Development places Gates infrastructure under microscope

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

GATESVILLE – It took a forest fire to show developers and officials in Gates County how fragile its infrastructure can be.

Late last month, a woods fire in the new Blue Sky Development off Paige Riddick Road turned into a nightmare for emergency responders. The 16-foot wide rock road leading into the development nearly turned into a parking lot as curious onlookers crowded the area, causing problems for the responding fire departments, NC Forest Service personnel and other emergency aid units.

That issue generated some discussion at a meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners earlier this month. Since that time, this newspaper has spoken with parties on both sides of this development issue in an effort to help bring the two groups together in order to prevent another occurrence of this nature.

At the commissioners meeting, Dennis Utt and Erna Bright of the Gates County Firemen’s Association addressed the issue of the county’s growing list of developments and how residential growth impacts local fire departments.

“All of the fire departments have worked hard to improve our ratings, which in turn helps lower the cost of homeowners insurance,” Bright said. “But we are very concerned about water supply and residential development. Without the capacity to pump 250 gallons per minute (at the scene of a fire) we are in jeopardy of losing the improved ratings we’ve worked so hard to obtain.”

In addressing the concerns of the Firemen’s Association, Randy Cahoon, Director of the county’s Planning and Development Services, updated the commissioners on the Blue Sky Development and the problems encountered there during the July 27 fire. He told board members the area currently is the home of four families and plans call for 41 total residences.

“This area is filling up fast,” Cahoon told the board. “The majority of the 41 lots will be developed within the next eight to 10 months.”

While the growth is welcomed by adding to the county’s tax base, the development does come with some drawbacks, especially in a lack of an adequate water supply for emergency purposes.

Meanwhile, the development pre-dates the county’s new ordinances, meaning the commissioners have no authority to require the developer, Kenny Buck, to widen the road to 20 feet.

David Brown, Vice-Chairman of the Gates County Commissioners, inquired if the county would be within its authority to inform the residents of Blue Sky Development as well as those seeking building permits there of limited county services.

Letter generated, but never mailed

According to Cahoon, a letter was drafted concerning the road width and lack of an on-site fire hydrant at Blue Sky Development. That letter was to be mailed to Buck as well as the current and future homeowners of the development.

However, Cahoon, acting upon legal advice, said the letter wound-up in the trash can.

“The letter was shown to our county attorney as well as to the North Carolina Institute of Government and both said it was inappropriate because the buyer should be responsible for their own actions,” Cahoon said. “We were informed that the letter was worded heavy-handed and could impact Mr. Buck’s legal rights. We (the county) have no right to prevent or deter free enterprise, thus the letter was torn-up and placed in the trash.”

Additionally, Cahoon said the county’s adoption of a wildfire ordinance on July 2 was, by legal standards, not retroactive.

“All we can ask for is for Mr. Buck to work with the Firemen’s Association to solve any problems,” Cahoon stated. “The county has no hand in this. The road leading into this subdivision was platted in 2005, thus preceding our new standards for private roads that were adopted in December, 2006. We have no legal grounds to stand on this issue.”

‘Rubberneckers’ cause traffic nightmare

Gates County firefighters found themselves with plenty of company upon answering an emergency call on July 27 for a woods fire within Blue Sky Development. The trouble was that the “company” were not trained firefighters.

Sheriff Ed Webb said the road was extremely overcrowded with onlookers as emergency responders answered the call. That led to maneuverability problems for the fire trucks, especially those traveling to and from the nearest water hydrant (approximately three miles away) in an effort to shuttle water to the scene of the blaze.

“The biggest problem that day were the onlookers, the rubberneckers who heard about the fire on their (police/fire) scanners and went to the scene to have a look at what was going on,” Cahoon said.

Emergency responders were on the scene for nearly four hours. Some claim that the onlookers interfered with their efforts by running over the fire hoses and just basically, “getting in the way.”

The blaze, sparked by lightening and one where the flames came very close to at least two homes, was brought under control thanks to the NC Forest Service plows circling the fire, restricting it to one area where the firefighters were able to douse it with water.

Nine feet vs. 16 feet

In the aftermath, those involved with the fire interjected their opinions about the situation, most notably an argument concerning the width of Jillson Road, the main traffic artery leading in and out of Blue Sky Development.

At the commissioners meeting, reference was made to that road measuring only nine feet in width.

“It would be stupid to put in a nine-foot road,” Buck said in an interview last week. “It really concerns me that the firemen are saying that road is only nine-feet wide. When they lie it upsets me.”

Buck claimed the road is 16-feet wide, at the very least.

“I beg you to find a place that’s less than that,” Buck stressed. “There’s no places on that road less than 16-foot wide and there is not a place where two fire trucks cannot pass.”

Buck emphasized he spent in the neighborhood of $140,000 building the series of connecting roads within Blue Sky Development. He said $100,000 alone was invested in the rock.

“As more houses come there we plan to recoat the roads with rock,” he said. “When that is done, expect the roads to widen a bit.”

Utt said the road was narrow.

“Our fire trucks have to get off the edge of the gravel to safely pass each other,” Utt said. “We fully understand that this particular road was platted and approved prior to the new county ordinances for private roads. Those new standards (a minimum of 20 feet in width and meeting state DOT regulations) do make a difference.”

Buck was quick to point out that the homeowners within the development have voiced no complaints about the road.

“I’m proud of this development, just as I am about all my other ones” Buck said, referencing the 10-plus developments his company, Suffolk Land and Timber, have either completed, are in the construction phase or in the planning stages.

He continued, “I realize this road doesn’t meet the standards now in place. I also realize that because it doesn’t meet the standards, school buses are not allowed to travel this road. That’s why I’m going to build a hut there at the end of the road where the students living back here can have a place to keep dry and warm while waiting for the bus to come along on Paige Riddick Road.”

Working together

In the end, Cahoon implored Buck and the Firemen’s Association to work out their differences.

Referencing the lack of a nearby water supply for emergency purposes, Buck said he had offered to build a retention pond anywhere the Firemen’s Association wanted it on his property. That pond, according to county ordinances, would serve as an alternate water supply for firemen answering a call.

“Right after this fire, I went to the firemen and told them I would build a retention pond, just tell me where they want it and it won’t cost the county one quarter,” Buck said. “All the guy (Utt) who is the head of the Firemen’s Association has to do is come out here and tell me where he wants the pond and I’ll have it dug. I’m still waiting for him to show up.”

Utt confirmed that Buck mentioned the construction of a retention pond, but the Firemen’s Association has no authority to require one to be built.

“That’s up to Mr. Buck,” Utt said. “We can recommend a size and recommend it be placed in an area where we can easily access, but the rest is up to him.”

Utt did express concern that the nearest water supply was located at the intersection of Willeyton Road and Paige Riddick Road, approximately three miles away.

“We were fortunate this time around,” Utt noted. “What if there were 40 homes back there and not four. Evacuating that many people would have been a big problem, given the fact that the area was already crowded with onlookers.”

In the meantime, Gates County keeps growing as several other subdivisions are currently in the planning stages. It was for that reason the Firemen’s Association urged the commissioners and the county planner to closely study these future developments and make every attempt to steer clear of granting variances that could impact emergency responders.

Even as a developer, Buck said he knows the impact a spike in residential development can have on the fragile infrastructure of a small, rural county.

“We can’t keep Gates County like it was 30 years ago,” Buck concluded. “We’ve got land and we’ve got people who want to buy it and live here. I’m willing to work with anybody to make Gates County a better place to live.”