Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

County authorizes grading, roads at Seven Falls

Henderson County planning director Anthony Starr surveys a gully caused by erosion at Seven Falls.

ETOWAH — The Henderson County Board of Commissioners, cast in a caretaker role for the failed Seven Falls development, has authorized engineers to move ahead with roads and utility lines on the scarred land.

Whether the county grades the earth and pours asphalt remains an open question. While most of the people who spoke to commissioners during a meeting last week agreed with the proposal to build 5 miles of roads and install water and sewer lines, advocates for the environment challenged the county officials on their priorities.
Cleaning up the damage caused by runoff and erosion on the abandoned land should come first, the advocates said.
"What should happen out there is the damage should be fixed first," David Weintraub, executive director of the Environmental and Conservation Organization. "No. 1, the county is saying that they're acting on behalf of consumer protection on behalf of land buyers but legally the responsibility for fixing the infrastructure includes fixing the land that was damaged because of developer negligence."
County Attorney Russ Burrell and environmental lawyers disagree on that point. Burrell says a $6 million surety bond the county collected because the developer failed to build roads and utility lines can be used only to complete that work, not to fix erosion or clean up streams ruined by silt runoff.
Putting in the roads will stop new runoff and erosion, county planners say.
"It's going to help because it's going to prevent further damage from occurring," Planning Director Anthony Starr said as he guided a reporter along parts of the Seven Falls land last week. "This improvement is the most practical, viable way we have of repairing damage that's occurred on the site."
During a meeting on Oct. 17, commissioners:
• Agreed to hire Lapsley and Associates to do the engineering work on the roadwork and public utilities. Lapsley did the original work for developer Keith Vinson and could get the work up and running much quicker than hiring an engineer to start from scratch. Lapsley will charge $146,000, or 2.4 percent of the project cost. The customary rate of 8-10 percent would mean an engineering cost of $480,000 to $600,000, planners said.
• Authorized the county to immediately advertise for bids for soil erosion control and rough grading in advance of road work next summer. Planners said that would halt further erosion.
Those two measures turned out to be the easy part.
When planners brought up a proposal to run sewer lines and negotiate an agreement with Etowah Sewer Co. for wastewater treatment, the plan stalled. Commissioner Larry Young said he had just received a call that morning from the chairman of the Etowah Sewer Co. saying the package plant did not have enough capacity to handle 205 residential lots that are currently platted in Seven Falls.
Commissioner Charlie Messer said proposals in the state Legislature on regionalized water and sewer systems and Henderson County's own pending study on the topic could change the options.
"I think we're putting the cart in front of the horse on this," he said. "I think we need to table our wastewater project until we have our infrastructure and fix some of the environmental problems out there. I think this is too far out for us to make any decisions because we don't know what's coming down the pike."
The Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter to Henderson County almost a year ago asserting that the $6 million bond should go toward fixing the damage, not building the road.
"I read the (July 2009) Performance Guarantee as plainly obligating Seven Falls not only to install promised improvements, but to make necessary expenditures to meet federal, state and local environmental standards," Austin DJ Gerken wrote on behalf of ECO.
Starr drove the property last week, pointing out the graded but unfinished Seven Falls Parkway, a covered bridge with erosion alongside it and a deep gully created by water. The county is doing the most it can with the money to salvage the value for the landowners and stop further damage.
"It would be a mistake to think that the county is the developer," he said. "We're a regulatory agency fulfilling its duties. We do not have the obligations of the landowner."
County and state regulators have levied more than $250,000 worth of fines against Seven Falls. Vinson faces charges in federal and state courts arising from the development.
Of the 205 lots that are officially recorded, 135 are owned by individuals or corporations independent of Seven Falls, Starr said. Banks own many of them because of foreclosures.