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Columbus rejects pleas for moratorium

Columbus councilman Richard Hall refers to Chocolate Drop Mountain development as the snake that bit the town, and says he doesn&squo;t want to see similar problems at the newly proposed Foster Creek Preserve.

He&squo;s one of numerous town officials and residents calling for stricter land use regulations before plans are submitted for Foster Creek.

&dquo;The bottom line is we&squo;ve all been snake bit and (Chocolate Drop) was the snake that bit us,&dquo; Hall said.

The town&squo;s planning board and members of the local Save Our Slopes organization urged the town council to adopt a moratorium on new subdivisions. They said that &dquo;timeout&dquo; would allow the town to put new regulations in the town&squo;s steep slope ordinance and make sure Foster Creek&bsp; won&squo;t look like Chocolate Drop.

But town council declined to pursue the moratorium. Following a closed session meeting, the council decided instead to request that Foster Creek Preserve hold off on submitting plans until July 5.

Foster Creek developers said previously they would wait until early summer to submit a master plan to the proposed 800-unit development on 1,000 acres. The town has already agreed to provide water to the development and has annexed the land, located northwest of the town off Houston Road and Hwy. 108.

Foster Creek representatives have said numerous times that they feel their development will comply with the town&squo;s wishes because the subdivision will be a cluster development with 50 percent in open space. Much of the open space is expected to be on the steeper slopes on the developments, while any lots on slopes are expected to be larger to minimize tree removal.

Despite such assurances, a large audience attended the last Columbus Town Council meeting. Members of the planning board, Save Our Slopes and residents urged council to impose a moratorium.

Planning board members said they&squo;ve felt a great deal of pressure and want to draft a more detailed steep slope ordinance that protects the town from developments such as Chocolate Drop.

&dquo;A 120-day moratorium would take a lot of pressure off,&dquo; planning board chairman John Hicks said.

Some residents said the planning board needs time to research such issues as sedimentation and erosion control, traffic and hydrology which will take time to digest.

The Columbus Planning Board has been discussing a stricter steep slope ordinance and researching ordinances of other governments, such as Jackson County and the City of Asheville.

David Weiss with Save Our Slopes questioned what the hardship would be to stop development until the planning board has time to research needed issues.

&dquo;Once the bulldozer starts you can&squo;t undo it,&dquo; said Weiss.

Columbus Town Attorney Bailey Nager reminded the public that the town does have an ordinance in place to regulate development on steep slopes. Nager also went over state statutes the town would need to satisfy in order to adopt a moratorium, including stating what alternatives the town has tried besides a moratorium, determining a clear statement of the development approvals subject to the moratorium, determining the length of the moratorium and developing a clear statement of actions and a schedule of what the town is going to accomplish during the moratorium.

Nager also said the town needs to appreciate the fact that people affected by a moratorium have a right to legally challenge it.

The town&squo;s current subdivision ordinance requires larger lots on land with a slope of 20 percent or greater. The town&squo;s planning board has considered adding other requirements, such as building height restrictions, to further limit the impact of development on steep slopes.

Eric Gass, who lives at the foot of Chocolate Drop Mountain, says he is very concerned about how the developments will
impact traffic and water resources.

Gass mentioned the county&squo;s current visioning process, designed in part to find out what the public wants the county to look like in the future. He said Columbus should participate in that process, and &dquo;if it takes a moratorium to achieve that I&squo;d certainly support that.&dquo;

Kathleen Kent said residents she&squo;s spoken with are already very concerned that Columbus recently doubled in size by annexing Foster Creek. She said she is very impressed with the town&squo;s planning board and she has seen a lot of pressure put on them.

Foster Creek representatives all said they don&squo;t oppose a moratorium, but it is the developers&squo; intention to communicate with the town and build a development that Columbus will be proud of.

Developers said their only problem with a moratorium is the negative message it sends out.

&dquo;We don&squo;t want a Chocolate Drop,&dquo; said Alan Peterson, with Kennedy Covington Attorneys&bsp; of Raleigh, representing Forest City Land Group. &dquo;Chocolate Drops happen when you don&squo;t maintain cluster and open spaces.&dquo;

Peterson said they want to work with Columbus and give&bsp; officials time to draft a new ordinance.

&dquo;If there are concerns we&squo;d like to hear about them,&dquo; Peterson said. &dquo;We want a plan that works for the community.&dquo;