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Jackson seeks legislative change following Cullowhee erosion issues

Jackson County commissioners voted unanimously Sept. 15 to ask for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners’ support for state legislation to give counties more control over state and federal construction projects within their borders.

The vote came in response to 14 months of continued environmental violations at Western Carolina University’s Millennial Campus, where the private developer Zimmer Development Corporation is under a long-term lease to build and operate student housing. Since June 17, 2019, the company has received 16 notices of violation from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, all regarding erosion issues. The most recent violation was issued Aug. 7, but just a week later students moved into the newly completed apartments and began paying rent.

Contractors have repeatedly failed to contain mud on the site, causing departing dirt to color nearby waterways various shades of brown, especially during heavy rainfall. In October 2019, runoff from the site caused a landslide that prompted evacuations at the student housing neighborhood downhill, and one of the 12 small houses located there was condemned.

Bid for local control

Jackson County leaders have spoken out against the violations on an ongoing basis, but local government has little power to do anything about them. Because the land is owned by the WCU Endowment Fund, it’s considered a state project — county inspectors have control only over local and private projects.

“NCDEQ does not have the personnel to visit sites like these on a daily basis,” reads a letter the county plans to send to the NCACC. “Jackson County’s daily involvement in this project eventually aided NCDEQ in issuing multiple notices of violations and monetary fines. But damage to our environment has occurred during the construction period. Jackson County believes that if this project fell under our jurisdiction then our ability to enforce regulations on a daily basis could have prevented some of the environmental damage that occurred.”

Currently, state law allows the N.C. Sedimentation Control Commission to delegate erosion control authority to counties for private projects, and Jackson County has held this authority since 2000. However, the law does not offer that same option for state and federal projects, something that Jackson County would like to see change.

“I still maintain the problem happened here because they (Zimmer and DEQ) had a preconstruction meeting there in February 13 of 2019, and the next time the state was on site was in June when we got the first complaint,” said Building and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders during a Sept. 8 work session. “I’m not picking on any person there — they’re short-staffed, they’re an hour and a half away and they cover 22 counties with about three people.”

However, said Elders, if the county had the authority to inspect the work site and issue violations and stop work orders, the site would have been monitored much more closely and the problems would not have been allowed to spiral like they did.

“It was so many months before they (the state) even came and looked at the one in Cullowhee,” said Commissioner Gayle Woody. “If this would pass as a resolution or change, that would address that. We would have local inspections going on, which is our goal.”

“That really would have helped up there,” Elders agreed. “The problems are well documented. The erosion control plan has a construction sequence, and that particular contractor skipped to about step number five. He cleared the entire site rather than the couple of acres at a time he was supposed to because he didn’t want to bring the stump grinder twice. That was his excuse. Once he did that, it was all over then. You can’t hardly catch up on those once you start out wrong.”

The letter was sent to the NCACC Steering Committee, Legislative Goals Committee and Board of Directors. These are the three groups within the NCACC that the request will have to go through before members have the chance to vote on it at the Legislative Goals Conference in January. If the measure is adopted as a goal, it would be included in an official document presented to each member of the General Assembly as well as to the governor and other executive branch leaders.

Change at the county level

The county is taking action on the local level as well, with a public hearing slated for 5:55 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, on a proposed ordinance change that would require developers to install erosion control measures prior to receiving building permits for multifamily developments. Currently, developers can apply for building permits before they finish grading the site.

“These standards are not dependent on which agency is administering or has oversight over the permit,” Planning Director Michael Poston told commissioners during the Sept. 1 meeting when the hearing was scheduled. “It simply states that whatever erosion control measures are called for in the approved plans — whether the state approves the plan at the state level or whether we do that at the local level — these items must be taken care of before we’ll issue a building permit to go vertical.”

The ordinance change singles out multifamily developments because those are typically the types of projects in which developers try to grade the site and build the structures simultaneously, Poston said.

The ordinance text states that prior to obtaining building permits for multifamily developments, all building pads must be established, roadways into and throughout the development should have an initial layer of compacted stone in place, all slopes must be seeded with ground cover established and all sediment basins and erosion control devices shown on the approved erosion control plan must be in place.

When commissioners first discussed the concept for the ordinance amendment during an Aug. 4 meeting, Luker told Elders that “you can’t get the wording to us fast enough.” The Sept. 1 vote to schedule a public hearing honored that wish. While the planning board had expressed support for the measure, as of Sept. 1 it had not yet taken a formal vote, a step that usually happens prior to commissioners scheduling their own public hearing and subsequent vote. However, scheduling the public hearing ahead of the planning board’s vote saved four to six weeks on the timeline toward final approval, said Poston. When the ordinance did finally come before the planning board on Sept. 10, the body voted to recommend approval by unanimous vote.

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