LAKE WYLIE -- A new York County buffer ordinance needs to get back to the reason for buffers -- improving water quality, planners say.
About 80 residents came out for the third public meeting Wednesday at Crowders Creek Elementary School to discuss possibly changing the county's current 50-foot buffer ordinance, which is the same in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties. At the December meeting, the issue of what to do with existing structures, built within the buffer before the ordinance went into effect in 2001, surfaced.
"I think they're doing the right thing by taking this to the community and getting input," said Barbara Killian, whose home is a nonconforming structure. "Every case is different."
Under the current ordinance, which has been in effect since 2001, no new construction or land disturbance is allowed within the 50-foot buffer. Existing structures within that distance are considered "nonconforming structures." Any change to a nonconforming structure requires a special variance from the county Zoning Board of Appeals, and changes like adding decks or expanding square footage is not allowed.
"Basically, all that means is you can go in and make interior renovations," said Dave Pettine, county zoning administrator. "It's just not a process that's friendly for everybody, including staff."
A new ordinance, however, could allow the county to "look at the whole of the project" to determine if there are better ways of achieving the intent of the buffer rules, designed to reduce erosion from entering bodies of water including lakes, streams and rivers.
"That's what we're looking for is the enhancement of water quality, but you don't want to restrict people from using their property," said Tom Smith, county councilman representing Lake Wylie. "There has to be a balance."
Possibilities presented Wednesday include allowing exceptions and exemptions so the zoning board could agree to more flexible buffers, for example, if a homeowner adds "water-quality features" like rain gardens or environmentally-friendly landscaping.
Exceptions could allow the county to approve rebuilding or teardowns, changing the footprint of a structure or its outside dimensions.
It also would deal with additions to nonconforming structures, roof replacements and adding vertical living space.
Through topography improvements, stormwater management, vegetation buffers or environmentally-friendly landscaping, nonconforming structure changes could be allowed if the result is "more nearly conforming," said Pettine, explaining the structure would still classify as nonconforming but may lessen the effect on water quality.
Exemptions could include simple repairs and maintenance, some of which are currently allowed, including painting and interior renovations. Exemptions also could allow replacing a structure, which is currently prohibited, as long as the footprint on the ground is not changed, or adding a deck or open porch to a conforming structure (one not currently within the buffer) that could extend no more than 10 feet into the buffer. Roof pitch changes also would be allowed as long as there's no living space added.
"The impervious surface that you're adding to that is very minimal," Pettine said. "We don't want to exempt everything, because we have to have some discretion on existing structures."
Along with taking a more comprehensive look at buffer rules for water quality, the new plan also could cut down on the number of variance requests the zoning board receives. At least a couple of requests come before the board each month, Pettine said.
"That part of that home that is not in the buffer, that never should have come before us," said Ken Alexander, Lake Wylie's appeals board representative talking about a homeowner's request for an addition on the opposite side from the buffer that still required a variance. "(We've) been in meetings until 1:30 in the morning too many times."
One of the challenges in changing the ordinance is clarifying whether the high-water mark -- the point from which the 50-foot distance is measured -- begins at 570 feet or 569.4 feet above sea level, considered full-pond level by Duke Energy, the company managing the lake. Some home deeds state the lake could be flooded to 580 feet.
County planners hope to make a recommendation for a new buffer ordinance at the next community meeting, likely to be held in the next six weeks, Pettine said. No date has been set. A proposed ordinance would then be presented to York County Council and would require a public hearing.
Planners are still looking for more public Input.
"We want to hear, 'Yeah, I think this'll work,' and, 'No, I don't think this is a good idea," Pettine said. "We want to hear both."
For more information or to voice concerns, call (803) 909-7173.