Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Issues in the Boone Town Elections of 2007

Guest blogging: Pam Williamson

Issue #1: Will the town keep or trash the Steep Slope and Viewshed ordinance compromises passed last year?

The Town Council initiated a study of building on steep slopes after public outcry over the visual pollution of the development above Wal-Mart and as a result of slope failure at the White Laurel housing development off Bamboo Road. (The day after Boone passed its steep-slope regulations, a statewide study showed that Watauga County led the state in the number of landslide events.)

The Town appointed a Steep Slope Task Force, which included 8 citizens representing varied interests residing within Boone's planning jurisdiction. The Task Force met 33 times, conducted workshops for public input, and made their final recommendations to the Town Council in July of 2006.

Prior to the enactment of the Steep Slope and View Shed compromise, there were no town regulations to prevent developments like the one above Wal-Mart. The new ordinance requires that developments built on very steep mountain slopes be certified as safe before construction. It also serves to protect and enhance the scenic beauty of Boone's steep hillsides that are visible from major corridors.

The public hearing for the recommendations brought out a large crowd, most of whom opposed the Task Force's recommendations and many of whom did not live within Boone's jurisdictional limits. Prior to the hearing, Council members had also been bombarded with e-mails (on file in town offices as part of the record), most of which were in favor of the recommendations. Councilwoman Lynne Mason authored what is now called "The Mason Compromise," which took into account the concerns and/or recommendations for improvements to the ordinances raised by citizens. This compromise produced a less restrictive version of the proposed regulations. Mason says of her compromise on her website, "The regulations do not prevent development on steep slopes nor are they meant to discourage building. Rather, the regulations are an attempt to identify geologic hazards such that they can be remediated and to encourage development that does not compromise our Viewshed."

The "Mason Compromise" was adopted in October 2006 in a 4-1 vote of the Council (Wilcox voting no). To see a comparison between what was initially proposed by the task Force and what was adopted by the Council, go here.

The "Citizens for Change" PAC opposes the Steep Slope and Viewshed Ordinances. They complain that Mason acted too fast in bringing forward her compromise and that the regulations are not reasonable. I, on the other hand, believe the Winston-Salem Journal said it best: "It would have been easy for the Boone Town Council to bow to loud and angry opposition from property owners Monday and reject measures to regulate development on steep slopes. Instead, the council voted 4-1 for regulation -- a gutsy move that was in the best interest of both the environment and business" ("A Council's Courage," October 5, 2006).

According to the town's Development Services office, since the time the ordinances were enacted through September 1st of this year, only six single-family residential projects required a geologist or geotechnical engineer before development was allowed to proceed. No projects have been denied due to the regulations.

Still have questions? Want the details? There's an easy-to-read Town of Boone brochure explaining these ordinances.

Issue #2: Will we ignore Boone's water shortage? Or will we continue to protect and conserve our town's most important natural resource?

In spite of the "Citizens for Change" assertions to the contrary, most residents of Boone are aware we have a limited supply of water with our current raw water intake source. In 2004, the town hired an independent firm to study its water resources. The firm found that Boone was already operating at up to 86% of capacity with "little reserve left."

For these reasons, the Town appointed a water committee to determine what steps the town needed to take to best allocate its remaining resources as well as to decide how to find and acquire new resources to meet projected demands through the year 2030. All of the Council members serve on this committee as well as citizens from the community and developers. I am a member of this committee; so is Phil Templeton, one of the leaders and founders of the PAC. The committee recommended that the Town pass Water Ordinance 05-01. This ordinance would grant water automatically to single-family homes but would examine high-density developments for their predicted water usage before allocating the town's remaining reserves. The committee recommended that approximately 25,000 gallons a year could prudently be allocated to new projects and that this allotment be adjusted up or down depending on actual water usage. The committee also recommended that the town not supply its limited water resources to large projects out of the town limits until a new source could be found and permits from the state obtained. Since the passage of the water ordinance, two high-density developments have been turned down for water, both unanimously by the Council. Both developments were proposed to be located out of the town limits.

The incumbents believe we must carefully manage our limited water resources until we can find and implement another water source. The PAC candidates believe the water shortage is a "myth" and that we should use the remaining limited resources to run water to projects that are outside of the town of Boone limits.

Issue #3: Will we continue to do what we can to protect Boone's neighborhood character and integrity? Or will we sacrifice our town neighborhoods to special interests?

With development pressures from all sides, Boone's neighborhoods are constantly struggling with cut-through traffic and incompatible development proposals, among other things. The Town Council has responded to those concerns by making changes to town ordinances that seek to provide buffers or discourage incompatible uses in single-family neighborhoods and to slow down truck and other traffic in these areas.

The PAC claims that the incumbents have gone too far with these regulations. Mr. Templeton, in particular, has been especially angry over the efforts of a neighborhood on VFW Drive to thwart his attempts to build a large medical facility in their neighborhood. (Mayor Clawson is a resident in this neighborhood and joined with others to fight the project.) The Boone Board of Adjustments, after hearing testimony from the neighborhood and from Mr. Templeton's attorney, denied his request, citing that, among other things, the proposed facility was not in harmony with the neighborhood and was therefore incompatible.

Issue #4: Will all those wishing to build developments in Boone have to follow the same rules? Or will certain people and entities get special exemptions?

The "Citizens for Change" PAC has made much hay about the supposed "poor working relationship" between the Town of Boone and ASU. The issue came to a head over ASU's proposed College of Education site. The history of this issue is as follows:

ASU purchased several R-3 zoned properties (multi-family residential) totalling less than one acre on East Howard Street with plans to build a new College of Education there. Unfortunately, as both ASU administrators and the town confirm, the plan as initially proposed (and since withdrawn) did not meet important town ordinances. Some of the problems, as identified in a Development Services staff report:

1. The proposed COE building was ten times the allowable square footage for building on such a small lot.

2. It failed to meet the minimum open space requirement.

3. It put a non-residential structure within 13 feet of a single family residence.

4. It did not meet the required interior property-line setback.

5. There were also water, storm water, traffic and parking concerns.

This placed the town's ability to approve the project in a bind because if a town government makes a change to its ordinances, that change has to, by law, apply community-wide. Council members were not willing to make special exceptions that would apply not only to the College of Education building itself but also to all other similar building projects in the Town's zoning jurisdiction.

Councilwoman Mason says on her web site, "I believe that it is important for those residing in this area to know that the Town will enforce its ordinances for them just as the town should do for any other area in town whether it be a single family neighborhood or a business area. This may be an area that would benefit from redevelopment, but any redevelopment should be done through a planning process with input from those directly affected."

As a result, the Town Council did not give ASU the automatic rights to build the new College of Education on the proposed site and began to suggest alternative sites for the building. ASU asked the town to pass an ordinance that would grant them the "super powers" to override their own ordinance requirements at will, but the Council refused, stating such a move would in effect eliminate all zoning in the town (at the whim of a future Council) and would frustrate residents' zoning expectations in their neighborhoods.

Students were told by ASU administration that "for some unknown reason" the town didn't support a new College of Education, when in fact the town's planning staff had made the non-conforming problems with the project very clear in its staff report, and incumbent Council members and the Mayor had lobbied the state for full funding for the project. The good news is that the College of Education issue has now resulted in the Town and ASU working on a long-range Master Plan for growth, something that, in my opinion, has been sorely needed for a long time. The incumbents believe we should work out a Master Plan for growth to address development issues before they occur. The PAC insists ASU has the right to build what it wants wherever it wants, no questions asked.

Issue #5: Will we reward the smear campaigns of the "Citizens for Change" political action committee? Or will we deny the PAC and its candidates' attempts to destroy the integrity of our town?

Phil Templeton, Jim Hastings, and David Blust formed a political action committee (a "PAC") this year in order to stop the actions of the progressive incumbent Town Council members. I attended one of the PAC meetings -- you can read about that experience ("New Light on an Old Subject") here.

After interviewing some candidates, the PAC endorsed Wilson for Mayor, and Dodson, Phillips and Wilcox for Boone Town Council. Specifically, the PAC and its candidates believe the town's elected officials should rubberstamp development projects (most especially theirs), with few or no questions asked. They would also like to overturn some of the regulatory progress made by the Council over the past few years.

The PAC, knowing that Boone is by and large a progressive community, has taken the election approach that name-calling, confusion, and misrepresentation of the facts is the best and most effective way to win its candidates. Boone residents have been treated to thousands of dollars' worth of radio spots and full-page newspaper ads claiming that Boone will not allow a Target or Best Buy (not true); that the Steep Slope and Viewshed ordinances keep single-family residences from being built on our hillsides (not true); that the town's water shortage is a "myth" (not true); and that the Town Council is not supportive of a new College of Education (not true). The PAC's general theory is a classic political one: sling enough mud and something might stick.

If Boone residents reward the PAC by electing its endorsed candidates, we can be assured that future elections will see much more of the same tactics.

For more information, including profiles of all the candidates, go here.

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