All in Good Time: Towns County adopts building codes and mountain protection

Towns County, Georgia, formed before the Civil War, adopts building codes and mountain protection

The Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition’s Lake Chatuge Watershed Action Plan becomes the blueprint for environmental reform at the top of Georgia

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

Hiawassee, Ga., Feb. 21, 2008 – Towns County, Ga. has the state’s highest peak and its county seat of Hiawassee is an amiable town hugging the 7,000-acre Lake Chatuge amid a bowl formed by mountains.

“Here is perhaps the most splendidly striking mountain scenery upon the face of the globe,” wrote surveyors in 1836 who can be forgiven for their hyperbole, for they may never have seen the Alps or the Sierras.

The spectacular beauty of scenery anywhere on the Earth and the protection of water in its rivers and lakes don’t always go in hand. However, Bill Kendall, the 70-year-old sole commissioner and the governing authority in Towns County, has worked to achieve a marriage of these ideals.

He led his county to adopt a building code with mountain protection that became effective Jan. 1, 2007. Then tonight I watched as the former school superintendent brought the county farther into the modern world. In a public hearing that was a required second reading of an ordinance, Kendall edited four sections to add enforcement language putting in real protection for the mountains and Lake Chatuge.

Forty minutes into the meeting in the little blond pews of the county court chambers, after the lengthy reading of the document by the County Attorney Rob Kiker, Chairman Kendall called for questions.

“Hearing none, the ordinance now stands adapted as read,” Kendall said. And that’s how it’s done in one of the 10 counties of Georgia that are the last in the United States with sole commissioners. Since Kendall achieved these reforms, the sad fact is that dozens of his predecessors came and went without doing so.

People are used to things staying the same. Rob Kiker, the county attorney, looks fit and up to the legal challenges a county is likely to face in the wake of Kendall’s action. He adopted building codes 152 years after the county’s incorporation, and building setbacks that are protective of water quality 66 years after its primary topographic feature, Lake Chatuge, was formed when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Hiwassee River just a few miles south of here.

James Goodwin, the county building inspector, watched with the fixed gaze of someone who has his work cut out for him. Callie Moore, the executive director of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (yep, the town is spelled differently from the river and the coalition), appeared to be in shock while achieving one of the high points of her career as a water scientist.

“We’re going to do number eighteen there,” Bill Kendall told Moore in a phone call last year. He was reading the Lake Chatuge Watershed Action Plan document she wrote, and which made its debut in May 2007. The “Number 18” that caught Kendall’s eye is one of the specific management recommendations found on page 50 of the plan that need to be taken in order to begin real protection of the lake.

As the months passed, Kendall paid for more copies of the document, relied on it as his blueprint for action, and made sure he had Moore at his side each time he met publicly with developers and townspeople.

How do rivers and lakes survive to be enjoyed by new generations of Americans? Through dedicated people’s hard work, that’s how. I have written in this space before about the perils prior reformers have faced in a conservative setting such as Towns County. However, the spadework by Kendall and Moore over the past 10 months reached a climactic moment in this meeting when Bob Keyes rose to speak. He represented the Towns County Homeowners Association.

“We find the ordinance both appropriate and necessary,” Keyes said.

Before pronouncing his decision, Kendall saved the last word for Callie Moore. She was called on to take the microphone and answer questions that some Towns Countians had raised about the code. She easily covered several of the questions, and then came to one in which a reluctant citizen said the ordinance would have a negative effect upon this county of 10,315 at the top of Georgia.

“There’s going to be a much greater negative effect if we do nothing and algae in the lake keeps increasing,” Moore said.

Commissioner Kendall permitted himself a little smile, and the debate was over in Towns County regarding its new, verbose and historic code. It is entitled “Ordinance providing for Georgia State Minimum Standard Codes for Construction Together with Procedures for Administration and Enforcement of the Building Codes of Towns County as Adopted on September 21, 2006 and effective January 1, 2007.”

“Sayonara!” is what I expect readers to say when the column turns to the nuts and bolts of an ordinance, but here they come, anyway:

The affected area and activities are “site preparation, landscaping, water management, soil erosion and sedimentation devices and construction of any improvements on land 2,200 or more above sea level and with a percentage slope of 23 percent or greater for 500 feet horizontally, or any crest, summit or ridge top” and construction “on any lot of tract of land within 50 ft. of the 1926 ft. elevation above mean sea level of Lake Chatuge.”

Furthermore, building permit applicants have to submit a plat. A hand drawing is all right for a single-family residence not in a subdivision. (I told you these are the bare minimum Georgia standards.) You can’t cut more than 50 percent of the trees on lots above 2,200 feet. No building is permitted within 50 feet of the Lake Chatuge’s 1,926-foot mark, which is the full pool level of the TVA lake. Permits have to be renewed annually, if not acted upon.

I once watched as a wealthy red-faced partner of a giant silk-stocking law firm in Atlanta lost a lawsuit in a metro Atlanta city because, the Superior Court ruled, the applicant had not first gone to the city governing authority before firing off a lawsuit. This, too, will surely occur in future years in Towns County. Lawyer Rob Kiker has wisely included the stipulation that anyone appealing must go in order to the Towns County Building Appeals Board; the Towns County Governing Authority (guess who that is, it’s the sole commissioner!); and then the courts.

The frustrating thing about it is, until court costs are recovered, the few hundred persons in the county who bear the tax burden will have to pay Kiker to defend the county against lawsuits shooting straight into the courts that, once any judge has read this ordinance, are going to be defeated.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer and winner of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. E-mail him at farblumtn07@gmail.com