Just the Facts

Public reacts to proposed floodplain ordinance changes

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Amy Kirkpatrick

The Macon County Board of Commissioners moved closer to considering changes to the county’s Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance on June 11. Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes July 9, along with concurrent reviews of the Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control and Watershed Protection Ordinances.  

In May, the board voted to create a subcommittee to review the ordinance and recommend changes to the prohibitions on fill dirt in the floodplain. Planning Board Members Larry Lackey and Barry Breeden, Commissioners Josh Young and Danny Antoine, and Plan Reviewer/Code Enforcement Officer Joe Allen worked together to craft a more significant set of changes to the existing ordinance. The original proposal removed all prohibitions on fill dirt, which drew significant objections by some community members. 

The updated proposed language presented to the commissioners at June’s meeting now adds in the definition of “flood fringe,” or lands outside the floodway, and the process by which landowners would be required to obtain permits when significant fill materials are added into flood fringe areas. One of the key changes in the permitting process would require landowners to hire a civil engineer to certify that fill dirt covering more than 25% of the flood fringe in a parcel of land would have no adverse impact to other landowners downstream or adjacent to the construction area. 

“These are middle of the road changes,” Allen told commissioners as he explained the subcommittee’s process. “These changes are modeled on Brevard County and the City of Hendersonville ordinances, with a little mix of both on how they handle fill. Once the subcommittee met, we shot the flood ordinance proposed changes off to Eric [Ridenour, the county attorney]. He had a few minor things that he wanted to look at. Then we had a Zoom meeting with the state floodplain mapping guys …[They] had no recommended changes on what we had put in there. They were all in agreement that it fell within FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] guidelines.”

When Allen was questioned by Commissioner Paul Higdon on who oversees the flood damage prevention permitting process for the county, Allen verified it was Caleb Gibson, the county’s floodplain manager. “It’s a beast,” commented Allen in reference to the complex requirements laid down by FEMA and state authorities. Gibson will be handling all Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance issues in the wake of Allen’s resignation, which became effective June 28.

Mixed Reactions

A number of Macon County residents provided input on the new proposal at the June 11 meeting. All but one expressed concern about the effect the fill dirt allowance would have on the health of the Little Tennessee River, farmland protections, risk to first responders, and potential downstream issues for neighboring properties. 

Nantahala community resident Chuck Grant recounted the difficulties that a resident had in trying to obtain a permit to add an RV hook-up on newly-acquired land along White Oak Creek. 

“I always understood property rights to be explained to me by a man holding a bundle of pencils,” said Grant, describing an interaction with a legal expert. “The man said once you have title, ‘You have the right to ownership. You have the right to exclusion.’”  

To Grant, that understanding of exclusion meant, “You have a bundle of rights that belong to your property. One of those is the right to quiet enjoyment. That means you can use your property as you see fit.”  

Grant explained that under the floodway exclusion zone set up under FEMA mapping, by bureaucrats who had never laid eyes on the actual site, “You can’t use this property. That just doesn’t seem right to me.”   

“I understand this is …voluntary and if you didn’t volunteer for [some restrictions], we wouldn’t get any federal disaster funds,” Grant noted, but he implored commissioners to “take people’s personal property rights into consideration,” as they reviewed the ordinance, particularly since people are paying property taxes on the land.

Thirteen other individuals spoke, including Kenneth McCaskill, president of the board of directors of the Macon County Farm Bureau, who stated, “Changing this ordinance and putting in more buildings and development in these floodplains is going to put more people in danger, and put your volunteers at risk.

“The most productive farmland we have is the floodplain bottomlands,” he added. “In North Carolina we are losing farmland faster than any other state to development. That’s pitiful. If the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us the importance of local food production…[Let’s] not change something that’s going to cost the county money.” 

“It feels irresponsible to me to not bring in experts and get what hydrologists and biologists would say about this issue … I think it’s bad for our county,” said Gwen Willoughby. “I think it’s bad for people. And I think it’s bad for the environment.”

For readers wanting more information on the actual proposals and terminology on floodplains, erosion, and watersheds, Macon County Public Notices can be found at https://maconnc.org/public-notices.html; and, the Association of Floodplain Managers provides resources about how floodplains work and about how landowners can manage flooding risk and response at www.reducefloodrisk.org. 

For more about the recent floodplain ordinance discussion in Macon County, read Amy Kirkpatrick’s article in the May 23, 2024 edition of Macon Sense here

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