County Approves Pine Forest Rezoning
Now that the county has approved the Pine Forest rezoning request, the developers face some major hurdles before they can clear land and sell lots.
Chief among them is finding a water source for the 1,800-acre development on N.C. 211 southeast of West End. MHK Ventures Inc. cannot draw water from Nicks Creek or other tributaries on the property, and the developer must secure a series of permits for the on-site wastewater treatment plant.
"Nothing goes forward on Pine Forest until those arrangements are made satisfactorily," said Nick Picerno, chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners.
Picerno issued those cautionary words later in the Tuesday night board meeting after the commissioners voted 3-1 to approve the rezoning request.
The permit contains 21 conditions, including the water and sewage treatment issues, along with the standard requirements of permits from state and local agencies.
MHK Ventures filed the rezoning request with the county almost two years ago. The Florida-based company asked the county to change the zoning on almost 1,600 acres from various agricultural-residential uses to Planned Unit Development-Hamlet.
The plan calls for two communities, one a gated private residential development, the other a resort open to the public with a hotel and resort amenities. Included are two 18-hole golf courses and a nine-hole course and a small neighborhood shopping center. The development is not to exceed 710 residential units, including hotel rooms.
The on-site sewage treatment facility is to serve both Pine Forest and Dormie Club, an MHK development fronting on N.C. 73 and near the Pine Forest site. Treated water from that plant is to be used to irrigate the golf courses.
Under the existing zoning, the company could not build the golf courses. However, the existing zoning districts would allow a broader usage of the land than is proposed as a hamlet-style PUD.
And this was the reason cited by three commissioners who voted for the change.
"In the long term, this zoning is much more stringent than what is in place now," Commissioner Craig Kennedy said.
"I feel like this was the best way to protect our longleaf pines, wildlife, our water and our land," said Commissioner Jimmy Melton. "I hope and pray we have made the right decision."
Picerno said the PUD concept appears to be a better zoning mechanism for this particular tract. His concern about water sources and operation of the sewer plant prompted a number of questions directed to the developers and to engineer Fred Hobbs, whose firm, Hobbs Upchurch & Associates, has designed the plan for MHK.
Commissioner Tim Lea, who cast the dissenting vote, said his primary concern is the scarcity of water in Moore County.
"I just didn't think the risk was worth the development," Lea said.
Lea expressed appreciation for the openness with which the rezoning issue was handled, including a prolonged public hearing that spanned three meetings and lasted some 11 hours earlier in the year.
Kennedy thanked everyone who spoke during the hearing and did so much research on the subject. He said this additional research and information helped to clarify issues and needs that are reflected in the conditions attached to the zoning change.
"The process really works," Kennedy said. "You really brought a lot to the table, and it means a great deal to that process."
Larry Caddell, the fifth commissioner, was recused from participating early in the hearing process because of his former longtime service as mayor of Carthage. Nicks Creek, which has headwaters in the Pine Forest tract, is the major water source for the town.
Because of heightened interest and tension stemming from the sensitive issue, the board switched from the standard voice voting method to a balloting system, with each commissioner writing his decision on the ballot.
Picerno asked County Attorney Misty Leland for an explanation of the legal authority to vote by ballot before making a motion to make the change.
"Why are we complicating the voting process?" asked Lea.
Picerno said the importance of the issue makes it essential that each commissioner should stand behind his vote and not be swayed by public opinion. He noted that the ballots would be retained until the minutes of the meeting are approved.
The balloting procedure resulted in no more than a minor delay in the outcome.
As soon as all ballots were turned in, Picerno read aloud the decision by each of the commissioners, himself included.
Two motions were made, the first by Lea to deny the request. Picerno made the second in order to move the matter toward a vote. Kennedy, Melton and Picerno voted no, and Lea voted yes.
Kennedy made the next motion to grant the rezoning request. Kennedy, Melton and Picerno voted for approval, and Lea voted against.
Before voting, the board received a long-awaited report from the planning department covering evidence and testimony and findings of fact as heard during the public hearing. The report also covered all laws and policies applying to the rezoning issue.
Under state law and in keeping with the county zoning ordinance, the hearing was quasi-judicial, which means that testimony and evidence must be factual, not based on opinion or preference, as allowed in legislative hearings.
Sewer Plant Concerns
Picerno pelted Hobbs and Walter Mackey, a principal partner in MHK, with questions focusing on operation of the wastewater treatment plant.
Hobbs said the sewer plant operation permit must be renewed by the state annually.
Then Picerno wanted to know what happens if the operator fails and cannot renew the permit.
Hobbs said that is when the bond will be utilized to cover the cost of operating the plant. He added that the amount of bond is set by the state Utilities Commission, not by the developer.
He also pointed out that the plant would be built according to the same standards required when the county built its wastewater treatment plant at Addor, not far from Drowning Creek, a water source for the town of Southern Pines.
Then Picerno asked about on-site wastewater storage at Pine Forest and its proximity to Nicks Creek. He noted that the Addor plant processes wastewater as it arrives and does not store it at the facility.
Hobbs said the Pine Forest plant will have a slower flow because it will not serve as large an area as does the Addor plant. He said the plant design has a number of built-in safety measures.
"How do we know that 10 years from now, when things go terribly wrong, that Moore County won't have to come to the rescue?" asked David Rooks, the Chapel Hill attorney representing environmentalists opposing the zoning change.
That's when Mackey stepped in to emphasize the legality of deed restrictions, a requirement of every person buying a lot at Pine Forest. Mackey said this is true, even in the event of bankruptcy. He added that if the state is not happy with the plant operator, it can bring in another qualified operator.
In response to yet another question, Joey Raczkowski, the county's planning director, said that all conditions attached to the PUD permit must be satisfied before his department will issue any of the other permits that allow the developer to proceed with any aspects of the project.
If the property is sold, Raczkowski said, the zoning remains with the land, but a new owner would be required to return to the planning department and begin the permitting process all over again if the new plan deviates in any aspect from the original plan.
Asked why the hamlet-type PUD was sought, Raczkowski said this type of zoning preserves open space and at the same time gives the developer flexibility in the use of other areas.
One issue facing the developer was cleared up Monday night, when the Carthage Town Board of Commissioners approved a series of conditions pertaining to protection of wetland boundaries affecting the town's water supply.
Those conditions require that no development is to occur within a buffer area within 50 feet of the centerline of any blue line stream on the property and 25 feet from any wetland boundary, the greater footage to apply. They also require a 50-foot stream setback and a 25-foot wetland boundary buffer to be dedicated as a conservation easement to a conservancy organization or deed restrictions must prohibit withdrawal of water from Nicks Creek and its tributaries.
Another condition prohibits any withdrawal of water from Nicks Creek and all tributaries on the property, this prohibition to be included as deed restrictions for each property owner.
Most of the other conditions are standard, such as permits from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Transportation, the Utilities Commission and the Moore County Planning Department. A 30-foot vegetative buffer is required along all perennial waters.
The developer must provide the planning agency with annual reports outlining progress and must submit a preliminary plat for approval before any clearing or construction permits are approved. Other conditions apply to such things as storm water management, density requirements and other zoning requirements.
With the Nicks Creek water prohibition, the developer must first find another source of water. The county does not have adequate water resources to serve a development of that magnitude, and an initial proposal to buy water from Montgomery County is no longer feasible because of availability and inter-basin transfer issues. Possibilities remain an agreement for development of the Robbins water system and a purchase from out-of-town sources, such as the city of Asheboro.
Tuesday night's decision caps a saga beginning in January with the opening of the public hearing, then prolonged by a series of delays precipitated by the amount of time needed for county officials to compile all information gleaned from the hearing and by the unexpected illness of two commissioners.
Evidence of the tension caused by the length and sensitivity of the issue came in a closing comment by Picerno.
"I hope we don't have any more like that," he said.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at email@example.com.
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