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Official: Balance required on slope issues

By Ben Orcutt -- borcutt@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Town Planning Commission Chairman David E. Gushee says the key to revising Front Royal's rules on building on slopes is striking a balance between development and protecting the environment.

"Every public policy issue has a factual base associated with it," Gushee said Friday. "It has interests in conflict. The environment is an interest. The developer is an interest and the landowner is an interest. Also, tourism is an interest. So's protecting clean water against runoff. That's an interest.

"Some of these things work in concert with each other and some of these things work against each other. When you decide on a public policy position, you are determining how those competing interests are resolved and you use your values to do so."

Gushee and the five other commission members have been examining the slope ordinance for the past seven months to determine if changes are warranted. The panel will discuss the issue during a 6:30 p.m. work session Wednesday at the Town Hall.

Gushee, 79, refers to the current ordinance that allows land with a 15 percent slope in new subdivisions, expanding to 20 percent with suitable soils and 25 percent under exceptional conditions, as a "straitjacket" because, in his opinion, it's very difficult to meet the requirements to go up to a 20 percent slope and beyond.

Gushee brings a considerable amount of knowledge to the table. A 1950 graduate of MIT with a degree in chemical engineering, Gushee retired from the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress.

"I was a participant in the Clean Air Acts of 1977 and 1990," Gushee said. "I was a participant in all the energy and environmental legislation from 1972 to 1993. I've been involved in the entire movement of environmental protection from the backwater to a primary national value."

Gushee hopes to have input on the draft ordinance from developers in time for a public hearing Sept. 16. He believes that the proposed changes in the slope ordinance have struck a proper balance between allowing for increased development, while protecting the environment.

"We have, I think, in terms of the accountability of the builders," Gush said. "The one similar thing is we have protected from any development, slopes over 25 percent. For slopes that are below that that are subject to erosion, we have said they must be identified and their susceptibility to erosion also identified. If it is erodible, it is called critical steep slopes.

"We've said if you're going to mess with a critical slope, you have to tell us in advance how steep the slope is. You've got to tell us what you're planning to do to it and prove to us that what you're going to do to it meets the [proper] standards. We've also added in some additional constraints beyond that."

Gushee said there have been discussions about coming up with a cluster ordinance "with an idea of clustering development on rolling terrain so that if you have a cluster ordinance, the builder can get the number of units in the cluster, which is less than the full tract size. We are in the process of framing a cluster ordinance to go along with this. So we'd like to have the slope ordinance workable in itself, but tough enough to provide an incentive to cluster."

Therese Brown, one of Gushee's colleagues on the Planning Commission, agrees that the process of coming up with a new slope ordinance or tweaking the existing one is a balancing act.

"It's not just making sure development interests are represented," Brown said, "but ensuring that the values of the community are maintained, including protecting the river, protecting the viewshed and protecting the environment."

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