Sunday, July 14, 2024

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County’s planning board wrestles with whether to increase minimum size for residential lots in non-incorporated areas

A public debate about subdivision lot sizes might strike some people as a mind-numbingly dull way to spend a Thursday night in July. But for a fair number of area residents, it was a must-be-there moment when this rather arcane subject popped up on the latest meeting agenda of Alamance County’s planning board.

Two weeks ago, a sizeable crowd of developers, builders, and ordinary homeowners converged on the county’s headquarters in Graham to take part in a “public input session” that the planning board members had scheduled about the county’s residential lot size requirements.

[Story continues below photo.]

The planning board gathers for a meeting in the Historic Court House in February 2022.

At issue that evening was a proposed increase in the county’s current minimum size that one of the board’s more senior members had previously brought up for discussion. The reasoning behind this potential change was pretty straightforward, according to assistant county manager Brian Baker, whose area of oversight includes the county’s planning department.

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“The idea was should we have bigger lot sizes in the county to preserve our rural character,” Baker recalled in a recent interview, “and there’s also the side issue of protecting well and septic.”

Even so, the planning board has yet to pin down just how much of an increase in the county’s current minimum lot size would attain these objectives. This lack of clarity is also evident in the public’s response to this plan – as the planning board’s members discovered when they convened their public input session during their latest, regularly-scheduled meeting on Thursday, July 20.

That evening, this appointed, advisory board to Alamance County’s commissioners heard from nearly a dozen people with a wide range of concerns about the proposed increase in lot sizes. Particularly conspicuous among the speakers were local developers and homebuilders, who generally resisted any departure from the county’s existing standards, lest it make their own livelihoods more difficult.

The planning board also received feedback from a few rural residents who were apprehensive about the influx of large, densely-packed subdivisions in the county’s outermost reaches. Meanwhile, some multi-generational landowners feared that an adjustment in the county’s regulations might make it harder for them to obtain a fair price should they opt to part with their ancestral turf.

To make matters more complicated, the audience that had gathered for this public input session was largely in the dark as to precisely what sort of modifications the planning board had been contemplating. This widespread confusion was ultimately due to the planning board’s own lack of specificity about the potential adjustment. In fact, the board’s members had only the vaguest notion of what this prospective change would entail when they decided to seek input from the community.

The broad outlines of the planning board’s proposal were laid out at the start of last month’s meeting by Rodney Cheek, a long-serving appointee to the board who readily acknowledged this role as the architect of the potential increase in residential lot sizes.

“The reason I proposed it is that I’m genuinely concerned about some parts of Alamance County where land can be developed as easily as it can,” he explained. ‘Somehow or other we got a crowd of people here tonight…I just wanted everybody to hear at the same time what the thought process was in getting things to this point.”

“Today in Alamance County, the minimum amount of dirt for a house with a well and a septic tank is 30,000 square feet. Translation: 100 acres of land could potentially have 145 houses built on it…We don’t need houses that close together.

– planning board member Rodney Cheek

Cheek went on to note that, at the moment, minimum lot sizes beyond the jurisdictions of the county’s cities and towns are based on the local health department’s standards for septic systems and wells, which pervade the unincorporated parts of the county that lie beyond the reach of municipal water and sewer lines. The health department has deemed a lot size of 30,000 square feet to be the smallest area that can realistically support a private septic system and an artisan well. The county has consequently enshrined this figure in its unified development ordinance as the minimum size of a residential lot in a non-watershed area.

Cheek honed in on this number at last month’s public input session, noting that the county currently has nothing on the books to prevent a large tract builder from developing row upon row of these minimally-sized lots.

“Today in Alamance County, the minimum amount of dirt for a house with a well and a septic tank is 30,000 square feet,” he went on to emphasize. “Translation: 100 acres of land could potentially have 145 houses built on it.

“We don’t need houses that close together,” he added. “There is an approved subdivision in the southern part of Alamance County, which has been approved for about 20 years. It is 65 acres of land, and on that there are 76 approved building sites. Now that’s a lot.”

Cheek’s rationale nevertheless failed to impress the homebuilders, realtors, and residential developers who were on hand for that evening’s discussion.

Max Morgan, a Mebane-based realtor, insisted that, in his experience, an area of 10,000 square feet should be sufficient for a large, residential septic system, and he urged the planning board’s members not to recommend any increase above the existing minimum.

“You should [instead] think about cluster developments with smaller lots and free space outside the developed areas,” he added.

The status quo ante was also endorsed by residential developer Kevin Sasser, who bemoaned the strain of the existing regulations on his industry.

“From a developer’s standpoint, it’s [already] very difficult. Everybody who’s in any kind of construction already knows what we’re facing, and the requirements that are already put on us are almost unbelievable.”

– developer Kevin Sasser

“From a developer’s standpoint, it’s [already] very difficult,” he said. “Everybody who’s in any kind of construction already knows what we’re facing, and the requirements that are already put on us are almost unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, Jay Burke, a retired developer from Graham, argued that in the vast majority of cases, a homebuilder will find it necessary to exceed the county’s minimum standard due to the practicalities of developing land in areas without public water and sewer.

“There’s a very small percentage [of land in unincorporated parts of the county] that’s optimal. If you have a development that ends up with more than one lot per acre, you almost have to have a community water system, which is something that would be put in privately.”

– retired developer Jay Burke

“There’s a very small percentage [of land in unincorporated parts of the county] that’s optimal,” he added. “If you have a development that ends up with more than one lot per acre, you almost have to have a community water system, which is something that would be put in privately.”

The planning board heard a much different take from Jason Summers, a homeowner near the Alamance-Chatham county line who was concerned about the impact of a new subdivision that has been proposed in his neck of the woods.

“I’ve seen the wells go dry before, and I’m very concerned about water in this area, which is in the very southern part of the county,” he declared. “I can tell you that a cluster of houses that tries to be in competition with Chatham Ridge and these places – that’s not why I live where I live.”

Summers’ concerns were echoed by Tom Laney, a neighboring homeowner who was also afraid of what might occur if a cluster development happened to spring up in the area.

The planning board heard an entirely different perspective from Jerry Cooper, who agonized over the impact an increase in lot sizes may have on multi-generational landowners. Cooper added that some folks who’ve been farming the same plots of land as their ancestors have found it necessary to sell their acreage to developers in order to secure their retirements. He argued that their expected nest eggs would be in jeopardy if the planning board were to fiddle with the county’s lot size requirements.

“Because people have made decision based on the way it is,” he added, “I think the status quo…is the best way to stay.”

A similar concern was later shared by Jeff Allred of Snow Camp, who argued that a higher minimum would make it more difficult for aging landowners to subdivide their acreage to pass on to their heirs.

To bring the point home, Allred’s wife Nina observed that she had personally inherited two acres of land from her parents and went on to construct a home on this parcel where she and her husband now live. Nina Allred insisted that, when she and her husband were just starting out, they wouldn’t have been able to afford to build on a larger tract had it been required by the county.

“I know what you’re doing,” she added, “but I’m not sure this is the right way to do it.”
The planning board’s members also heard some remarks in support of a larger standard from Ike Holt, who had formerly served as the chairman of this appointed, advisory board. Holt recalled that he had been on the planning board years ago when the county implemented the 30,000-square-foot minimum, which he conceded had been a hard sell to a board of county commissioners who were more inclined to support a higher limit of an acre or so. Holt said that, in retrospect, he can see the logic in this increased threshold.

“I certainly would not have any problem seeing it go up to an acre in size,” he added. “But we always need to think about the little guy.”

After hearing from the audience, the planning board’s members engaged in a freeform discussion about lot sizes that dragged on for well over an hour and included frequent interjections from audience members.

In the course of this conversation, the planning board’s chairman Ray Cobb tried to assure the public that he and his colleagues are mindful of the objections to a potential increase. He added that, in many respects, the board’s members are just as concerned with preserving the status quo as the developers who have spoken up in support of the existing rule.

“There’s a lot of folks moving here, buying houses, building houses,” he conceded. “They’re moving here why? Because they love it.”

Yet, by the time the planning board adjourned roughly two hours after the meeting convened, its members seemed no closer to achieving a consensus about what, if anything, to do with Rodney Cheek’s recommendation. As Brian Baker later acknowledged, the group seems to have a way to go before it has a firm, actionable proposal to pitch to county’s governing board.

“Right now,” the assistant county manager said, “the planning board is still trying to figure out whether to propose anything to the board of commissioners.”

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