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Commissioners to take up proposal easing floodplain restrictions

A developer’s request to ease building restrictions in flood-prone areas goes before the Henderson County Board of Commissioners this week despite the Planning Board’s no vote on the idea and a fire chief’s warning that structures in the floodplain make floods more dangerous.

Commissioner Michael Edney pushed for a similar relaxation of the county land development code’s floodplain restrictions in August 2022, six months after the Planning Board had rejected the idea. That proposed text amendment would have eased construction rules for the flood fringe, the area farther from rivers and creeks than the floodway.

The board “had a number of concerns (about) allowing by right any fill in the floodplain above the allowed 20 percent threshold,” according to minutes of the Feb. 17 meeting in which the Planning Board rejected the text amendment. “The board was also concerned about the impact of flooding on adjacent and downstream property and related emergency service safety issues.”

The text amendment commissioners are scheduled to take up during their regular meeting Wednesday morning would allow landowners to apply for a permit to build in floodways if they received a “no-rise” certification from an engineer showing that “the encroachment will not result in any increase in the flood levels” during a “base flood discharge.” The county land development code (LDC) currently bars any construction in the floodway.

Rick Livingston, who is chief of Mills River Fire & Rescue, implored his fellow county Planning Board members to keep it that way.

“Why are we sitting here discussing the possibility of exacerbating what is already a very serious problem in Henderson County?” he said. “If we approve this tonight, I want this board to just be aware that what we’re doing is opening the floodgates for further fill in our floodplain and our floodways.”

Susan Frady, who presented the text amendment request for an unidentified client during the Sept. 21 Planning Board meeting, said the change carried ample safeguards. In addition to obtaining a no-rise certification, an applicant would still have to go before the Planning Board and the Board of Commissioners, she said, either body could impose conditions on the fill permit.

“You would know what type of property we’re looking at,” she said. “You could turn it down or add conditions. You would get to know that it’s not farmland. You would get to know everything about the project.”

The planning staff memorandum on the text amendment describes comments by Planning Board members who supported the change but makes no mention of numerous comments by board members objecting to it.

“Those in favor of the amendment stated that the amendment would provide a property owner the option to study the property to see if a no rise was possible” and apply for a permit if it was, the memo said. “They felt the process in place allowed the county to review these applications through the conditional rezoning application and upon an engineer study and were comfortable with allowing this option in the LDC.”

Livingston warned that floodplain construction can only make the county’s frequent flood events more hazardous. As fire chief of a district that includes miles of the French Broad and Mills rivers, he has plenty of experience with floods.

As a swift water rescue technician, “I have to drag you out of the floodwaters if you get stranded so I know a little bit about it,” he said last month. “Don’t take what I’m telling you for the gospel. The next flooding event that we have, go to your nearest fire department or to the Henderson County Rescue Squad and run some calls with us and you will see that what I’m telling you is very, very true.”