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Watauga Commissioners Unanimously Agree on High Impact Land Use 90-Day Moratorium in ETJ

While more than a dozen people spoke during the public hearing, many more attended to see what the commissioners would decide. Photos by Jesse Wood
While more than a dozen people spoke during the public hearing, many more attended to see what the commissioners would decide. Photos by Jesse Wood

By Jesse Wood

Dec. 17, 2014. After listening to more than a dozen citizens speak at a public hearing on Tuesday night, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a 90-day moratorium on high-impact land use development in most of the Town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ).

The moratorium begins on Jan. 1, 2015 – the same day that the Town of Boone loses its authority to regulate the ETJ, which was brought about after the N.C. General Assembly passed Sen. Dan Soucek-sponsored legislation abolishing the town’s ETJ earlier this summer.

Phil Templeton speaks in favor of the 90-day moratorium on Tuesday.
Phil Templeton speaks in favor of the 90-day moratorium on Tuesday.

The moratorium would not delay or impact construction of residences or apartment buildings. It only pertains to uses within Watauga County’s Ordinance to Regulate High Impact Land 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, cement mixing facilities and commercial/industrial development greater than a 50,000-square-foot footprint.

Virtually all of those speaking – whether advocates or critics of the ETJ – voiced support of the 90-day moratorium, however many of those speakers for protections and regulations similar to those imposed by the Town of Boone would have like to have seen a moratorium longer than 90 days.

Karen Brown, who lives in the Seven Oaks subdivision, where residents off of Roby Greene Road have fought an asphalt plant from moving in the area in the ‘90s and a concrete plant that the Town of Boone more recently shut down, said she wanted a longer moratorium to “afford the planning board and commission time to make some good decisions to protect family homes from high-impact land use and all other incompatible uses” in residential areas in the ETJ.

The local group Watauga Citizens for Local Control has called for a two-year moratorium for polluting industries, which would give the county time to enact an ordinance against polluting industries that Ashe County has adopted. This ordinance would include 1,500-foot buffer zones between polluting industries and residences – something that doesn’t currently happen under county ordinances.

Developer Phil Templeton, a property owner in the ETJ and long-time critic of the town’s regulations, said that he was in favor of the 90-day moratorium and urged the commission to enact regulations to protect the Seven Oaks subdivision and other residential communities in the ETJ.

While he voiced support for the protection of neighborhoods, Templeton called for “sensible regulations” – one that includes “maintaining the rights of other property owners to do what they want to do” with their property.

Mary Cavanaugh, a resident of the ETJ, thanked the commissioners for the public hearing and said she was speaking to let the commissioners know how “very important” aspects of the ETJ protections are to homeowners who have their entire life savings invested in their home.

She noted that the “abuse of power” wasn’t done by the county but by the Town of Boone, which has been criticized most notably by Sen. Soucek for regulating properties in the ETJ without intentions to annex properties in the ETJ.

After the public hearing, Chair Jimmy Hodges, the newly elected commissioner who several times asked citizens during the hearing to speak to the 90-day moratorium and not the ETJ situation as a whole, asked county staff to explain to the public why the commissioners couldn’t enact a longer moratorium.

Citing a Supreme Court ruling, County Attorney Four Eggers that governments are required to stay within a 60- to 90-day window or less or else the county has to jump through additional hoops. He added that the county can simply extend the moratorium if it wishes to do so after the 90 days.

Commissioner Perry Yates said he sympathized with homeowners, particular those in Sunny Knoll Acres next to Radford Quarries, which the Town of Boone Planning & Inspections Department has investigated numerous times and notified the state about for expanding beyond its permit.

Yates said he “feels for those people,” particular one resident that spoke during the public hearing. This resident contacted Yates and he went out to look at the property, where the Radford Quarries had dumped dirt 30 feet away from this property owner’s well.

Yates also added that he “can’t believe” that a quarry isn’t regulated under the county’s high impact land use ordinance. Quarries happen to fall under mining regulations on the state and federal level.

Yates voiced his criticism for the steep slope and viewshed regulations that the town enacted after the Village at Meadowview above Walmart was constructed. While advocates of the ETJ say that no regulations near residential areas in the ETJ will diminish the value of their home and property, Yates said that the town’s regulations caused property that people purchased for high prices on those slopes years ago is now “worth nothing.”

He noted that while some people have criticized Soucek and N.C. Rep. Jonathan Jordan for not polling the opinion of ETJ residents before voting to abolish the town’s authority in the ETJ, Yates said that residents weren’t asked by the Town of Boone to be in the ETJ either.

“What I am asking for is time to make wise property decisions that affect everyone positively. This is not a matter of politics,” Yates said. “This problem wasn’t created in 90 days and we can’t cure it in 90 days.

Commissioner Billy Kennedy said he was particular struck by comments about potential landslides made by at least three citizens who are in favor of the ETJ and steep-slope regulations.

Harvard Ayers, a well-known environmentalist, said that landslides are a “significant threat” if steep slopes are covered with high-density developments. Kennedy seemed to agree after looking at maps and reviewing geological data at Appalachian State University.

“Landslides can take out whole towns and with recent earthquakes, our ground is not as stable as we would like to think,” Kennedy said.

This could all be a moot point depending on how a N.C. Supreme Court three-judge panel decides in a lawsuit between the Town of Boone and the state.

Judges Alma L. Hinton, Nathaniel J. Poovey and Paul C. Ridgeway, heard arguments yesterday for the lawsuit that the town filed in October challenging the N.C. General Assembly legislation abolishing the ETJ.

At the meeting yesterday, County Attorney Four Eggers said no decision has been handed down yet and he isn’t sure when that will happen.

For more background on this issue, click here.