Local builders are worried Ashe County is developing an anti-building reputation that is forcing prospective home buyers to turn away and build elsewhere, said many of those who spoke during a informational forum held Monday to address perceived problems between area builders and permitting agencies.
“Folks all over the state are coming to the conclusion that the Appalachian Regional Health Department is making it too hard and too expensive to build in Watauga, Ashe, and Alleghany Counties,” said Executive Officer of the Ashe County Homebuilders Association Kelley St Germain. “They’re going elsewhere to build.”
St Germain was joined by more than 70 other high country builders, realtors, and homeowners at the Ashe County Courthouse Monday night to air their building and permitting concerns to the Director of the Appalachian Regional Health Department Beth Lovette.
The primary message expressed by those attending was that the department’s personnel and practices are impeding the home building permitting, inspecting, and building process.
Lovette was joined by Regional Environmental Health Specialist Wilson Mize, Regional Soil Scientist Kevin Neal, and Environmental Engineer Trish Angoli to answer specific questions addressed by the crowd.
N.C Rep. Jonathan Jordan and N.C. Senator Dan Soucek were both in attendance.
When Lovette addressed the group for the first time, she admitted there were problems within the department’s Environmenal Health Program.
“(I was) dismayed to realize there was such ill will and difficult working circumstances in the environmental health program,” said Lovette, who was named director of the ARHD in July. She spent a decade serving in the same capacity in Wilkes County.
“It really is an important issue for us to get to solutions,” said Lovette. “Protecting the public’s health is my number one job, but I understand that everybody is unhappy with the way things have been going. Communication has got to get better.”
Following opening statements from St Germain and Lovette, attendees took to the podium to share their stories.
Jay Vincent, a Watauga County builder, said customers had questioned his credibility after the department had reversed an earlier percolation test decision. The property had been tested and approved for a four-bedroom home, but the department later ruled that the land could only support a two bedroom home. The decision added an additional $25,000 burden on the property owners to install an alternative septic system.
Clara Surber, an Ashe County resident since 1973, was unable to sell her home after a health department inspection of her well found traces of E. Coli and fecal coliform because Surber’s well casing was damaged. Surber called a plumber and took steps to correct the issue, and later contracted with a young couple to sell her home.
On the day of closing, a health department inspector examined Surber’s well and said it did not meet code, and that she would not be allowed to repair the well, but would be forced to drill a new well at a cost of $8,000-$10,000. Surber offered the couple $10,000 to drill a new well, but they backed out. Surber was later contacted by the department, and given approval to repair her well casing.
“It makes no sense to me,” said Surber. “I was devestated when I could have had it (her home) sold.”
“When a situation came up like this, our first instinct is to go to the AG’s office because we have to check and make sure what we say is ok with the attorneys,” said Mize. “Obviously if the county or somebody gets sued, it’s the Attorney General’s office that supports us.”
Mize said, the rules state wells must be more than 25 feet from a structure. The location of Surber’s garage meant her well was only 23 feet from her home. The rules stated a new well must be drilled.
“We started seeing more and more of these situations and our group got together and discussed this with the AG’s office,” said Mize. “She (Surber) was improving the well. She’s hopefully, repairing that well, so there’s no contamination. She could fix that casing and still have E. Coli in it. But at least you’re trying to fix that situation. But the AG’s office basically changed their interpretation of that rule. So that was not something the county did, and it came straight from the AG’s office, who changed their interpretation.”
Richard Turk, a local builder and developer said misunderstanding and miscommunication between government and the private sector could be a source of problems, and that long wait times for inspections are a burden.
“Right now, there’s a distrust with government,” said Turk. “You have to come to a conclusion on answers. People can’t afford four weeks. We’re out here trying to create jobs.”
Perry Yates, a Watauga County contractor, owner of New River Building Supply, and current Republican candidate for Watauga County Commissioner, said it took a year to get an operational permit for his father’s house, a process that started in 2009 and wasn’t completed until the following year. Yates was also forced to seek approval for the build from the utility company.
“When I asked, ‘Why am I having to do this (approval from utility company)?’ I was told (by health department inspectors) because I needed it,” said Yates. “My dad and mother looked at me and said, ‘Perry, let’s build this house somewhere else.”
Contacted on Tuesday after the Monday evening forum, Lovette said she was satisfied by the opening of lines of communication between her department and those builders and homeowners affected by its operation.
“I felt like it was time well spent,” said Lovette. “I appreciated the open communication. It was respectful and courteous. People were voicing very important concerns to us.”
Lovette plans to develop a single county environmental health advisory committee designed to examine health department processes and improve customer service and communication. She also has other ideas on training ADHD staff.
“We’re going to have to deliver bad news. Sometimes, that’s the nature of this business,” said Lovette. “It’s pressing though, that we communicate back to applicants, make sure that process is in place, and follow up so applications don’t fall through the cracks.”
Lovette said, while the Health Department’s workload is “way down, we’re at a pretty skeleton crew to do all this work. When you’re working lean like this, it’s important to make sure things aren’t falling through the cracks.”
Recognizing and addressing staffing limitations as the economy begins to recover will also be key, according to Lovette.
“We’ll work with commissioners to establish the correct levels of funding as we need to add positions back,” said Lovette.