Rules in Jackson County controlling how development occurs along the five-mile stretch or so of U.S. 441 that leads into the Cherokee Indian Reservation are undergoing review.
That concerns former Commissioner William Shelton, a resident and farmer who lives and works in that area. Shelton helped pass the regulations after the Whittier community developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway, known as the Gateway area.
“It is their plan, what they want to happen and to not happen,” Shelton said.
The Whittier land-use plan was a landmark event when passed four years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by any county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot-zoning. The county planning board now wants to revise the land-use plan.
County Planner Gerald Green, who was hired by the previous Democrat-controlled board just before its members were ousted during the last election, said there’s no desire in play here to strip the regulations of meaning.
Green said that he initiated the review himself. The planner maintained this is a simple attempt “to improve” rules on development in the corridor “and make them work for everyone.”
“The intention was to preserve the scenic rural character of the area. But I’m not sure the ordinance does that,” Green said.
Republican Commissioners Charles Elders and Doug Cody both said this week they support a planning board review of the U.S. 441 ordinance.
Cody described the existing regulations as “anti-development.” Elders, who lives and works in that area and replaced Shelton on the board, said that he’s heard a multitude of complaints in his community about the rules being too restrictive.
The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. Instead, it lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure what development does occur will be attractive. And that’s sort of what’s there now — some older motels, a consignment shop or two, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor.
Green said he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better, such as at the juncture of U.S. 74 and U.S. 441. Concentrated development might be preferable to allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip, he said, adding this sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.
Green also wants to take a hard look at rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. The ordinance, he said, fulfills “new urbanist philosophies” but doesn’t take into account more practical considerations, such as the “context” of development already in place along U.S. 441.
Additionally, the ordinance fails to stipulate that developers can’t just “flip” their new businesses around. In other words, new development could technically meet the ordinance requirements by “fronting” the highway with the actual back of a new building, he said. Then the parking lot would be “in front” of the building as required — but that would not be what motorists on U.S. 441 were looking at as they travel to and from Cherokee.
The ordinance also fails to meet a more desirable planning goal of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor, Green said. And that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.
Urban fix to rural problem
A Charlotte firm helped develop the ordinance, and the county planner said that big-city approach to controlling development simply doesn’t work well on the ground in rural Western North Carolina.
“I see it as improving these regulations,” Green said of the planning board review. “The more I look at the ordinance the more questions I have about it. The plan (by the community) was very well done. It is the ordinance that is being reviewed.”
A series of community workshops and public meetings was held in Whittier to help develop a vision for the corridor. That vision laid the groundwork for the logistical aspects of the ordinance written by the contracted firm.
Green said he does not believe “that the goal of protecting the corridor and encouraging development is exclusive.”
Next May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441, though Green believes it will be fairly slow because of poor economic conditions.
“I do think it will grow, but given the state of the economy, it won’t be fast,” the county planner said.
And, if Jackson residents OK the sale of alcoholic beverages in May, it would take about a year for the actual reality of sales to occur. And that, loosely, is the timeframe Green wants to see the planning board work within, too.
“We want to make sure (Gateway) is both attractive and viable as a transportation corridor,” the planner said.