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Public weighs in on proposed Floodplain Ordinance changes

At the latest Macon County Board of Commissioners meeting, a proposal to relax the county’s floodplain regulations sparked a wave of public concern. Citizens took the floor during the public comment period to voice their opposition to changes that could potentially heighten flood risks.

The current ordinance prohibits the encroachment of fill material or other development into the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), the floodway, or non-encroachment area of any watercourse unless strict requirements are met. Commissioner Josh Young, having been approached by residents seeking more lenient regulations, proposed amendments that would allow fill material to be placed in flood-prone areas by removing key protective measures from the ordinance.

The proposed changes would reduce the flood ordinance to match the state’s minimum requirements, to reduce burdens on Macon County citizens.

Coincidently, it was 10 years ago almost to the day, in May 2013, when Macon County last dove into the very same debate. In 2013, the floodplain fill ordinance was 5 years old and was considered one of the stricter ordinances in the state. It was enacted following severe flooding in 2004, when two 500-year floods were witnessed along tributaries of the Little Tennessee River. The law followed the logic that the flood plain is a natural reservoir for surging storm waters. Macon County is known for its wide Little Tennessee River valley and several major creek bottoms.

Theoretically, whenever it rains the water on the mountainsides it is channeled into the valleys making the area more prone to flash floods. Macon County’ floodplain ordinance specifically applies to the county’s 100-year flood plain, the buffer around rivers that supposedly floods every 100 years. However, Macon County has not been spared flooding more than every 100 years and back in 2013, it was explained that over the past 230 years, Macon County had suffered 10 of those 100-year floods., promoting the need for the ordinance.

The 2013 planning board and county commissioners debated the issue back and forth for a few months, and although the planning board agreed then by a 7-2 vote that an outright ban was too strict, ultimately decided to leave the ordinance as is, and now, 10 years later, the debate is back.

Macon County Plan Reviewer Joe Allen told commissioners that said FEMA allows fill dirt in floodplains, as does the towns of Franklin and Highlands, plus several neighboring counties. While he doesn’t think the county should completely reduce current flood plan ordinance requirements, he does agree a compromise is possible that could lessen some restrictions without complete elimination.

Critics of the proposed changes highlighted several potential risks, including increased flood heights and velocities due to obstructions in the floodplain. They stressed the danger this poses not only to individual property owners but also to the broader community, which could face greater public expenditures for flood protection and relief.

“It is important to remember that the existing Floodplain Ordinance was strengthened in response, to the deadly impacts of Hurricane Francis and Ivan in Macon County in September of 2004,” said Jason Love, who works for Mainspring Conservation Trust.  “These back-to-back hurricanes led to widespread flooding in the catastrophic re-flood in Peeks Creek, which claimed the lives of five people and destroyed 15 homes. The existing ordinance was crafted based on the input of technically qualified experts and following public hearings, in which there was near unanimous support of the ordinance, from farmers to private property rights advocates, from Democrats to Republicans. The ordinance was crafted to improve safety for life and property during major flood events. It doesn’t matter if another flood event at this magnitude strikes Macon County, it’s just a matter of when.”

Environmental advocates also weighed in, emphasizing the importance of preserving the natural functions of floodplains which include water filtration, wildlife habitat, and flood mitigation. They argued that weakening these regulations contradicts the objectives outlined in the existing ordinance, such as protecting human life, minimizing public expenditure on flood control, and maintaining the natural benefits of floodplain ecosystems.

“I would like to take this opportunity to partner with our planning board and establish a subcommittee dedicated to addressing this issue. to examine our floodplain ordinance,” said Macon County resident Lewis Penland. “Together we can work towards developing solutions that not only address the immediate concerns, raised by our community, but also lay the foundation for a more resilient and sustainable future.”

Proponents of the amendment argue that the changes would provide more freedom to property owners and boost local development.

“Whatever the intentions of the floodplain ordinance were then, we know that it’s not operating as good as it could,” said Macon County resident David Culpepper. “We know that it’s trapping people. We know that landowners are being turned into criminals, for things as simple as putting a driveway in. That’s not really fair. It’s not just. And we know that. We now know that after years and years and years of this floodplain ordinance being passed, we know that it traps people.”

Floods have been, and continue to be, a destructive natural hazard in terms of economic loss to the citizens of North Carolina. Since 1978, federal flood insurance policyholders in North Carolina have received over $970 million in claim payments. Though that figure represents many insurance payments, most of the state’s flood-prone properties do not have flood insurance. As of November 2015, only about 30% of buildings located in high-risk floodplain areas in North Carolina had a flood insurance policy.

Flood-prone communities adopt ordinances that detail the rules and requirements for floodplain development. The North Carolina Division of Emergency Management serves to aid citizens understand what floodplain management is and why floodplain development is regulated. Counties and local communities regulate development in floodplains to:

 Protect people and property

 Ensure that federal flood insurance and disaster assistance are available

 Save tax dollars

 Reduce liability and lawsuits

 Reduce future flood losses

Sarah Johnson spoke during public comment period and asked that Commissioner Josh Young recuse himself from a vote involving the floodplain due to property he recently purchased. “We also respectfully and politely ask that Commissioner Young recuse himself from any decision-making process on this matter,  and avoid any semblance of impropriety, however perceived. He recently purchased a riverfront property in Otto adjacent to the highway before bringing this matter to the board.”

Commissioner Young addressed Johnson’s comments and provided reassurance that he has nothing to gain from the change, “About 10 years ago or better, I had several tracts of land that would essentially balance if I took birth from this piece of land. I proposed putting on this piece of land, the piece on the Georgia road. Well, we hauled 1,200 loads of dirt out of that piece of property. That dirt’s gone. I actually sought legal counsel to go ahead and deed restrict that property that I purchased just to show good faith. That’s happening. That property will never be filled. That discussion’s over with. So there’s no need to worry about that, and no need to worry about me profiting from this.”

The debate over the floodplain ordinance is far from over, with further discussions scheduled for upcoming county meetings. County Commissioners suggested forming a sub-committee comprised of local community members, property owners, and experts in the field to work toward developing a compromise to lessen the restrictions without completely eliminating them. To garner further input from the community, commissioners voted to schedule public hearings to give the general public the opportunity to address commissioners directly regarding the proposed changes.

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