Haywood slope law not as good as it could be

Here’s the main problem with the slope development ordinance passed last week by Haywood County commissioners: it wasn’t the ordinance the public had a chance to discuss and debate at the public hearing held just over a month ago.


Never mind concerns that it is too weak to adequately protect buyers from unscrupulous or unknowing developers. Commissioners passed the watered down ordinance and then added that they could always come back and tighten it if needed. As the saying goes, though, the horse is already out of the barn.

Instead, commissioners should have gone the other way: passed the original, stricter ordinance and given themselves the option of going back and loosening the restrictions if they were causing any problems.

Some will argue that the ordinance that will go on the books in March 2007 is not much different than the one developed by the planning board. But it is. The original proposal required an engineering plan for any cut over 10 feet. The new proposal changed that threshold for a plan to 15 feet, and then only if the cut or fill surpasses certain slope angles. It also eliminated the provision that would have required an engineering plan for any earth-moving activity on a slope that exceeded a 40-percent grade.

County leaders often speak about how a good process leads to good results. In this case, speakers at a public hearing in October did not even address the parts of the ordinance that commissioners changed. No one stood up and said publicly that they wanted these parts of the ordinance altered, which means some lobbying went on behind closed doors. It’s OK for behind-the-scenes lobbying to take place, but at some point the public should have the right to discuss the proposed changes. That didn’t happen.

As for the finished ordinance, these seemingly small changes send the wrong message. Instead of codifying the laxer measures, commissioners could have left it up to the planning boards to consider variances on a case-by-case basis. In some instances not requiring an engineering plan for cuts of a certain grade or height may be completely reasonable. But let the planners look at the particulars and then depend on the staff to provide a professional opinion.

In addition to the changes, commissioners made another mistake: the ordinance won’t take effect until March. County staff had recommended that the new law take effect immediately in order to close the window for developers to rush through plans that would not be held to the new standards.

Engineer Kevin Alford of Maggie Valley said at the October public hearing that he sees building projects on steep slopes that are “accidents waiting to happen,” and that the cost for getting a site development plan is cheap compared to the cost of fixing home sites that have begun to slide down mountains.

According to the N.C. Geologic Survey, 140 landslides occurred in Western North Carolina in 2004. Those slides claimed five lives and destroyed 27 homes. Slides occurred on both natural and developed slopes.

The need for a strict slope development law is not about aesthetics. It is about protecting people’s lives and property and protecting the environment from the damaging effects of runoff and sediment. Haywood commissioners are in line for some kudos for passing a slope ordinance, but they missed an opportunity to set the bar high.

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