Lasting precedent doubtful as county closes books on erosion suitWritten by Becky Johnson
Developers looking for shortcuts around erosion laws won’t find amnesty in a recent court case between a landowner and Haywood County erosion officials, according to the state authority on erosion enforcement.
The landowner, Ron Cameron, won a lawsuit claiming he was a victim of overbearing erosion enforcement.
While the county settled out of court for $75,000, the county stood a good chance of winning at the state level had they gone forward, according to Mel Nevils, the Land Quality section chief with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Nevils said state precedent sides with the county, citing at least two similar cases that have been decided by the Court of Appeals and even N.C. Supreme Court.
In the Haywood suit, Cameron claimed he was logging his property and should fall under a laxer set of erosion rules that apply to forestry rather than a more stringent set of rules that apply to developers.
The county questioned the landowner’s true motives, however, citing Cameron’s creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation. The county insisted on holding him to the higher erosion standard, and Cameron sued to get out from under the county’s jurisdiction, ultimately prevailing in a three-week trial in May.
In the state cases, “The basic premise was the same,” Nevils said.
“You had a landowner claiming forestry and we felt that it was not forestry, that it was development,” Nevils said.
Both sides in the Cameron suit argued that a terrible precedent would be set if the other side won. If the county lost, it argued the case would provide a road map for developers who want to exploit the forestry loophole.
Nevils isn’t concerned, however. He said the precedent already on the books in higher court rulings, which sided against the landowners, will trump the Haywood County ruling, which was made by Judge Laura Bridges.
“It is the only time I am aware of this type of ruling has been made,” Nevils said of the Haywood suit.
Meanwhile, Cameron argued that landowners everywhere would shy away from logging, for fear they could never change their mind without their motives being questioned and triggering retroactive enforcement and fines.
Nevils doesn’t foresee that kind of entrapment by erosion officers happening, however.
“Practically, if you are logging now and 20 years down the road you do a development, we are not going to make you do that,” Nevils said. “We look for evidence whether there was intent to develop at the time the road building occurred.”
Nevils, who testified for the county during the trial, said Haywood County’s Erosion Control Officer Marc Pruett was doing his job properly when trying to enforce county erosion laws.
Haywood County initially planned to appeal the ruling, but Cameron was going after damages and hefty attorney’s fees from the county. The county commissioners had already spent $282,000 on attorney fees to defend the case and chose to cut the county’s losses and settle out of court.
Nevils said he doesn’t know if the state law could be clarified to avoid the situation in the future. It might not be possible to clarify it more than it is.
“Technically the way the law is written, it says if you are planning to disturb land, no matter when, if it is for the eventual purpose of residential development you cannot claim forestry,” Nevils said.