County commissioners have made some key changes to the ordinance in the past three weeks as they hashed out the rough draft developed by the county planning board. Some changes made the ordinance weaker, some made it stricter. Some changes simply offered developers options, which are neither weaker nor stricter but merely offer flexibility while achieving the same goal, such as environmental or viewshed protection.
A values clash has continued to play out between some commissioners, namely between Chairman Brian McMahan and the other four. McMahan does not approve of the regulations, finding them too restrictive and limiting.
One such clash played out during a work session Monday night as commissioners went over the regulations. McMahan objected to the sliding scale for minimum lot size. The regulations require two-acre lots on slopes of 30 percent all the way up to 10-acre lots on slopes of 45 percent, with a sliding scale for slopes in between. Homes can be clustered in a development, as long as the total number does not exceed the threshold.
McMahan said the requirement goes overboard in limiting the number of homes that can be built.
“If I have a five-acre lot and its 35 percent slope, I can only divide it into two lots? What does that accomplish?” McMahan asked.
Mike Egan, a consultant working with the county, provided a litany of functions.
“It reduces the number of home sites that would go into these areas and affect the viewshed. It reduces the amount of cut and fill that would occur on the mountain because you are reducing the number of house sites. You are reducing sediment and erosion. It reduces the amount of impervious surface and thereby increases the amount of groundwater recharge, a critical issue in the mountains,” Egan replied.
McMahan said the goal seems to simply reduce the number of houses that can be built in Jackson County.
“It appears to me we’ve moved beyond trying to protect someone’s home and make sure their house doesn’t slide off the mountain to saying, ‘We are going to limit the amount of available land in Jackson County,” McMahan said. “A lot of Jackson County is 40 percent slope or greater, and you’re saying all that has to be 5 acre lots.”
Commissioner Tom Massie defended the provision.
“Part of this is to try to encourage people to build on level land to start with,” Massie said. Massie also brought up the issue of groundwater recharge. That’s the amount of rainwater that soaks into the soil, eventually seeping into the rock layer below and stoking the groundwater table thousands of homeowners with wells rely on.
“Right now, we don’t know what the minimum lot size needs to be in Western North Carolina for groundwater recharge,” Massie said. The only scientific data along those lines is from the Piedmont. There, it takes 2.5 acres per well to provide adequate groundwater recharge.
“And that’s on flat land,” Massie said. “The steeper you get on the slopes, the thinner the soils and the less chance water has to seep in. We need more land for groundwater recharge up here.”
McMahan suggested the issue of groundwater recharge is being exploited to justify the regulations.
“I don’t think the groundwater recharge is the issue it is being made to be. I think we are limiting the amount of land in Jackson County we can build on,” McMahan said.
“I happen to think groundwater recharge is a bigger issue than is being talked about,” said Commissioner William Shelton, a farmer.
McMahan also objected to provisions that require houses to be hidden from view on the mountainsides. One such provision requires 50 percent of home to be screened if the home is painted an earth tone, or 80 percent screened if the home is not an earth tone. Another provision says homes should not be readily visible from public roads when viewed from below. Another says homes built on knolls can’t be perched on the edge, but should be placed back on the knoll.
“The people I have talked to are all in favor of an ordinance that will protect health and safety and make sure houses aren’t falling off the side of the mountain,” McMahan said. “As to looking across the valley and seeing someone else’s house and saying ‘I don’t like it,’ I don’t think we should be in the business of regulating that.”
McMahan said if you want a pretty view from your deck, buy the land you look at, but don’t limit what someone else can do with their land just so you can have a better view.
“We are attempting to control what people are doing with their lives on their property,” McMahan said.
Protecting viewsheds and keeping the clutter of homes on the mountainside to a minimum was a prominent concern expressed by the public at recent hearings, however. McMahan was the only commissioner who did not want to regulate viewsheds.
Here are some of the changes made by commissioners to the ordinances in the past week. For changes made the previous week, see last week’s issue of the paper online.
• Road width in subdivisions of 8 lots or less — Original language called for 14-foot-wide roads with two-foot shoulders. The commissioners changed it to 10-foot-wide roads with two-foot shoulders and periodic pull-offs.
• Road grades — The maximum road grade was capped at 18 percent. Commissioners decided to allow a variance of up to 25 percent grade for roads if there is no other alternative for sections of only 300 feet.
• Portion of a lot that can be disturbed — Under the draft language, the portion of a lot that could be disturbed with dozers and graders, as well as the amount that could be covered with impervious surfaces, i.e. rooftops and driveways, was based on a sliding scale. Larger lots had more leeway on how much land they could disturb or cover over. Commissioner changed it to one standard regardless of the lot size: 6,000 square feet for the home and driveway footprint and 10,000 square feet of disturbed area.
• What’s a protected ridge — Commissioners tightened the definition of a protected ridge. Before, it was any ridge more than 3,000 feet in elevation and more than 500 feet above the adjacent valley floor. Commissioners changed it to an elevation of only 2,500 feet and more than 400 feet above the adjacent valley floor. Massie said the old threshold left out too many prominent ridgelines. While all of Glenville, Cashiers and Little Canada sit above 3,000 feet, prominent ridges in lower lying areas of the county can easily be only 2,600 feet. Massie pointed to one such ridge on a top map in Qualla.
“I guarantee you that dominates your vision if you are down here looking up at the mountains, because it’s the only mountain you can see,” Massie said, making his case for the new definition of a protected ridge.
The two-part litmus test, which also requires the ridge to be 400 feet above the adjacent valley floor, safeguards against the wholesale inclusion of regions of the county with a naturally high elevation.
The definition of a protected ridge comes into play in building height guidelines. On protected ridges, the roofline of a building must be 20 feet below the ridgeline.