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JERE BRITTAIN: Current zoning ignores 100-year flood fallacy

A drone photo taken from the parking lot of the Pardee BlueMD clinic on N.C. 280 shows a built-up area made suitable for development.  [PHOTO BY MARK LEET] A drone photo taken from the parking lot of the Pardee BlueMD clinic on N.C. 280 shows a built-up area made suitable for development. [PHOTO BY MARK LEET]

I recently asked Mills River Town Manager Daniel Cobb about the transfer of hundreds of tons of soil from the ridge at the intersection of South Mills River Road and N.C. 280 to river bottom lands off Jeffress Road, reportedly to prepare for another housing development.

Daniel replied that the fill site would be raised to a level above the 100- year flood mark, qualifying it for development permits.

This exposes a planning and zoning flaw that I’ll call “the 100-year flood fallacy.” A casual review of the literature on this reveals numerous suggestions by climate experts that flood zoning rules based on this benchmark are no longer valid in an era of climate change and more extreme weather events.

The fallacy is strengthened by failure to account for conversion of surfaces from farming to impermeable streets and rooftops as well as the diversion of flood waters to the opposite side of the river by fills that amount to diking. It is useful to keep in mind that floods are natural events, while most flood damage is the result of unwise developments within the floodplain. The Mills River Town Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners would do well to update land-use policies to reflect the fallacy.

Town and county planning documents express support for maintaining the “rural character” of land in Henderson County. However, in Mills River the conversion of farms to development continues unabated. A high profile recent example is the announced purchase by the Mills River Town Council of the beautiful Bradley Johnston dairy farm next to the Town Park, presumably for non-farm purposes.

My friend Larry Ketron sends me copies of the magazine Plenty, published by the Montgomery County, Maryland, Agricultural Reserve. Montgomery County is a suburb of Washington, D.C. Through creative land-use planning, 93,000 acres have been protected from development. That’s about one-third of the land in the county. Henderson County should consider adopting the Montgomery County model. What is needed is leadership from the County Commission, Farm Bureau Federation, Cooperative Extension, Agribusiness Henderson County, the Soil and Water Conservation District and Conserving Carolina as well as individual farmers and agribusiness owners. A bus tour of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve would be a good place to begin building this legacy for future generations.

Journeying on …

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West of the French Broad columnist Jere Brittain writes about life, culture and politics in Mills River.