By Dave Russell
Jackson County Erosion Control Officer Steve Beasley’s photographs presented last week to county commissioners were printed on plain paper, making them a bit dingy. Except for one color that popped in every picture – orange.
Commissioners called a special meeting last Thursday to discuss orange. Mud and water of varying consistencies and in varying shades of orange have seeped, slid and oozed from a construction site into an adjacent housing development and a nearby stream in Cullowhee.
The source is an apartment construction project, a public-private partnership project between Western Carolina University and Wilmington-based Zimmer Development Co., atop a steep hill above Catamount Homes.
The nine-unit (formerly 10, but one home was condemed after a Halloween mudslide) student housing development has been inundated with mud from the site several times since April, Catamount Homes owner Sheri Deitz said.
The state has jurisdiction over stormwater control at the construction site because it is more than an acre in size, Permitting and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders told commissioners.
“Our local control program is not allowed to supervise that project,” he said. “We are, however, authorized to issue all the building permits and we do the building inspections on this project.”
Still, county officials have not been sitting on their hands.
County involvement in the erosion issues plaguing the Millennial Campus construction site began June 5 with a phone call to the state from Beasley. It would be the first of many calls and emails between local and state authorities.
County staff put together the “Millennial Site Timeline of Emails, NOVs and other items,” detailing the county’s activity.
It shows Beasley visited the site eight times between June 5 and Oct. 29 as part of his river watch duty. Five times he emailed state authorities in the Division of Water Resources, sending photographs prominently featuring orange streams, storm water or mud almost every time.
Beasley sounded exasperated at times during his presentation to commissioners.
The Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources lifted its notice of violation on July 12, leading the county to release building permits so that work could continue.
“Let’s go back to July 15,” he said, referring to another entry in the timeline. “They’d no more released that site and we’re having the same problems again.”
On July 23, Beasley received the first of four documented complaints from Deitz about the construction site and resulting erosion.
He filled out a complaint form citing runoff from the new construction site and inadequate fencing and referred the complaint to state authorities with the Division of Water Resources.
Complaints had also poured in from the community about the color of the water in the Tuckaseigee River and other streams, Beasley said.
Commissioner Boyce Deitz acknowledged his sister, Sheri Deitz, owns the Catamount Homes property and that if he had to, he would recuse himself.
“You look at that slope right there behind those,” he said, referencing an aerial view of the slope behind Catamount Homes. “And we’ve got something the size of Fontana Dam. We don’t allow some of this steep slope development all over the county, but then we let someone put a steep slope right behind 10 homes.”
The Division of Water Resources issued another notice of violation on Nov. 4, sending Zimmer a list of conditions to meet before the NOV would be lifted and work could resume.
Commission Chairman Brian McMahan suggested a meeting to inquire about the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources lifting its NOV.
“I would be interested in reaching out to the state for an explanation,” he said. “Why has a notice of violation not been issued, and what actions are currently being undertaken by the state to make sure this is corrected.”
Commissioners might need to bypass the Asheville offices and talk to people in Raleigh, he said.
Jackson County Emergency Services on Oct. 31 ordered an evacuation of five units that back up to the steep orange slope, but the students returned on Saturday.