Columbus rejects 3-acre min. density

Published 9:24 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

&dquo;This is about stewardship of our water; it&squo;s about how much we&squo;re taking out and how much we&squo;re putting in,&dquo; said David Weiss of Save our Slopes, an organization that has pushed for lower density. &dquo;I really commend the planning board for being proactive.&dquo;

Town council members acknowledged they approved in May an 8-month moratorium on subdivisions so the town could draft more land use restrictions, such as those affecting tree cutting, lighting and erosion control.&bsp; The town approved the moratorium after residents objected to Foster Creek Preserve, a proposed development of nearly 800 homes on more than 1,000 acres near Mill Spring.

Town council members voiced appreciation Thursday for the planning board&squo;s work on a variety of new regulations, but they made it clear they think the&bsp; board went too far on density restrictions.

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&dquo;It seems extreme,&dquo; said council member Richard Hall. &dquo;It&squo;s like it&squo;s aimed at Foster Creek but it will affect the whole town.The perception is out there that this is closing the gates and not letting anybody else in and in a way that&squo;s what we&squo;re doing.&dquo;

Hall said, if it were up to him, the town would have closed the gates 15 years ago, but that &dquo;would leave a lot of people out in this room.&dquo;

Council member Michael Gage said he would be one of them left out. Gage added that prior to May when the town adopted the moratorium he would have voted to de-annex Foster Creek Preserve, but he later realized the town can&squo;t pursue that course. Town officials have indicated the town likely would face a lawsuit if it did.

Gage said he has since shifted his focus toward making Foster Creek the best possible development for the town, a goal that could become more difficult under lower density requirements. Gage said it may not be cost effective for Foster Creek to pay for water and sewer lines to the town under such restrictions, and it could be forced in that case to put in wells and septic systems.

Council member Margaret Metcalf said Columbus initially was interested in restrictions to limit the town&squo;s growth outside its current boundaries. As opponents of Foster Creek Preserve have noted, the development would dramatically expand the town both in area and eventually in population.

But Metcalf said the planning board&squo;s proposal would limit growth both outside and inside the town. Without some growth, she said, the town would be forced to raise taxes over time on existing residents to cover rising costs for services.

&dquo;If we don&squo;t grow somewhere, somehow this is what&squo;s going to happen. It&squo;s inevitable,&dquo; she said. &dquo;I don&squo;t think we have the information we need to pass (the proposal) because it&squo;s too strict, it covers too much territory and actually it&squo;s in a place where we don&squo;t want to go with it.&dquo;

Council member Ricky McCallister said he thinks the 15 percent slope threshold is also too strict. McCallister said the 20 percent slope the town initially planned is sufficient.

Representatives for Foster Creek also spoke against the planning board&squo;s proposal. Scott Kilby with the developer, Forest City Land Group, said he thinks many of the board&squo;s proposed regulations will be good for the town and will enhance the development. He noted that Foster Creek has worked closely with the town and agreed to hold off on its plans so Columbus had time to add regulations.

However, he said the density requirement was &dquo;a surprise&dquo; to the developer. He added that Foster Creek had agreed to delay plans on the condition that the density requirement would not be changed. He said lowering density could contribute to sprawl and force developers in the future to use all of a property and leave none for open space.

&dquo;If this is approved, we&squo;re not going to be able to move forward with our current plan,&dquo; said Kilby. &dquo;I think this density amendment is going to discourage responsible growth.&dquo;

Kilby noted that Foster Creek is planning to leave about 700 of the 1,065 acres in the development as &dquo;undisturbed open space.&dquo; If yards, gardens and other areas not under roof or pavement are included, nearly 90 percent of the development will be pervious land that allows groundwater recharge, he said.

Kilby added that Columbus is proceeding with plans that will allow it to receive water from Tryon, Saluda and even Hendersonville. That water source may be available to the town within 18 months, well before construction even begins on the first house in Foster Creek, he said. The development is expected to be built out over 15 to 20 years so lots will be sold gradually in phases over that time and homes may be built even more gradually.

&dquo;There will be no immediate impact on the town,&dquo; he said.

Planning board members said they are aware of the town&squo;s plans to gain another water source, but they said at this time the town is reliant on underground aquifers, a limited source that may be in jeopardy if there&squo;s more development.

They added that their proposal allows developers to petition the planning board for relaxed density requirements. The developer would have to hire a hydrology expert who can show that the aquifers underneath the land can accommodate more density.

But council members raised concerns that the proposal allowed the planning board to have the final say on such requests. They also questioned how easy it would be to determine the exact volume of water under the land. For instance, they wondered whether aquifers under Foster Creek would benefit from the more than 14,000 acres of adjacent protected state game lands, noting that experts say underground aquifers or fractures in rocks are connected.

Planning board members acknowledged they did not get a hydrology expert to study specifically Foster Creek&39;s land or land in Columbus. But they said the proposed density requirements were based on multiple studies in the region over many years that show lower density is required to ensure groundwater recharge.

&dquo;This is not about curtailing development. This is about controlling development,&dquo; said planning board member Susan Johann. &dquo;We&squo;re being quite lenient. If (a developer) went into the county, they would have a 7-acre minimum lot size.&dquo;

While the density amendment was rejected Thursday, the town is moving forward with the tree cutting and dark sky ordinances and more regulations to prevent erosion and land slides on steep slopes.

The town&squo;s planning board has held numerous meetings during the moratorium period, bringing in state experts on water resources and use regulations, to help craft new restrictions. The town&squo;s moratorium is set to expire in January.