Jackson commission race stands out in complexityWritten by Quintin Ellison
Ambivalence toward development, and who should pace and manage growth in a manner that preserves the natural beauty of the mountains, has surfaced as the central debate in the race for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners.
Three seats are open on the board. This includes the top the chairman’s position. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but are elected by countywide voting, or at-large.
In most Western North Carolina counties, the races for commission seats are fairly easy to categorize and subsequently, to analyze: newcomers — generally supportive of land regulations — versus long-timers — generally oppose land regulations.
Jackson County, however, is more complicated than generalizations allow. Two of the most ardent supporters of the strict development regulations now in place are scions of old mountain families: Tom Massie and William Shelton, both incumbents.
Additionally none — not one — of the commission candidates is in favor of a total absence of development regulations. Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated (all are represented in this year’s race), each in some manner, and at some level, acknowledged the necessity and responsibility of overseeing growth.
Other issues are also on the table this year: the deal struck with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam; pay raises that seemed to mainly benefit the already-highest paid of the county’s employees; and budget issues.
Background: Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. Others protested that too many subdivisions — 238 — were exempted. The “vested rights” were to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers in the planning stages. This, in turn, angered those wanting stricter growth controls.
When it comes to growth, the most hands-off candidate is Charles Elders, Shelton’s Republican opponent and a former commissioner. Even Elders, however, gives a nod to “some regulations” being necessary to protect the mountains. He is calling for a study of the current set to see if they need revision.
Shelton, a Democrat, voted for the regulations now in place. He said they weren’t developed willy-nilly, but followed a great deal of public comment from a cross-section of the county’s residents.
“I supported the temporary moratorium on new subdivisions because I felt the county needed time to develop the minimum standards without the planning department becoming overwhelmed with new applications that were simply trying to get into the system before any regulations were passed,” Shelton said.
Additionally, blaming a local governing board for a national recession doesn’t make sense, Shelton said.
But Republican Doug Cody, who is battling Massie, a Democrat, thinks the regulations should be examined “in considerable detail.”
“I also think that there should be input from a larger cross section of the community,” Cody said. “For example, I feel that there are creative ways to construct very low-density housing on steeper slopes without harming the environment.”
Massie pointed out the regulations were actually developed by members of the county’s planning board, which included a representative of the Home Builders Association. And were tweaked by commissioners. He characterized the advisory board as “reasonable, concerned citizens.”
What wasn’t reasonable — in his mind, at least — was what happened after the moratorium was placed on new developments conceived after February 2007.
“The regulations did not cause the slowdown in construction or real estate sales,” Massie said. “However, the hysteria generated by elements within the real estate and construction industries may have done more to damage that sector of the economy than the actual moratorium.”
If there is a man in the middle on these development issues, that is Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. He, among the candidates, cast the sole ‘no’ vote on current development regulations. He also opposed the moratorium on subdivisions.
“Did we really accomplish anything with a moratorium but alienate and frustrate many in the public?” McMahan queried rhetorically when asked about his vote.
But McMahan’s position is more complicated than simply dismissing the regulations that were passed, because he supports — and has been consistently on record as doing so — most of what is in place.
“I found it to be true that everyone was in favor of having stable slopes,” he said. “Everyone wanted some assurances that their neighbor’s property would not slide down the mountain and destroy or damage their property.”
Everyone also wanted safe and good access and roads, McMahan said, and “appropriate” buffers.
“I stopped in my support … when the ordinances went a step beyond those health, safety and protections aspects and started trying to regulate aesthetics, which is what ‘looks good.’’
McMahan also disagreed with lot-size requirements, which he said effectively limited some development possibilities.
His opponent, Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is having a difficult time delineating himself from McMahan on this issue because, frankly, their views on the subject are so similar.
Debnam supports the development regulations, but argues that he doesn’t think “we needed to cover everyone with the same blanket set” of rules. He, too, believes the moratorium was a terrible mistake.
“The implementation of the moratorium, in my opinion, gave us a five-month jumpstart on the rest of the nation in our economic downturn because of the question of what could happen next,” Debnam said.
Background: Jackson County tried to exercise eminent domain and take the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam now has been torn down.
Elders said he believes a little more skill at the negotiating table would have served Jackson County residents better than the bare-knuckled battle that took place with Duke.
Well, Shelton responded, of course it’s always nice to sit back and scrutinize someone else’s decisions: “Hindsight makes it easy to say that we should not have fought the fight, now that history shows we lost,” he said. “However, at the time I thought it was worth the gamble. If you look at the amount gained through the settlement against the amount spent, then you have pretty much a zero-sum game.”
Cody, like Elders, doesn’t approve of the “adversarial approach” taken by the county. His problem on this issue? Neither does his opponent. In fact, Massie voted against continuing “the legal wrangling” once the county’s appeal was denied.
“I felt it was a desperate, costly, gamble with little hope for success,” Massie said.
McMahan disagrees with that assessment, saying the fight made Duke pay more attention to the demolition than it might have otherwise. Such as sediment removal, and riverbank restoration. He agreed with Shelton that, ultimately, the situation was about break-even.
Not so fast, Debnam said.
“‘A wash?’ he said, “$500,000 out-of-pocket to area attorneys, who knows how many hours of county employee time, and we get what the stakeholders had agreed to. I think that should be considered ‘a bath.’”
Background: The county instituted a pay plan for employees. Some have since protested that the only employees who truly benefited were already those who were the highest paid.
Why in the world pay someone to conduct a study when the Institute for Local Government could have been consulted, and for free, Elders wanted to know. Additionally, Shelton’s challenger said it was disappointing to watch as the lowest paid tier of employees didn’t seem to reap rewards — only those at the top.
This issue is a tough one for the incumbents. Well-intentioned the study might have been, but the effort to bring a level of fairness to the pay scale that is based on experience, education and length of service didn’t exactly work out as thought. This truth Shelton acknowledged.
“In hindsight, I feel that our board made a mistake by voting on this policy without taking into account … the ‘career ladder’ portion,” he said. “That said, I still believe that we have a fair system in place that, in the long run, will serve the county well.”
Cody, like Elders, believes paying for a study was unnecessary, and that it unfairly rewarded those at the top tier.
Massie, like Shelton, seemed uncomfortable with what took place.
“I still support those raises,” Massie said, “but I should have better understood the impact the ‘career ladder’ … would have on pay levels of the employees with the most seniority. Had I fully understood that, it might have impacted my decision.”
McMahan, alone of the incumbent commissioners running for office, is unapologetic on the issue. The old pay plan didn’t adequately compensate some employees, and the county had too much turnover of critical personnel, he said.
“In a two-year period, the board met at seven different occasions in which the plan was discussed publicly in some way. No member of the public ever voiced the first complaint until after the plan had been presented, funded and implemented,” McMahan said.
Managing the dollars
Background: Being an incumbent is tough. You actually have a record to defend. But here’s one issue on which Shelton, Massie and McMahan are difficult to fault. Neighboring counties had huge budget shortfalls, layoffs and other fiscal nightmares. Jackson sailed through, with very little belt-tightening.
All in all, Elders acknowledged, the county is in pretty good shape. Wouldn’t hurt to build the tax base up, he said, and get an economic development commission re-established to focus on job growth.
Shelton said the current board “trimmed down the budget incrementally” during two budget cycles.
“This past year, we cut our budget by close to 10 percent across the board, with the exception of the fire departments,” he said. “Jackson County has a healthy debt-to-asset ratio in comparison to surrounding counties, and has a strong fund balance.”
Cody isn’t prepared to credit the incumbents even for a strong budget performance — he believes the only reason this county functioned better during the extended recession is because property values were so high.
“In my opinion, the county officials overspent while the national and local economies were slowing down,” he said.
But Massie said Jackson County certainly has done a very good job of managing its budget, thank you very much. Line items were reduced, overall expenditure reduced, money was placed in a rainy day fund to help offset future problems.
“I think that the fact that Jackson County has not had to do layoffs, furloughs and severely cut services is a testament to the sound leadership of the county manager, finance director, department heads and employees,” McMahan said.
(Note: For those not-so-good at picking up on subtleties, this is an oblique defense of the county pay raises — the highest paid who got more pay under the study did a good job on the budget, ie., county manager, finance director, and so on.)
Debnam simply refused to acknowledge that even Jackson County’s budget might be sound, and that commissioners did a good job on this part of their job. Or anything else particularly.
“Until I can get in office and have a cost accounting done, I will not know what kind of job has been done,” he said.