennedy said that these proposed amendments add much need clarity to the language of the ordinance. Kennedy noted that the clarifications will also let neighbors of existing homes know what’s allowed to happen “next door or above them.”

“I think this clarifies some of the vagueness and we do need to have some clarifications in our rules so that they apply to everybody equally. To me, I don’t see it as that much of a burden. We are not trying to make it harder to build in Watauga County. We are trying to make property values maintain after they are built and these are important parts to make sure buildings in our county are built right,” Kennedy said.

Commissioner Perry Yates added that money is automatically lost when you have to reserve 33 percent of the property to greenspace and add a geotechnical engineer to deal with slopes. 

“When you look at that and lose that kind of money to greenspace, you have to recoup that on the other 67 percent of your property. You just drove the cost of housing out the roof. I think there is enough regulations there. We do need to look [at this ordinance] and clarify this,” Yates said, adding that land values are already expensive enough for the workforce to be able to afford to build a home in Watauga County. “Whether the developer makes money or not, the end user, which is the consumer and citizen, is going to have to pay for this. I can’t support this.”

Furman responded, “I will comment again on the 33 percent. If you had a big piece of property and you are going to do a cluster development or are clustering houses together or apartments and you are using a septic system and wells especially, you can’t help but have 33 percent open space. That’s my point. It’s a very low number, very easily attainable in my opinion.”

The commissioners agreed to send the ordinance back to the Watauga County Planning Board along with their comments and those heard during the public hearing.

To view the proposed amendments and the original ordinance, click here.