Ingles got a green light last week from Waynesville’s town board to bulk out their Russ Avenue location, complete with gas station and convenience store, adding another expansion to the chain’s growing empire of new and revamped stores.

The store will jump to nearly 120,000 square feet, taking over the adjacent storefronts vacated by Goody’s and others, and will feature a host of new offerings, including an expanded café and wine section.

While Ingles spokesmen won’t comment on their corporate strategy, the expansion is part of a campaign to enlarge their locations across the Southeast and build new ones.

The chain just came out with plans for a new megastore on Smoky Park Highway in Asheville. What will eventually be the largest of the chain’s 203 stores has, this week, been announced in Hull, Ga., just outside Athens.

While other businesses continue to struggle, Ingles has posted healthy profits for the last several quarters. This follows two years of declining profits from 2008-2009.

From October to December 2010, the company christened one new store and opened two remodeled locations. At the same time, it reported a nearly 4 percent increase in sales, up $1.7 million over the same quarter the previous year. On tap for the remainder of 2011 are five new or remodeled store openings, plus six new gas stations, with a new wing being tacked onto its Asheville distribution center in 2012.

“We’re off to a strong start for fiscal year 2011,” said CEO Robert Ingle in a statement last month. “Overall conditions are improving, but we continue to be cautious about the next few quarters.”

Such healthy sales numbers aren’t a new phenomenon for the store. At the close of 2010, it celebrated its 46th consecutive year of sales growth. The company has managed to stay profitable, even in a continually slumping economy, which could be due in part to a dearth of comparable competition.

While Ingles has now swooped in to dominate the western counties, many of the store’s historic rivals such as Harris Teeter and Winn Dixie have been slowly pulling out of the area.

ALSO: Residents weigh in on new Ingles

The former has been concentrating its efforts and dollars on urban landscapes like Greensboro, Charlotte and their attendant suburbs, while the latter emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006 and dragged it’s operations southwards, shunning locales north of Birmingham.

Even so, Ingles announced last month that it would be pulling the reins on its ambitious course of growth and expansion.

Beyond already-planned projects, finance officials have reported that they’re going to scale down the growth agenda they pushed in 2008 and 2009.  

“The Company is being more cautious in its development plans until economic conditions improve,” said an uncharacteristic statement on its business forecasting released with first-quarter financial statements in January.

So while Canton and Cashiers — and soon Waynesville — are reveling in their new digs, the same good fortunes may not be coming to the region’s other stores any time soon.

As for the Russ Avenue build-out, Chief Financial Officer Ron Freeman said hopes are to get the project off the ground relatively quickly.

“Given the weather this time of year, it’s difficult to say when we’ll get started, which will have a lot to do with when we expect to finish,” said Freeman. “It’s too early to tell.”

The remodeled version will sit on a footprint of nearly 120,000 square feet and construction will be phased to allow the store to remain open. The portion of the shopping center once occupied by Goody’s will be razed first, followed by the northern half of the building, where the store is now located.

The average size of an Ingles store rose 10 percent over the past five years and was 53,524 square feet as of late September, according to a company regulatory filing. Waynesville will be two and a half times the average store size.


Plan passed by town board

The supermarket chain came before the board with its application for a conditional use zone, which would allow them to sidestep some of the town’s current regulations.

The biggest variance the store sought was for their parking lot. Current rules require parking lots to be behind new or renovated buildings, a near-impossibility on Ingles’ lot.

One of the key new features of the site plan – and a major sticking point for every board and commission the plan has come before – is a redesigned parking lot. The company’s new plan includes a plethora of trees to spruce up what is currently a treeless asphalt slab. Medians and other traffic-calming devices will also bring an element of organization to the lot which, in its present state, is a free-for-all governed only vaguely by painted guides.

Planning Director Paul Benson said that the application isn’t too far outside the city’s current ordinances, or even a far cry from what the proposed new ordinances are shaping up to be.

“I think they’re doing a pretty good effort there,” said Benson. “For a renovation of an existing site, it sure goes a long way toward meeting the ordinance.”

Ingles CFO Ron Freeman said they were happy with the process, which took just under three months to get through the town’s system.
“We are pleased with the Board of Aldermen’s decision,” said Freeman. “We are looking forward to bringing a better shopping experience to our customers in Waynesville.”

When Ingles pushes out of its old shell, it’s new home will bring new options to customers, like a stir-fry station, improved produce section and expanded wine and café offerings.

For many local residents, however, the store’s current incarnation is already an asset to their regular shopping routines, and any improvements would just be icing on the grocery-buying cake.

Debbie Simpson, a part-time Haywood County resident, said the store surpasses what the Publix in her part-time Florida home has to offer.

“Basically, I like the store the way it is,” said Simpson, adding that if she had to pick an area that could be stepped up, “maybe more international food” would be the way to go.

James Rich concurred with Simpson’s assessment. The Waynesville rock mason said he couldn’t find a complaint or even a suggestion to proffer for the store. Rich was put on babysitting duty, pushing a grinning, stroller-bound baby around the produce section while his wife added to an already-full cart, a usual family ritual, he said.

“You can’t make it much better than they already have,” Rich said.

Constance Ebert and her husband Millard, speaking from frozen foods where they were eyeing a bag of canary yellow banana pops, said they were pretty pleased with the Waynesville store, but Constance was able to enumerate a few suggestions for improvements.

“I think demonstrations that show how you can prepare things would be great,” Ebert said, and though she said she was pleased with the store’s cleanliness, she’d love some more healthy options, a more Fresh Market feel.

For her part, Waynesville native Dianne Pass gave the supermarket a glowing review as well, and she was pretty excited to hear some of the improvements coming the store’s way, especially the landscaping plans.

“I love this store, I can’t imagine it any other way,” said Pass a twice-a-week patron of the store, “but it’s such a beautiful area, the trees would be great.”

Town aldermen were on board with that, too, lauding the choice to add some flora to the storefront. There was some dispute about tree type, but in the end, the board was pleased by the corporation’s efforts.

“I really appreciate the fact that Ingles has been willing to make this much of an investment in shade trees and landscaping in this parking lot,” said Alderman Elizabeth Feichter.

Bud Talley said this week he plans to move forward on building a dirt-bike track on his farm in Macon County despite opposition from neighbors.

The size and scope of the project hasn’t yet been determined, Talley said, but “something” will be built come spring.

“The economy is failing everywhere, and I’m not sure how much money I want to invest,” the farmer and owner of Nantahala Meats in Franklin said.

Talley set off a firestorm of controversy in Macon County after his neighbors in the largely residential Clarks Chapel community learned he intended to build a dirt-bike track. Talley asked the Macon County Board of Adjustment in December for a setback variance that would have given him the needed wiggle room to build a sanctioned track. He withdrew the variance when board members signaled their intention to deny the request.

More than 100 people turned out for the hearing, most to speak against Talley’s planned dirt-bike track.

Even without a setback, there is apparently nothing to prevent Talley from legally building a dirt-bike track, or motorcross, albeit it smaller than originally intended to comply with the county’s setback requirements. He became interested in the sport because his son is involved in dirt-bike racing.

When Mountain Projects came calling on Sylva leaders earlier this year because the group wanted to build five affordably priced homes within the town’s limits, commissioners found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to deny the request.

The problem? A town law written just after World War II requiring almost a half acre of land per each house built. Mountain Projects, a regional community-action agency, missed the mark by a few thousand feet.

For its part, Mountain Projects was stymied by rules, too. The group was trying to meet its own mandated requirements that it build at least five houses, or not build them at all.

The situation underscored the need to reconsider the town’s minimum-lot requirements and make them less burdensome, Sylva Commissioner Christina Matheson said this week.

Sylva’s requirement for an almost half-acre lot per house was twice the required yard as mandated for homes in Canton, and 50 percent more than in Maggie Valley.

“We were probably the most restrictive municipality in the entire area, as far as the lot requirements go,” Matheson said. “Requiring that much property to construct a house makes it almost unaffordable. Particularly for families and elderly people.”

Requirements for nearly a half-acre per new house first surfaced as a hot-button issue here in late 2008, when Planner Jim Aust resigned. He said town leaders — by way of refusing to change Sylva’s excessive lot-size requirements — were preventing affordable housing from ever being built. Aust publicly accused Mayor Maurice Moody of wanting only $500,000 houses in the town he oversees.

The town’s decision to lighten up when it comes to mandating how much land a person must own before building a house came by unanimous board vote. The ‘yes’ votes included those of Commissioners Harold Hensley and Ray Lewis, both subjects of Aust’s “I’m-going-to-quit because what’s-the-point-in-trying-anymore” ire. Moody didn’t get to vote, because the mayor only votes if there is a split decision by the board.

These are the reasons most towns — including Sylva now, too — generally allow smaller lots:   

• They keep the costs of building roads and water and sewer lines lower because the infrastructure doesn’t have to be extended so far.

• More homes per acre reduces land costs, helping to keep the building — and selling — price of houses down.

• Intensified density in towns reduces urban sprawl from encroaching on the countryside.

“The (new) lot sizes are more in line with other similar communities, and will offer more housing options for residents,” Town Commissioner Stacy Knotts said.

Matheson did not know if Mountain Projects might be interested in revisiting its affordable-housing proposal. She did say town leaders hope the less restrictive requirement stimulates development and growth in Sylva.

When Aust quit, he said just 78 dwelling units had been built in the town in a seven-year span.

The town law, said Matheson — a former assistant district attorney — was “clearly designed to limit growth.”


New Sylva Minimum Lot-Size Requirements:

• R-1 went from 20,000 square feet to 17,500 square feet.  

• R-1A and R-1B stayed at 17,500 square feet.

• R-2 changed from 17,500 to 12,500 square feet, with duplexes at 17,500 square feet.

• R-3 went from 17,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet, with duplexes at 13,000 square feet. Also in R-3, multi-family developments (more than two units) minimum-lot size increases by 5,000 square feet for each additional unit.

• B-1 stays the same with no lot-size requirements.

• B-2 and B-3 changes from 17,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet, and increases to 13,000 square feet for duplexes and 5,000 square feet for each additional structure in multi-family developments.  

• G-1 did not previously have requirements, and now has a minimum lot-size requirement of 12,500 square feet and 17,500 square feet for duplexes.

• Professional Business District stays the same at 10,000 square feet, and I-1 changes from 17,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet with a 13,000 square-foot requirement for duplexes, and 5,000 square feet for each additional structure for multifamily.

SOURCE: Town of Sylva

No one could specify exactly who made the decision to remove the maps or when precisely that occurred, but some members of a Macon group studying steep-slope safety want them returned to the county’s website.

The taxpayer-funded Slope Movement Hazard maps were prepared by the N.C. Geological Survey to highlight potential landslide-danger spots. They were taken down without warning from the county’s website “a few months ago,” according to members of the county’s steep-slope subcommittee. The maps remain available through the state’s website for those willing to go in search of them.

View the maps online

This, however, is not particularly helpful to a majority of Macon County residents, area real-estate agents and people considering buying property in the county, said Stacy Guffey, a member of the steep-slope subcommittee and former Macon County planner.

Guffey said he believes people should be able to tap into county-related information (landslide potential, flood dangers and so on) in one easy-to-find location. Subcommittee Chairman Al Slagle agreed, but backed off forwarding the suggestion to the planning board after two subcommittee members — who sell real estate professionally — opposed the idea. Reggie Holland and John Becker explained they believe the maps cause more harm than good. This, they said, because the maps lack meaningful context for laypersons trying to interpret trained scientists’ work.

Additionally, the men raised questions about liability. Lewis Penland, chairman of the planning board and a professional golf-course designer, tried to assuage their fears. He said his understanding is that a real-estate agent’s responsibility ends with directing prospective buyers toward qualified experts. Penland added, however, that attempts to have this interpretation rendered in the form of an actual stand-up-in-court legal opinion hasn’t proven successful.

Slagle, saying he wanted consensus, promised the matter would be discussed again later. Guffey endorsed Slagle’s call for a harmonious resolution and postponement of the discussion, perhaps because there hasn’t been too much getting-along-together-even-when-we-disagree happening these days in Macon County.


Don’t live in Macon, so why should you care?

Good question, but there’s an equally good answer: because the ramifications of what’s taking place in Macon resonates in other Western North Carolina counties. Voters’ decision during the mid-term elections to hand control of state and county governments to Republicans and GOP-backed Independent candidates means land planning, if it occurs at all, is likely to look very different.

The fight for now is taking place in Macon County. Tomorrow, it might well erupt in Jackson, or some other WNC county.

Here’s what happened in Macon County: the county planning board appoints the steep-slope subcommittee. The planning board, in turn, is appointed by Macon County’s Board of Commissioners. The board of commissions fractured internally and came under intense fire recently for placing, in a 3-2 vote, an anti-planning advocate  — Jimmy Goodman — on the planning board in place of Subcommittee Chairman Slagle.

Goodman helped found the Tea Party chapter Freedom Works, and won no small favor among some in Macon County with his arguments that the planning board he now serves on should take a hiatus. Goodman was previously a member of the planning board. He was not reappointed because other members wanted Goodman removed from the board for what they deemed obstructive behavior. At least that’s how Democrat Commissioner Ronnie Beale described the problem. And it was Beale who found himself unexpectedly on the losing side when the aforementioned 3-2 decision came about.

Goodman, for his part, told The Smoky Mountain News he has every intention of working hard on the planning board. And that he doesn’t want to get involved in politics. Though, as a point of fact, Goodman of his own accord recently became deeply enmeshed in politics — the professional cabinetmaker ran an unsuccessful campaign against Republican Jim Davis, a Franklin resident, in the May primaries. The two men were vying for a state Senate seat.

Not confused enough yet by these internecine political plays? Here’s one more important point: Davis, a Macon County commissioner, ultimately ousted John Snow, D-Murphy, for the 50th Senate District seat. Perhaps as a consolation prize for Goodman and in a gesture toward Macon County Republican Party unity, Davis, in nearly his last act as a commissioner, seconded the nomination for Goodman to be placed on the county planning board.


What purposes the maps might serve

The steep-slope committee headed by Slagle has been working on a set of proposed regulations since June 2009.

Macon County in 1994 experienced a massive debris flow in the Peeks Creek community. Five people died. This was a natural, not man-created event — though in saying that, one must overlook the truth that this obliterated portion of the community was built where the more than two-mile long debris flow did actually occur.

Additionally, Macon County has been the site of several landslides that have been blamed on improper road construction and inappropriate building sites or techniques.

Would the currently available geological maps have helped? That’s probably an unanswerable question. But these are precisely the type situations the maps might help prevent in the future — plus, they could serve to warn where it might be best to avoid land disturbance through building and construction. Or, at the very least, signal whether an expert should render an opinion on how best to minimize or avoid any dangers if building and construction does move forward.

“It just points out areas from a slope stability, public safety standpoint (where) it makes sense to have a closer look,” said Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C Geological Survey.

The General Assembly ordered the geological survey to put together maps for the state’s 19 westernmost counties. In Macon County, Wooten said 600 to 900 locations were studied, and the following maps were the result:

• Slope Movements Deposit Map: Where the ground has moved or is still moving.

• Stability Index Map: Where a landslide seems more likely given the right set of weather conditions.

• Debris Flow Pathways Map: The likely path of a landslide.

Wooten said draft maps have been finished for Henderson County. Work is under way in Jackson County.


Want to get involved?

The Macon County steep-slope committee is set to meet next at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5, in the agricultural building, formerly the health department in Franklin. The committee wants to finalize its recommendations by February for the county planning board to consider. To that end, the committee plans to meet “as often as possible” over the next few months, Al Slagle, the subcommittee’s chairman, said.

Planning board members in Macon County this week voted against a plan that would have seen their group expand from 11 to 13.

“I sat on a board once that had 25 people, the chairman had to break us out into subgroups that reported back to the main board,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the planning board, said in explanation. “With this many people it was very hard to get anything accomplished.”

Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale suggested the expansion. It was Beale’s attempt to mend fences after three of his board colleagues — Republicans Brian McClellan, Jim Davis and Democrat Bob Simpson — voted an anti-planning advocate onto the planning board.

The appointment of Jimmy Goodman, a Tea Party member who helped found the local chapter Freedom Works and a former planning board member others once asked be removed for bad behavior, came at the expense of Al Slagle. This longtime board member, who oversees the controversial steep slope subcommittee, was up for routine re-appointment when he was instead abruptly dumped.

The steep slope subcommittee is studying whether Macon County needs to enact building regulations for development on mountaintops and mountainsides. A series of natural and manmade landslides have plagued Macon County in recent years, including the 1994 Peeks Creek disaster that claimed five lives.

McClellan and Davis (who is heading to the state Senate) apologized to fellow commissioners Beale and Bobby Kuppers for surprising them with their votes for Goodman. The two Republicans also made personal apologies to Slagle. They did not, however, back down from the appointment of Goodman, citing a need for more diversity of thought on the planning board. Simpson, who is no longer a commissioner anyway following his ousting by voters during the midterm election, stopped short of apologizing for how the matter was handled. He did acknowledge Slagle had been badly treated in a very public manner.

The mea culpas and Simpson’s non-mea culpa to fellow Democrats came during a special called meeting earlier this month. More than 100 Macon County residents packed the boardroom for this special meeting, forcing commissioners to shift over to a courtroom.

Slagle, if he chooses, can continue serving as head of the planning board’s steep slope subcommittee despite now being officially off the planning board, said fellow member Lamar Sprinkle. Additionally, the terms of several board members — including Sprinkle — are ending in a matter of months. Possibly Slagle could take one of those slots if he even wants back on the planning board, Sprinkle said this week.

Goodman, contacted by telephone at his home and cabinet-making business, didn’t have a lot to say about the uproar triggered by his rejoining the planning board.

“I’m glad to be on the planning board and I’m going to do the best job I can,” he said. “I’m not going to get involved in that political stuff.”

That seems to be the consensus of the planning board at this juncture. Get along best they can, and get to work on the business of planning.

“I think this storm might die down and everything will be alright,” Sprinkle said. “I want to work with everyone on there, and come up with whatever is best for the county. It is what we all want to do, and I think everybody realizes this needs to be put behind us.”

First off, I would like to thank Chairman Beale and the commissioners for meeting with us jointly tonight. And thank the planning board members, the comprehensive plan subcommittee members, and the safe slope development workgroup members for attending. And thank you to the public in attendance. We can see from the attendance that many people care about planning in Macon County.

Our work is important for so many reasons. We hear over and over during campaigns and we read in numerous surveys and studies, that planning is the most important issue in Macon County. And it’s not an issue divided between Democrats and Republicans, liberal or conservative in the true sense — because we believe in looking smartly at the way this county develops in an effort to conserve resources for the future, to build a strong stable economy and to protect property rights and the quality of life and heritage that has drawn and kept so much investment in this county.

Another indication that this work is so important is the fact that our board and subcommittees are made up of volunteers. Every member of our board has a family and obligations, yet they volunteer countless hours with the hope that their time will make a difference for future generations. I keep hearing how we need a different voice on the planning board or how we need diverse opinions. Well, if you’ve ever been to a board meeting, you would know that we have that covered. We disagree on almost everything, but in the end we come to consensus. And we agree on the basic principles of planning for the future of the county. And none of our volunteers, no matter how much he or she might disagree, works actively against the board, as was the case with Mr. Goodman. We agree to disagree and then we get down to the hard work.

Among the most active of our volunteers is Al Slagle. Al comes from an old Macon County family that has a long history of public service. Al has been working hard over the past year with our safe slopes workgroup. He has put together one of the most diverse groups of people and built a consensus among them. On the workgroup with Al, who is a retired geologist, is Paul Shuler, a grading contractor, Susan Ervin, a planning board member, Reggie Holland, a building and developer, Stacy Guffey, former county planner who now works on preservation and economic development, Barry Clinton, a scientist from Coweeta Lab who studies the forestry and hydrology of our mountains, and John Becker, a local real estate agent. This group of volunteers, appointed by the planning board, have developed a set of reasonable recommendations to guide us as we develop safe slope-development practices. And along the way, they have helped build a consensus among their family, friends and peers in their professions; so that we can now say we have tremendous support in the community for addressing slope development issues. This is the reason we cannot afford to lose Al Slagle as a planning board member.

Like the rest of the nation, our local economy is in bad shape. We need investment and we need jobs. The way we get those is through smart planning that creates a safe environment for investment that will lead to job creation. But that’s not what Macon County offers right now. What we offer is a “caveat emptor,” “buyer beware” atmosphere. For example, if I buy a used car down at the local lot and the brakes don’t work on that car, then, we come to find out, the salesman knew that all along, but he wanted to make the sale, so he didn’t disclose. Well, a couple of things are going to happen. First of all I will never buy a car from that individual again. Secondly, I’m going to tell all my friends “don’t buy anything from that car lot because you don’t know what you’re getting.” The same thing is happening right now with our county.

People who’ve invested in property here only to see that property affected by slides or erosion and runoff on their on property or their neighbors’ property. They in turn are telling their friends.

Over the long term, that’s going to hurt us. People will invest in areas where they know that their investment, not only in the monetary value of the property, but also their expectation of quality of life, will be protected. And some people will say that this can all be settled in court. Is that what we want for our county? A litigious county? Does that look good to potential investors and property owners?

Let’s be straight here. The reason people move to this county and stay in this county and invest in this county is because of clean water, the small-town atmosphere, the slower pace of life, fresh air, farmland, open space, and the most beautiful mountains in the world.

As a developer, I can say that we were well on our way to destroying those very things before the economic downturn. Now is our one and only chance to get things right, to protect our assets like any smart businessperson would do, and to build a strong stable economy for future generations.

We have sat by as people from faraway places have promised us the moon if only we would stay out of their way and let them develop. Well that promise has come and gone and we’re left with unstable roads and house sites, unlivable homes, and hundreds of foreclosed lots burdening our banks.

Folks, we’re looking at two choices — the vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few. Or a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.

This is a critical time and that’s why we need dedicated members on this board who put personal interests aside for what’s best for the future of this county — members like Al Slagle.

I respectfully request that you remove Mr. Goodman from the planning board and appoint Al Slagle in his place. I also request that in the future, as has been the tradition, the planning board be consulted on any appointments to the board and that appointments be based on qualifications, not on political affiliations, and further that these decisions be deliberative and not on the spur of the moment because these appointments have long-term effect. I fully understand that the planning board serves at your pleasure, but it is important to our functioning as a board that we be consulted on any changes. We have to have a cohesive board in order to be effective. And finally, I would like to request that the board of commissioners and planning board communicate on a regular basis so that we can build a better understanding between the two boards.

On a personal note. At this point, I’d like to take the opportunity to address in public something I’ve been hearing that’s going around. There are some folks, and I’m pretty sure I can guess who they are, that have been spreading the rumor that Al has been working on these recommendations with the aim of (I quote) “creating himself or his family members a job.” I have known Al for many years and I can tell you that is not just a lie, it’s a damn lie. And I think such a lie speaks to the level that some people will stoop to and to the fact that when some people run out of constructive arguments they will resort to attacking good people. If you have an issue or constructive input to the work we’re doing, then please offer it, but personal attacks are just morally wrong and will only serve to undermine your argument.

I would like to speak still in support of reinstating Al Slagle to the planning board and against appointing anyone, ever to the planning board or any other board, who is actively opposed to the missions and procedures of that board. People who oppose land-use regulation and actively work against it, no matter how reasonable, moderate and needed it is, will be a detriment to this board. Al Slagle, on the other hand, has worked hard to develop reasonable, moderate and much-needed standards for slope development. I would also ask that you include the planning board in decisions about who its members will be.

You would not put someone on the library board who wants to end public support for libraries or someone on the EDC who opposes all government participation in economic development. It’s been said that we need diversity of opinion on the board. As far as representing the interests of development, quite a few planning board members are involved financially in some aspect of development, building and real estate, so the interests of that industry are well represented. If you want more diversity, we could use the knowledge of an engineer, architect, community organizer, someone in health services or social services or land conservation, a biologist, forester, hydrologist, outdoor recreation worker, cultural or natural historian, wildlife manager.

It’s time for us to support the needs and rights of the landowner and homeowner, of the community, of the environment, and of future generations rather than the short-term profits of some developers who want no controls and no accountability.

Too many times we’ve unconditionally supported the rights of developers only to be left with substandard development and empty lots that now threaten our local economy, environment and safety. On Thursday night, the courtroom was filled with people who wanted to express their support for planning, for Al Slagle and slope-development standards, and against inappropriate appointments to the board.

We ask now and in the future you build a stronger planning board, rather than weakening it. You will earn the respect and gratitude of many good people in the process. Thank you for your consideration.

Macon County commissioners almost couldn’t hold a meeting Monday night because they couldn’t agree on a new chairman.

With newly elected state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, absent because of a mandatory meeting in Raleigh, the board split 2-2 over whether former Chairman Ronnie Beale, a Democrat, should retain the post; or if Brian McClellan, a Republican, would take his place.

Bobby Kuppers, a Democrat, sided with Beale. Ron Haven, a Republican newly elected to the board, took McClellan’s part.

“We’re the majority now,” Haven said bluntly.

Davis will leave the commission board next month. Republican Kevin Corbin will fill the two years remaining on Davis’ four-year term.

Following a five-minute recess called by acting chairman and County Manager Jack Horton, the Democrats returned to acknowledge they’d lose the battle at some point, anyway. At least as soon as Davis, a Republican stalwart, could cast his vote for McClellan.

Kuppers said he’d learned from Horton and board attorney Chester Jones that legally the commissioners could do nothing until a chairman was appointed.

“If we do not reconcile this logjam, the meeting will adjourn and we will be able to conduct no business,” Kuppers said, adding that he was casting his support to McClellan with “great reservation and trepidation.”

“We are here to do the business of the people,” Beale said in agreement.

The board unanimously voted to elect McClellan chairman and Kuppers vice chairman.

That taken care of, planning issues took center stage.

Franklin resident Shirley Ches told the board during the public comment period that she was “stunned and appalled” by the recent vote to dump Al Slagle off the planning board in favor of Jimmy Goodman.

“There were under-the-radar manipulations going on,” Ches said. “… fairness would dictate Mr. Slagle be reappointed.”

Emily Dale echoed Ches’ call for placing Slagle back on the planning board.

“I’m very relieved I was not given this same treatment when I was chairman of the planning board 20 years ago,” Dale scolded commissioners.

ALSO READ: Lewis Penland, chairman of the  Macon County Planning Board, to commissioners

ALSO READ: Susan Ervin, long-time member of the Macon County Planning Board, to commissioners


The decision

After a certain amount of polite wrangling, and unheeded pleas from Commissioner Haven to slow down the process, the board of commissioners asked their attorney to look into two matters.

The first question is how they can legally increase the number of planning board members from its current makeup of 11 people to 13 people (there must be an odd number for voting purposes); and at Beale’s specific request, how they can legally remove a member of the planning board who “is detrimental” to the process.

These are the two key factors in whether Slagle can be reappointed to the planning board if he agrees to serve again, and how to kick Goodman off the board if he misbehaves.

Kuppers told Haven dilly dallying serves no good purpose. Best case, it will be January anyway before anything could happen, he said.

“People are excited about this,” Kuppers said, adding that he can’t go anywhere in Macon County right now without hearing people’s concerns about Goodman being placed on the planning board.

Additionally, the Democrat commissioner recommended that at some point the board consider having prospective commissioner-appointed board members vetted by the involved board’s chairman.

McClellan chimed in with the suggestion term limits be reinstated on some boards.

Finally, the board of commissioners agreed to meet with the planning board in January. This meeting, Beale said, is to have the planning board bring commissioners “up to speed on exactly what they are working on.”

Commissioners’ appointment of a man to the Macon County Planning Board who has openly opposed that very concept has sparked outrage and an outpouring of support for the board’s beleaguered members.

The showdown for now is in Macon County, a conservative mountain community with a history of attracting newcomers whose ideologies are on the political fringes. But the questions raised are identical to those also being hotly debated in other mountain counties: Is land planning important? Will this region set meaningful restrictions on development? If so, when?

“Folks, we’re looking at two choices,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board and a professional golf course developer, told a standing-room only crowd last week.

More than 100 people turned out for a special called meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

“The vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few,” Penland said. “Or, a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.”

ALSO READ: New Macon commission chair selected


What happened

The stage was set for this debate on the future of land development in Macon County after three county commissioners voted Jimmy Goodman, a member of the Tea Party and a founder of the party chapter Freedom Works, onto the planning board late last month after the November election.

Republicans Jim Davis, Brian McClellan and Democrat Bob Simpson joined forces against Democrats Beale and Bobby Kuppers. Beale and Kuppers were not informed beforehand the game was afoot. Nor was the planning board consulted.

“What happened … has not been business as usual in this county,” said Beale, who openly acknowledged he was deeply wounded by what happened.

“This is Macon County, North Carolina, and we don’t treat people this way,” Kuppers said, and then added, “the process stunk.”

With the majority vote, Goodman replaced Al Slagle, a widely regarded native son and scion of a many-generation mountain family in Macon County. Slagle was up for routine reappointment.

Slagle was chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee, a group tasked with studying mountainside development in the wake of natural and manmade landslides in the county. The worst occurred in 2004, when five people in Macon County died in the Peeks Creek community. Their homes were in the path of a natural debris flow. This tragedy helped convince commissioners to ask the planning board (which formed the steep-slope subcommittee) to consider where and how houses are built in Macon County.

This decision — to simply study steep-slope development — triggered widespread opposition, fueled by a slowing economy in which builders and developers couldn’t find work.

Helping lead this anti-planning movement was Goodman, a former member of the planning board. Who, Commissioner Beale revealed, had not been reappointed because other planning board members asked that he not be. Because, they said, Goodman deliberately obstructed their work and ability to function as a board.


Explaining the vote

The decision three years ago not to place Goodman back on the planning board was wrong, Simpson said.

“I was part of it, and I’ve regretted it ever since,” Simpson said during the special called meeting, adding that Goodman’s views on planning are representative of a large segment of Macon County’s population, “and they cannot be ignored.”

“I righted a wrong and I’ll stand by that,” Simpson said.

Republicans Davis and McClellan did express regrets over how the Goodman matter was handled. But there were no regrets in evidence over their appointment of an anti-planning advocate to the planning board — they said the planning board and steep-slope subcommittee, which includes real estate agents, developers and more traditional planning advocates — lacks diversity.

“I am not against planning,” McClellan said. “I am for planning. I am for diversity of thought.”

Davis echoed those sentiments. He, McClellan and Simpson each personally apologized to Slagle, rationalizing aloud that they had not really voted against him per se, but rather for the aforementioned diversity of thought. Slagle, who was offered the opportunity to speak in front of commissioners, declined.


The future of planning in Macon

Simpson was voted off the board of commissioners during the last election.

Davis is moving on to the state senate, with moderate Republican Kevin Corbin scheduled to take his place starting in January. Only McClellan, of the three who voted for Goodman, will remain on the county’s board of commissioners with Beale and Kuppers.

Republican Ron Haven, who has expressed strong reservations about placing controls on growth and flat-out opposed regulating steep-slope development, rounds out the board.

The new commission board has agreed to consider expanding the planning board so that Slagle can be placed back on it (see accompanying article). But Goodman — who has remained silent during this fight over his appointment — remains on the planning board, too.

Despite Republican commissioners’ apologies for how things were handled and assurances they support planning and the planning board as a whole, there is a real possibility many of the current members might yet resign their posts.

“Yes, we are still a board,” member Susan Ervin wrote in an email. “Some of us initially wanted to quit, but have been prevailed upon to hang in there. We will see how this settles out; it could still go completely down the tubes, depending on what happens with additional appointments if they enlarge the board.”



Cast of characters

• Al Slagle — Former chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. Not reappointed to planning board.

• Jimmy Goodman — Appointed to planning board in Al Slagle’s place. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate against Macon commissioner and fellow Republican Jim Davis. Founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called “Freedom Works.”

• Lewis Penland — Chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. Owns a company that specializes in building golf courses.

• Ronnie Beale — Democrat. Former chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, reelected to a four-year term. An owner and operator of a construction company, and a strong proponent of land planning.

• Bobby Kuppers — Democrat. Two years are remaining on his four-year commission term. Is now the vice chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Jim Davis — Republican. Ousted state Sen. John Snow and won election to the General Assembly. His two-year term as a county commissioner will be filled by Kevin Corbin, a moderate Republican and a long-time member of the Macon County School Board.

• Brian McClellan — Republican. Reelected to another four-year term. New chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Ron Haven — Republican. Newly elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Opposed studying the possible regulation of steep-slope development.

• Bob Simpson — Democrat. Lost a bid for reelection to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

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