The discussion, organized by a group of Western Carolina University students studying active citizenship and American politics, was the launch of a program called “Jackson Voices,” which aims to compile public opinion on land-use issues. The program is being modeled after the similarly titled “Macon Voices.” Fifty Macon County residents from all walks of life were interviewed about their opinions of long-range land-use planning and growth on film.
In conjunction with Macon Voices, the Little Tennessee Perspectives project collected information from the community, finding that residents saw increased regulations such as those limiting steep slope development as something important to their community’s vitality.
Such projects have helped influence Macon County commissioners, as the need for planning has translated to the passage of a high-impact use ordinance, which places restrictions on things such as sawmills and race tracks.
A panel of local government leaders and representatives from area activist groups opened the Jackson Voices forum with brief descriptions of their roles in shaping the future and how they each saw the county responding to growth demands.
County Manager Ken Westmoreland listed the major issues he saw facing the county: traffic, water and sewer expansion/storm water management, proliferation of subdivisions, sediment/erosion control, public safety issues such as slope development regulations and insuring emergency service access to homes, agricultural land development, rising property values, incompatible neighboring land uses such as homes near industries, the delay in receiving permits for building and a lack of qualified staff to speed up that process, and reaching a community consensus about local government’s role in land use planning.
The extensive list summed up the majority of area residents’ concerns. Residents expressed related concerns about the increasing number golf courses in the county, which may contribute contaminants to the groundwater supply, advertisement of county lands as bearing few restrictions and ripe for development, and the pros and cons of the second home market, which provides jobs and property tax revenues but can burden local roads with increased traffic and promote steep slope development.
Webster Mayor Jim Davis asked panelists if the county would consider enacting something as drastic as a moratorium on growth altogether, giving planners time to get a handle on things before they go totally out of control.
“We haven’t ruled anything out yet,” said Tom Massie, an incoming county commissioner who was recently elected to serve a four-year term based on his having received the second-highest amount of votes in the Nov. 7 election.
Massie, along with top vote-getter William Shelton, ran on a progressive and aggressive platform in favor of countywide land-use planning.
However, Massie cautioned that while drastic measures were most likely needed, local leaders did not want to shock the general public into fear and inaction. On the flip side, Massie said that leaders should not allow fear of making people mad lead them into a decision-making paralysis. Decisions should be made not on re-election bids but the good of the county overall.
County Planner Linda Cable briefly reviewed the recently developed land-use plan, which was created in response to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s need for some type of comprehensive picture of growth to be used in conjunction with the DOT’s long-range planning process. The mandate came after heated disputes regarding the potential construction of a southern bypass connecting U.S. 441 with U.S. 19-73.
The plan has been more than a year in the making, but really doesn’t plan anything. Rather, it’s a gathering of individual entities’ individual plans — how Southwestern Community College plans to grow, where the Town of Sylva hopes to facilitate access management to reduce curb cuts.
Nevertheless, local resident Fran Webster said it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy to call the document a land “development” plan. Rather, the county may need to look at what can be done to prevent over-development from happening, Webster said.
WCU students will compile comments gathered Thursday night and make them available to the public on the county’s Web site, www.jacksonnc.org, where the land-use plan also is available.