Teaser Moore County commissioners

A planned subdivision bordering a long-established farm in West End has renewed a long-simmering debate over how far more dense development should encroach into predominantly rural areas of Moore County.

Opponents, including members of the Auman family, who own the farm on N.C. 73, say it also exposes a conflict between what the county’s own land use plan envisions for that area and the actual zoning that has been in place for years. They feel the development would not be in keeping with the rural character of the area.

That put some of the county commissioners in a quandary, given that plans for the 166-lot subdivision on Gretchen Road meet all of the requirements of the zoning ordinance. The current zoning on the property — it requires half-acre lots — would allow 461 homes on those 211 acres.

Commissioners ultimately gave unanimous approval Tuesday night following a quasi-judicial hearing in which people speaking had to be sworn in.

Gretchen Pines will be what is called a “conservation subdivision,” meaning it must have at least 30 percent open space, and that 60 percent of that must be contiguous.

Board Chairman Frank Quis was clearly agonizing over his decision after hearing from both sides.

“I’m just thinking about this and absorbing it,” Quis said. “We’ve heard a lot, and it’s all been good. I do appreciate everyone’s perspective. This is a tough one.”

Commissioner Louis Gregory, whose district includes this area of the county, initially sought a delay in voting until the next meeting to have more time to think about it and also to go visit the area.

“Maps are helpful,” he said. “But I would like to have more time.”

But Board Vice Chairwoman Catherine Graham said that based on the testimony presented, it was her opinion that “they have met all of the legal requirements” for approval. She made a motion to approve the subdivision, which Commissioner Jerry Daeke seconded.

After Planning Supervisor Theresa Thompson reviewed what is required for approval, Gregory decided to vote in favor.

“With further clarification, I understand they have met all of the requirements necessary to go forward, and because of that reason, I am willing to go forward,” Gregory said.

A Question of Density

Gretchen Pines will be a gated subdivision on more than 211 acres of a 337-acre tract. The county’s Subdivision Review Board recommended approval after determining that it met all of the requirements of the ordinance.

A number of conditions were included — the applicant has agreed to comply — such as installing roads to state standards, having a state-approved stormwater management system, providing the open space, installing cluster mailboxes, and having the homeowners’ association bylaws and restricted covenants reviewed by the planning staff before work starts.

Gretchen Road, which runs from N.C. 73 to Carthage Road, is currently state-maintained, but it will become a private road with gates on both ends. It will be built in phases. The first phase will have 37 lots, phase two will have 19, and there will be 23 in the third. The remaining 87 will be in a fourth phase.

Raleigh attorney Tom Johnson, who represents the applicant, noted that because this is in what is called a high-quality watershed, developers are planning to have a “low impact” stormwater system with vegetated swales and retention pond to allow absorption of runoff.

“This is a conservation development, low-impact development in terms of stormwater,” he said.

That was not enough to satisfy the concerns of opponents.

Laura Auman Pitts, who lives in nearby Seven Lakes West, expressed concerns about the impact the development would have on her family’s farm, which her late father, T.C. Clyde Auman, bought in 1934. She said it continues to operate for agriculture and forestry purposes.

It was once home to Auman’s Orchards, famous for its peaches. Though the family closed the peach orchard in 2015, Pitts said the family has chicken houses on the property in addition to growing soybeans, tobacco and hay, and baling pine needles.

She said it has been designated as a “highly valued natural heritage area” and they are in the Voluntary Agricultural District program.

“Moore County has recognized the importance of our rural and agricultural areas,” Pitts said, citing the county’s 2013 land use plan. “While we do not object to the development, we object to the density, particularly as it impacts the rural character of our area,” she said.

Local attorney Marsh Smith also cited similar concerns about the proposed subdivision not being in compliance with the current land use plan. He said the county created its first land use plan in 1998 after nearly 30 meetings were held, and that much of its land area outside of the town’s zoning jurisdictions was designated as rural agriculture (RA).

Smith said the intent was to “encourage the conservation of farm land for farming and forest land for forestry … and preserve and maintain the rural character of Moore County,” among other things. He noted that “major subdivisions of land are strongly discouraged,” but that family subdivisions of four lots or fewer could be allowed.

“All of these goals, recommendations and steps are part of your plan, yet this proposal flies in the face of them,” Smith said. “What I urge you to do is to adhere to your own well-thought-out plan.”

Johnson, who was given an opportunity to respond, said he “appreciated” their concerns. But he said current zoning allowing more than twice what they are proposing has been in place since the 1980s.

“This is not about the zoning, but about subdividing it in a way that is positive in terms of the land use plan,” he said, “and not only that but in sensitivity to the area. We are doing this as a conservation development. So we are doing those things that are sensitive to the environment.

“Out of respect for the character of the district we are not doing a high-density development. We are doing significantly less than by right what could be proposed here. And we chose to do that in a very responsible way.”

‘A Big Change’

Quis questioned Johnson on how this is “consistent” with the land use plan for that area. Johnson responded that the RA district allows both residential and agricultural uses, and that there are other homes and developments in the area. He added that part of that area is designated as “medium density residential.”

Quis asked Pitts to point out on the map where her family’s farm is in relation to the development. After seeing that it actually borders part of the development, Quis said he understood Pitts’ concerns.

“From the eye of the beholder, who owns the property Mrs. Pitts’ family lives on, it’s a big change, big,” Quis said.

Quis also questioned whether the commissioners could require some type of buffer along the property line with the Auman farm, since it is not required by the zoning ordinance. Thompson said the board could add any “reasonable” condition it felt was needed to meet the five legal findings required for approval. Commissioners had to find that the project:

* Will not materially endanger the public health or safety;

* Meets all required conditions and specifications;

* Will not substantially injure the value of adjoining property unless the use is a public necessity;

* Will be in harmony with the surrounding area and compatible with the surrounding neighborhood; and

* Will be in general conformity with the approved Moore County Land Use Plan.

Johnson said they will try to preserve as many trees as possible. He also agreed to a condition of adding a 30-foot undisturbed buffer with the farm.

“That helps,” Quis said.

County Attorney Misty Leland said a formal order will be drafted for the commissioners to approve at their next meeting.

Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or dsinclair@thepilot.com.

(1) comment

Deborah Scalf

So you have county commissioners approving growth and then you have the Board of Education stating there is no more room at West Pine Middle for additional students. Good luck to those parents affected by the overcrowding once this development is completed.

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