Big lot mandate hampers housing growth in Sylva

Residential density is coming under scrutiny in Sylva after town leaders learned they require larger lots than most similar-sized towns.

To build a new house in Sylva you must have almost a half-acre lot. It’s twice the required yard as homes in Canton, and 50 percent more than in Maggie Valley, commissioners were told.

Commissioner Harold Hensley has pushed the issue to the forefront because, as he’s stated at several town meetings, he believes the generous lot-size requirements in Sylva are hindering development. He received support on the proposal to examine the issue from his sometimes town-board opponent, Stacy Knotts.

“Smart-growth” supporters generally endorse small lot sizes, because intensified density in town reduces urban sprawl from encroaching on the countryside. In an additional perspective, Town Commissioner Christina Matheson said she believes the town’s requirements are stifling the ability of new homeowners to build starter houses since larger lots are more expensive.

The issue has proved controversial in recent years, however. The town board has been divided more than once on whether to grant developers an exception and allow smaller lots. Sylva’s former town planner, Jim Aust, resigned after being unable to convince the town board to reconsider the arduous lot size requirement, which he said prevented the development of affordable housing

Planning board members, some of who were on hand to discuss their overall role and the need to communicate clearly with commissioners, were urged to begin discussions on density requirements.

“Look at the entire residential area,” Mayor Maurice Moody instructed. “As the planning board approaches this, you really just need to keep and open mind, and come to a decision.”

The planning board would then make a recommendation to commissioners, who have the deciding power on such issues.

Mary Kelley, who leads the town’s planning board, said members wanted to make sure they were “on the same page” as commissioners.

“You are an extension of the town board,” Moody said.

Commissioners also said they might reconsider whether to give the planning board the power it once had to grant variances. Currently, town commissioners make those decisions.


Minimum residential lot size*

Sylva: 17,500 to 20,000 square feet

Canton: 8,000 square feet

Maggie Valley: 7,000 to 14,000 square feet

* The range depends on zoning from one neighborhood to the next.

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