A local developer is considering putting 22 lots in a Mountain Green area well known for geologic hazards. While the Morgan County Council couldn’t stop the development at the initial “concept plan” stage, all council members promised to scrutinize the Shady Creek Subdivision all along the way.
“This one will be under a microscope, every part of it,” Council Chairman Austin Turner said Nov. 22. “Everyone is highly concerned. We don’t take it lightly.”
The 22 proposed lots near 6700 N. Highland Drive would be bordered by Highland Drive on the east, Woodland Drive on the north, and Weber Drive on the west. However, because he does not want access to the homes from Highland Drive due to steep slopes, the developer is considering creative alternatives to access the lots. His proposed extended private drives off cul-de-sacs in the flat creek bed area would limit switchback driveways and soil disturbance off Highland Drive.
“I don’t want to disturb the hill any more than I have to,” said Bart Smith, developer.
Morgan County Planner Bill Cobabe and even Smith, a former county councilman, agreed that while each of the 22 lots have buildable areas, the number of lots may decrease from 22 after more extensive geologic and slope studies are conducted. Smith is planning to commence those studies, but didn’t want to proceed until the county granted concept approval.
“Twenty-two lots is shoe-horning in as many as possible. Any direction from here is down, frankly. If the property is deemed inaccessible, those lots would have to be absorbed into adjacent lots,” Cobabe said.
“In all reality, it could end up with four or two lots,” Turner said.
County officials are on high alert, as this is the same area where other homes have slid in the past. In fact, the county ended up paying to have the Nancy Hayes home demolished and removed from a nearby Highland West lot in 2009. The home on Creekside Drive was originally valued at $587,000 before it was damaged by landslides and condemned in 2006.
“We have to make sure the people who build here do so safely and do not damage roads or infrastructure in the future,” Cobabe said. “The staff has some significant concerns and reservations about this.”
Smith originally applied for concept plan approval on Dec. 23, 2015. The fact that it has taken about a year to get to council review is testament to the careful scrutiny this project is already getting, Cobabe said.
“With significant issues with slopes and geologic hazards, the staff wanted to get as much information as possible. The staff has spent a lot of time with this application, more than usual,” Cobabe said. “The applicant has been forthcoming. He has given us more in-depth information than what would be required at this point because this is such a unique case. All of that is known geologic hazards areas, so the geo hazards report will have to be extensive.”
“I never dreamed it would take a year for concept approval,” Smith said. “We have done a lot of revisions so a majority of the lots sit in creek bottoms, where you are on bedrock and not cutting into the hillside. I want to get geologists going on studies. I am keeping my fingers crossed.”
Because the concept plan is just the initial step in a much longer development process, and the council could not point to a definitive, factual, scientific reason to stop the development process of the subdivision at this point, they reluctantly granted approval.
The first motion to approve the concept plan was defeated, with four of seven council members voting against approval because there were just “too many concerns.”
However, County Attorney Jann Farris cautioned the council that decision opened up the chance that Smith could appeal the decision, and the hearing officer would likely overturn the council’s decision because it was not backed by county code.
“It doesn’t make us look good as a government,” Farris said. “It is very clear that none of you want to do this, but there is not a good way to deny it if you know you don’t have a good reason. Planning and zoning did not find a reason. The staff did not find any. If I had them, I would give them to you.”
A second motion for denial failed with only two votes.
The third vote, this time for approval, was the charm. Four council members voted to approve, while Councilmembers Ned Mecham and Robert Kilmer voted against approval. Councilwoman Tina Cannon did not vote in the last two motions.
“Historically there have been in this general area slides. That whole area is plagued with that in places,” Kilmer said. “It has got the prescription for major issues, even if the spot where the house sits is solid. What about the back yard? Will it come in on top of that house? I am really scared about it, to be honest with you. There is a good chance my fears will be substantiated.”
“Mountain Green has a bad reputation for that kind of stuff,” Councilman John Barber said.
Council members pointed lessons they learned in the Highland West, Hidden Hollow and Trapper’s Pointe phase three subdivisions.
“This is a tough one for me,” said Cannon, a resident of Trapper’s Pointe subdivision where “half the homes (in phase three) are on an active slide in an active study.” Cannon stepped out of the room after Smith, who was the developer for her subdivision, publicly asked if she had a conflict of interest.
“Mountain Green is fraught with these kinds of geologic hazards. I know what it will do. When people see a beautiful lot, they do not know what is underneath. Lives get destroyed because they do not know. At some point, it is buyer beware, unfortunately,” she said.
However, concept plan approval does not entitle the developer to anything; it just gives him the green light to further study and plan for the next step in the process.
“It is my right to develop according to code,” Smith said. “If I want to spend money and end up with no lots, that is my right.”
Going forward, Smith will have to not only address geologic concerns, but also water availability.
Mecham was concerned that existing residents already on the Highland Water Company are not getting the water they have been used to in the past. They are asked to ration their water for their lawns while more and more homes are built around them, Mecham said.
“People complain to us when we approve new subdivisions. You have a lot of people not getting the water they are promised now by the Highlands Water Company,” Mecham said. ‘When are we going to take care of the people who already live there who expect water? Their water goes down every time we build new.”
Smith, who is also an owner of the Highlands Water Company, said at this point it is a race to the water. While a new well near the highway has enough water for the new homes in the area, the problem is developers need a way to deliver that water to the homes.
For years, the second phase of the Whisper Ridge subdivision has been expected to add a 1 million gallon water storage tank, pump house and booster pump. A preliminary engineering estimation put the price of this at over $1 million, but that was “overkill” for the “Taj Mahal pump house,” Smith said. Sticker shock “is why Whisper Ridge is scared to death.”
Smith said the cost is more conservative, in the $40,000 to $100,000 range, based on other nearby development’s recent costs.
If Whisper Ridge won’t put it in, then another developer will have to consider financing a booster pump.
“It will be whoever needs it first, me or (developer) Duane Johnson (with property near the base of Trappers Loop),” who would have to plan on adding a booster pump before anyone else can build. Until then, “we physically have the water, but people will not be able to build. I will have to put it in if Whisper Ridge doesn’t beat me to it. The wells are drilled, the lines are in the ground, but we need to put a pump house in.”
Smith said as a developer, he is determined to make sure the subdivision will be free and clear of hazards.
“It affects me personally. No one wants this ground to be safe more than me. I don’t want to buy back lots. I don’t want any more lawsuits,” Smith said. “I want to be under scrutiny.”
Farris said the county’s “aggressive” landslide code is a “robust policy” that can guide future steps in the development process for this subdivision. “There will be a lot of restricted lots, a lot of signatures that have to come through certified engineers,” Farris said. “We put them through the paces as much as any county I know.”
“Let’s not do this haphazard,” Councilman Logan Wilde said.