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Watauga Planning Board Recommends Changes to High Impact Land Ordinance

By Jesse Wood

Although the lawsuit regarding the Town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction is still ongoing and a final decision has yet to be handed down, the Watauga County Planning Board felt the need to make changes to the county’s High Impact Land Use ordinance.

The Watauga County Board of Commissioners will consider the amendments on Tuesday morning, and if it plans to adopt the changes, a public hearing is required.

The ordinance regulates, among other uses, asphalt plants, electricity generating facilities, propane or gasoline bulk storage facilities, chip mills, explosive manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, chemical storage facilities, fuel oil bulk storage facilities, electric substations and cement mixing facilities.

Planning Board Chair Ric Mattar, who will be before the commissioners on Tuesday, said that board arranged the uses by category in order to make some of the greater impact uses “more restrictive” without affecting other uses where the impact isn’t so high.

The uses are no arranged via three categories:

Category 1: Asphalt Plants, Cement Mixing Facilities, and Quarries/Stone Crushers.

Category 2: Category 2. Automotive Graveyards, Propane or Gasoline Bulk Storage Facilities, Chemical Manufacturing, Chemical Storage Facilities, Chip Mills, Electricity Generating Facilities(excluding Wind and Solar Power Farms), Explosives Manufacturing, Junk/Scrap Yards.

Category 3: Fuel Oil Bulk Storage Facilities, Electric Substations, Commercial/Industrial Development with aggregate building footprint 50,000 square feet or greater, Recycling Facilities and Solar Power Farms. (Wind Power Farms are regulated under separate county ordinance.)

While the recommended changes to the ordinance, which was adopted in 2003, include mostly rewordings of essentially the same meaning or the inclusion of new industries such as Solar Farms or Automotive Junkyards, the main change regards buffers to residential areas.

Currently, a buffer between high-impact industries and neighborhoods and residential areas doesn’t exist. This was a huge talking point during previous public hearings about the potential abolishment of the town’s ETJ.

If the commissioners approve the recommended changes, high impact land uses in Category 1 would require a 500-foot buffer between dwellings, which is defined as “any building, structure, manufactured home or mobile home, or part thereof, used and occupied for human habitation.”

A 1,500-foot buffer for educational facilities, nursing homes, religious facilities, outdoor-recreation areas (new in the changes) and childcare facilities remains in tact.

Last year, local activists noted the lack of a residential-area buffer and called for at least a 1,000-foot buffer and a two-year moratorium on any polluting industries from operating in the ETJ, which could be in the county’s control depending on the outcome of the court case between the town and state.

Mattar noted that there was some discussion of creating a 1,500-foot buffer for neighborhoods but that would have “pretty much eliminated everywhere except for remote” locations.

“I think we made some valuable changes. It really needed reworking anyway,” Mattar said, adding that the lawsuit will have no bearing on these changes to the ordinance.

Before the lawsuit began and when it looked like the county was going to take over the ETJ, effective Jan. 1, the commissioners directed the planning board to review the high impact land ordinance after many citizens residing in the ETJ voiced concerns of having polluting industries move in next door.

The Planning Board also recommended changes for the Noise Ordinance, which was adopted in 1986. Mattar noted that the planning board sought the advice of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, which responds to noise nuisance calls, before drafting changes.

“I feel like we really [cleaned the Noise Ordinance up],” Mattar said.

Check out potential changes to the noise ordinance here.

The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning in the Watauga County Administration Building. See the meeting packet here.