Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Watauga's High Impact Land Use Ordinance -- AMENDED -- And the Citizens Win

Watauga Commission
Chair Jimmy Hodges
This morning the Watauga County Commission voted unanimously to pass recommended amendments to the High Impact Land Use (HILU) Ordinance, including expanding the uses covered by Category 1 (the most stringent designation) and (most significantly) adding a special use permitting section that will include from now on public notice to affected land-owners on any proposed HILU use under any category and an opportunity to present relevant, competent, and material evidence of why a permit should not be issued. The following evidentiary categories will be considered regarding a proposed development:
(1) Will it endanger the public health or safety?
(2) Will it injure the value of adjoining or abutting property?
(3) Will it be in harmony with the area in which it is located?
(4) Will it be in conformity with the land-use plan, thoroughfare plan, or other plan officially adopted by the County Commission?
Having watched and participated in struggles over land-use planning in Watauga since the 1990s, my enthusiasm for this enormous leap forward is based on an appreciation for history and for the ironies contained therein. We wanted a special-use permitting process when the HILU ordinance was first passed more than a decade ago, and the reigning powers at that time looked at us like we had tails. The reigning powers now are still Republican, but...

Things changed. The citizens rose up and made themselves heard. What the current County Commission heard loud and clear (and as someone this morning said), "We don't feel safe in this county." They should feel considerably safer this morning.

The original HILU came about because of the threat of an asphalt plant on the Roby Greene Road. It was a grudging ordinance. Powerful forces wanted no land-use regs of any kind. A county committee made up equally of "zoners" and "no-zoners" argued and jaw-boned and negotiated for months, and what emerged eventually was watered-down and weak.

Another asphalt plant threat suddenly emerged this year, and what has happened now is not weak, not compromised away into insignificance. It has teeth now. It remains to be seen how it will work, but the citizens who banded together and formed High Country Watch deserve praise and congratulations for moving this county forward light-years from where it was.

Realistically, part of the pressure that began to mount on the County Commission to change the HILU was prompted by the power-grab obligingly engineered by Senator Dan Soucek to take away Boone's extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), at the behest of major developers who despised Boone's land-use planning regs.

Sen. Dan Soucek
As you should know by now, the three-judge panel hearing Boone's lawsuit against Soucek's "local bill" yesterday threw out the law as unconstitutional.

But the upset among ETJ residents living in fear of what could happen to their investments after Soucek's law passed was certainly part of the increased public awareness and the energy that funneled into High Country Watch.

That struggle isn't over, of course. Soucek told the Watauga Democrat, "I fully intend to ask [the Attorney General's Office] to appeal. The residents of the ETJ shouldn’t have their properties subject to a town council that they didn’t vote for. They’re my constituents, and I will continue to fight for their property rights."

Whose property rights? The individuals who originally induced Mr. Soucek to file his bill. The rest of you can, well, suck it!

Soucek wants to see this case reach the NC Supreme Court, where a 5-4 conservative Republican majority ought (he thinks) uphold his power-grab (as it recently upheld giving public tax dollars to private schools, another of Mr. Soucek's pet projects). He's possibly right. Considering the blistering he just experienced from the three-judge panel, we don't know. But by its action this morning, the County Commission rendered at least some of the fear among ETJ residents moot. (County regs do not, however, address steep-slope development, which is a major feature of Boone's regs.)

Ironically, Soucek helped move Watauga County miles down the road toward effective land-use planning. Also ironically, it took a new Republican County Commission Chair, Jimmy Hodges, to swing the vote. Nathan Miller would never have taken the county where its gone today.

Of course, we are realistic. Only a limited number of uses are covered by HILU:
Category 1: Asphalt Plants, Cement Mixing Facilities, Quarries/Stone Crushers, Chemical Manufacturing, Chemical Storage Facilities, and Explosives Manufacturing.
Category 2. Automotive Graveyards, Propane or Gasoline Bulk Storage Facilities, Chip Mills, Electricity Generating Facilities (excluding Wind and Solar Power Farms), and Junk/Scrap Yards.
Category 3. Fuel Oil Bulk Storage Facilities, Electric Substations, Commercial/Industrial Development with aggregate building footprint 50,000 square feet or greater, Recycling Facilities, and Solar Power Farms.
Still to be subjected to special use permits and county land-use planning are high-density housing projects (The Cottages, anyone?), but we've taken a step in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Souceck is an elected official whose job is to serve his constituents. He needs to share with the public WHO exactly has asked him to strip Boone of its ETJ. Most ETJ residents did not seem to agree with this action. Developers, of course, were eager to get the ETJ out from Boone's restrictive codes and into the "Wild West" of Watauga. Here's to hoping that most of Soucek's constituents vote him out at the next opportunity.

With regard to the HILU ordinance, the Watauga County Commissioners have acted - as far as I can see - apolitically - and in ways that help better protect the county. All five commissioners are to be commended for taking the time to listen to their constituents - and acting on what they've heard. More work is to be done, but the commissioners have signaled an interest in continuing this work.

Unknown said...

No doubt this is a good step, but anyone who attended the last commissioner's meeting will note that politics is alive and well on the commission. I will also raise the issue that having public hearings without enforceable legislation, i.e. appropriate setbacks, is still somewhat of a joke. Granted, it may be more than what we may have gotten in the past, but seriously, we have 100 foot setbacks for the rest of those category 2 and 3 industries. 100 feet. So, if we want to raise issues in a public forum for future permits, there needs to be teeth to back it up, because the company seeking the permit can still appeal any decision, and can eventually take it to court, which is a whole different game, demanding money and time. It find it curious that the 3 commissioners wouldn't take up the setback issue last meeting; but that may be where their true ideological colors show. This could feel good now but possibly not so later. Hopefully we can continue to communicate our vision for a county that respects the interests of ALL residents.

Jeff said...

Does the AG office HAVE to appeal this ruling?

legal eagle said...

the a.g. is obliged to defend the stupid laws passed by the stupid general assembly. otherwise stupid republicans would accuse a.g. cooper of shirking his duties

Jeff said...

So, what's wrong with shirking against a bunch of dumb asses? Is the AG able to ignore an appeal against a clearly unconstitutional legislative decision? What exactly is the obligation? It's obvious after the school voucher decision that the state "Supreme Court" majority has zero interest in the constitution or the law.

Anonymous said...

To Jeff and Legal Eagle - it is unclear what you are talking about. The original post is about Watauga County adding protections for homeowners and the county to its HILU ordinance. Not clear why the AG would oppose this. The county has not acted unconstitutionally at all.

Jeff said...

Hello Anon-the comments concern the ETJ ruling by the three judge panel.