Chocolate Drop draws critics, buyers

Published 9:41 am Monday, March 31, 2008

Chocolate Drop.

Just the mention of those words elicits disgust from some Polk residents who see the Columbus subdivision by that name as the poster child for destructive steep slope development.

To the developers, however, the words refer to a successful project that attracted interest from buyers across the country. In fact, the 45-lot subdivision has already sold out, with most of the lots going shortly after they were put on the market last spring by the developer, LGI Land of Texas.

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LGI brought in prospective buyers for a grand opening event last year, and soon secured sales to buyers from Florida, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina and other states. Lots were sold for prices ranging from $80,000 to $229,000.

&dquo;We&squo;ve been very satisfied with it,&dquo; says Mitch Stott, a Polk County native who teamed up with LGI for the project. &dquo;We worked with LGI because they have a tremendous marketing program. Now we&squo;re looking forward to residents coming up here and this becoming what we envisioned.&dquo;

Stott says the Chocolate Drop development has opened up a part of the county and some spectacular views that were never seen or enjoyed before by the public. The developers intentionally kept Chocolate Drop ungated and open to visitors, he says.

&squo;Wake-up call&squo;

While buyers of Chocolate Drop lots may be enamored of the views from their new properties, some county residents have been more focused on the views from below, looking up at the developed slopes just west of downtown Columbus.

Critics of the development say its bare slopes have spoiled some of the scenic beauty of the county, and resulting erosion problems (see story, page 11) have made it clear that stricter regulations are needed for steep slope developments.

&dquo;This was kind of a wake-up call. People are referring to Chocolate Drop in terms of what we don&squo;t want in development,&dquo; says Eric Gass, whose property adjoins the Chocolate Drop development. &dquo;In order to build the roads and make those lots on those slopes, the number of trees that had to come down was huge. The end result is not a happy one.&dquo;

Residents who formed the local group Save Our Slopes (SOS) have been highly critical of the development, putting before and after shots of Chocolate Drop on the home page of the group&squo;s website,

SOS and members of the Columbus Planning Board have been pushing to get stricter regulations in place before the next development, Foster Creek Preserve, comes to nearby slopes. They&squo;ve even suggested a moratorium on new subdivisions just to be sure the town avoids &dquo;another Chocolate Drop.&dquo; (See &dquo;Columbus rejects pleas for moratorium, page 1.)

&dquo;When Chocolate Drop happened, that wasn&squo;t just a Columbus experience, that experience happened to us all (in the county),&dquo; says SOS member David Weiss, who says state regulations alone are not sufficient to guard against similar steep slopes developments in the future.

State standards met

Stott says he has talked with citizens concerned about the look of Chocolate Drop, and he emphasizes&bsp; that the development was designed to meet the standards of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

He says the developers would have preferred to take out fewer trees and left fewer slopes bare. The developers actually proposed alternatives, such as retaining walls, that would have achieved those goals, but DENR did not approve those plans, he says.

&dquo;We wanted to do minimal tree removal; we didn&squo;t want open space up here,&dquo; he says. &dquo;We proposed to keep from taking trees out, but it wasn&squo;t approved.&dquo;

Janet Boyer of the N.C. Division of Land Resources says the state does
not create erosion control plans for developments; it only approves those proposed by developers. She says the state did not oversee the construction of roads for Chocolate Drop since they are private roads. But she says the state did make sure the &dquo;cut and fill&dquo; required to put the roads into the slopes was designed to ensure the stability of the slopes.

Boyer says the erosion control plan submitted for Chocolate Drop was approved in May of 2006, and since then there have been three erosion control violations at the development.

Columbus Town Manager Tim Holloman says he understands the developers did want to minimize tree removal, but had to remove trees and move enough dirt to meet road width requirements. He says the town is working with Foster Creek Preserve to avoid that problem.&bsp; The town likely will grant variances to the road width requirements, he says, so roads in Foster Creek Preserve can be narrower and more trees can be saved.

New regulations

Holloman says he does not expect to see similar problems with subdivisions on slopes in the future. Since Chocolate Drop was created, the town has adopted a steep slope ordinance that town planners say is very progressive. Holloman notes that it&squo;s more restrictive than the county&squo;s steep slope ordinance. The ordinance, requiring larger lot sizes on steep slopes, applies to lots with a slope of 20 percent or greater, while the county&squo;s ordinance applies only to lots with a slope of 50 percent or greater.

The town also adopted a provision for planned unit developments, which requires town approval through multiple stages of planning. Foster Creek Preserve will be a planned unit development, he says, so plans will go before town officials on at least three separate occasions.

Since Chocolate Drop was initially proposed, Columbus also adopted a &dquo;Residential Estate&dquo; subdivision district with 2-acre minimum lot sizes. The new district was applied to Chocolate Drop, which has lots ranging in size from two to five acres.

Columbus councilwoman Margaret Metcalf says Columbus often gets blamed for Chocolate Drop, but she says it&bsp; was not inside the town when it was initially proposed and planned. The town later annexed the subdivision at the developer&squo;s request.

Growing back

The Town of Columbus hasn&squo;t received any building permits yet for lots on Chocolate Drop, but Stott says houses will come, along with new landscaping, and eventually the mountain&squo;s appearance will change.

He says he learned recently that many of the trees on the mountain were burned down in a wildfire back in the 1970s, but it wasn&squo;t long before vegetation covered the hilltop again.

&dquo;There&squo;s already trees naturally growing back in the cut areas and more will be coming with landscaping,&dquo; he says. &dquo;A few years from now it will be filled in some and will look different. But I know some people don&squo;t want to wait that long.&dquo;

Stott says he believes stricter regulations will only draw more people to the region who are looking for those types of restrictions to protect their property values.

&dquo;The more restrictions you impose, the more people are going to move here. The more you try to stop the development the more you&squo;re going to entice it,&dquo; he says. &dquo;If you put a mobile home on every corner you would see people stop coming.&dquo;

New projects

Stott says LGI continues to look for other potential development sites across Western North Carolina. Even while the development market has slowed in some areas of the country, Stott says he expects it will remain stable in this region, largely because most of the developments are upscale and attract buyers who are less affected by the economic downturn.

He acknowledges that some other developments in the region and Polk County have not sold lots as quickly as LGI did at Chocolate Drop.

He attributes that partly to the LGI marketing
program, which includes pricing lots about 10 to 15 percent under market. Buyers know they will have immediate equity in the property, he says, and the developer is able to make sales quicker and reduce interest costs. Stott says the success of Chocolate Drop was noticed by at least one other local developer who expressed interest in teaming up with LGI to sell lots for an existing project.

Stott adds that Chocolate Drop&squo;s success can also be attributed to the property itself.

&dquo;I do think we have been blessed and we&squo;ve got a beautiful property,&dquo; he says.