Just the Facts

Possible changes coming to the floodplain ordinance

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Amy Kirkpatrick

Macon County citizens have had not one but three different opportunities to shape floodplain ordinances at both the county and town level in recent weeks. The discussion has demonstrated the importance of public hearings as officials attempt to find the right balance in addressing public safety, economic development, regulatory oversight, and environmental protections. 

Macon County Commissioner Josh Young initiated the discussion on March 7, when he requested the Macon County Planning Board to consider a change to the existing Macon County Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance to allow fill dirt in the floodplain. The county last amended this ordinance in 2021.

Joe Allen, director of the Macon County Planning Office, confirmed that no exceptions/variances to the ordinance’s restrictions on fill dirt were received by the county in 2023. 

“Emotions are high,” observed Young at the May 14 Board of Commissioners meeting; he reflected on what prompted the floodplain review, along with separate reviews on erosion control and RV parks in the watershed. 

RESIDENTS RECENTLY had an opportunity to express their concerns to the Macon County Planning Board (pictured top of the story) about possible changes to the Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance.

“These are real issues that the public, the people, have brought to me over the years … I would be devastated if the whole Georgia Road was turned into an industrial sector … That’s not at all what I’m proposing,” said Young. “Surely we can find some common ground.”

He added: “I kind of need to defend myself.” This comment was in response to allegations made during the public comments that Steele NC, an LLC he operates, had recently purchased three parcels of land in the floodplain that may benefit from proposed changes. “I sought legal counsel to deed restrict the property I purchased. That will probably never be built … no need to worry about me profiting from this ordinance discussion.” 

Why the fuss?

How did a review on fill dirt prompt so much activity that commissioners are now providing assurances that recusals were not required?

“When the planning board reviews an ordinance, it is at the request of the Board of Commissioners with direction toward a specific section or ordinance requirement (i.e. fill in the floodplain). These discussions can and most of the time do span several meetings,” explained Allen, responding to written questions regarding county procedures. “Public comment periods are always a part of the agenda.”

As a first step in the county’s review process of the Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance, “the Planning Board reached out to Steve Garrett, the North Carolina National Flood Insurance Program Coordinator, to discuss the proposed changes and how they would/could impact the Floodplain in Macon County,” said Allen. 

While this review was undertaken, concerned citizens began circulating notes to neighbors in April. The Planning Board was unable to release documents prior to its public meeting based on established county procedures. The lack of specificity left some Maconians questioning if the entire Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance would be scrapped.

On May 2, at a well-attended meeting, residents had an opportunity to express their concerns to the Planning Board. Young, who serves as the commissioners’ liaison to the Planning Board, lamented that he missed that meeting which, as he characterized it, “Was a humdinger.”  

More than 20 speakers at the Planning Board meeting recommended that the county not make any changes, citing personal experiences with flooding and concerns that changes to the floodplain on one individual’s property could have more damaging effects elsewhere downstream.

“I can’t unsee what I saw during Hurricane Ivan,” said Angela Faye Martin, in an interview prior to the meeting. “We saw cows, we saw refrigerators, [and] cars sailing down the Little Tennessee River, right over Highway 28. The erosion becomes a non-issue at that point.” 


She added that she does not want to see protections that were put in place after that devastating experience removed. 

“Ivan had a massive price tag,” asserted Martin, pointing out that future storms could unleash costlier damages both in lives lost and in taxpayer funds for rebuilding.

As owner of Alarka Expeditions, a small eco-tourism business, Martin sympathized with other owners in the county who want to utilize their land. “I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a living.”

Changes to the ordinance regarding fill were different. “It would be a short-term benefit to just a few people. But is it worth compromising this resource?” questioned Martin. “The core of my business is the integrity of the Little Tennessee River.” 

Analyzing the issues

Martin’s comments reflected the views of many who spoke at the May 2 meeting. For instance, Kenneth McCaskill, of the Macon County Farm Bureau office, prompted by both local and state Farm Bureau boards, raised concern that lifting the fill dirt restrictions could impact dwindling agricultural land and hay fields. Preferring instead to strengthen the language, McCaskill said, “No fill in the floodplain would suit me better” [as an outcome of the deliberations].

Town of Franklin Council Member David Culpepper, who also owns Culpepper’s Architectural Salvage in Otto, spoke at the Planning Board meeting. He did not discount apprehensions raised, but said that he believed “the current floodplain ordinance has been a poison pill from the start.” He further explained that restrictive policies had inhibited economic growth and driven away potential investors in the county. He cited the experience of one landowner who went bankrupt while attempting to start up a RV park that would have touched on the floodplain.

Subcommittee to find solutions

After a few rounds of debate, the Planning Board tabled the proposed revision and determined that it required more guidance from the Board of Commissioners to decide if a subcommittee could be pulled together to study the issue.

When the Board of Commissioners met on May 14, the proposed revisions, primarily to Section 5A (17) of the existing ordinance, were fully presented. While at the base level the debate was focused squarely on fill dirt, Planning Board members and the commissioners found themselves grappling with Constitutional and property rights; how the riverine areas were to be shared among public and private landholders with competing interests; and, the difficulties in reconciling all these concerns.

“I question why is it okay to do it in the Town of Franklin and it’s not okay in the county?” asked Commissioner John Shearl, reflecting on the differences between the more restrictive county and less restrictive town floodplain ordinances. 

Commissioner Danny Antoine advocated for a public hearing, stating, “It’s good to hear both sides.” Antoine and Chairman Gary Shields both struck a similar theme that many Planning Board members shared earlier in the month in that they needed more information to make a decision. 

Before setting a public hearing, Allen recommended that the commissioners “look at that [proposed] flood ordinance and make sure that’s what you want [presented].” 

Commissioners called upon attendees of the May 14 meeting to provide comments, advice, and solutions.

Lewis Penland, owner of Penland Contracting and a former Planning Board member, when asked about the feasibility of a subcommittee, said, “I agree with Josh [Young]. It needs to be a small number of people. The more you get, the harder it is to get something done.”

With an extensive background in repairing streambanks and erosion control, Penland noted, “There needs to be some system where each individual property you deal with is treated as an individual case. What works in Raleigh does not work in Western North Carolina … two totally different demographics and topography.”  

Individuals asked for the subcommittee to engage with engineers, farmers, FEMA experts, insurance specialists, and business owners. All agreed that the subcommittee should not reflect one side or the other but rather balance the various concerns expressed since the ordinance was last changed. Based on findings, pros and cons can be presented with a new proposal for public comment.

The county-wide discussion prompted Vice Mayor Stacy Guffey to raise the issue for the Town of Franklin as well. At the May 6 Council meeting, Guffey took a different approach. Guffey invited Franklin’s council to look at strengthening the Town of Franklin’s floodplain provisions to mirror the county’s current limits on fill dirt. 

Council member Joe Collins concurred with the need for debate. Culpepper asked to look at options to allow private landowners to make appropriate changes, such as adding driveways or culverts, without undue burdens. 

With local governmental entities now looking at options, the public can continue to engage concerning floodplain ordinances at upcoming scheduled meetings. The next Town of Franklin Council meeting is June 3, Macon County Planning Board is June 6, and Macon County Board of Commissioners meeting is June 11.

Amy Kirkpatrick is a member of the Macon County Beekeepers Association.