Lewis Penland doesn't attempt to deny he's a stubborn man, or soften the suggestion that he digs in the heels of his work boots ever deeper the more people try to push him around.
"The only people I care about are the ones I care about. And if I don't care for them, to hell with them," Penland said in a recent interview.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board, hasn't given one inch to anti-planning forces in the county who've painted him as a mad man run amok. A planning zealot, to hear them tell it, a rude and overbearing tyrant on a mission to corral and impede the God-given property rights of residents living in Macon County by saddling them with unnecessary and liberty-defiling rules.
That, however, is a difficult measuring tape to successfully use for sizing up Penland, given that this Macon County native is an actual, in-the-flesh land developer himself. And not a putt-putt sized mini developer, for that matter. Penland, who previously developed golf courses across the Southeast, now works for the commercial real estate arm of the Texas-based Keller Williams Realty as a golf course sales analyst. Penland's work these days is international in scope.
Penland is an unapologetic, flat-out believer in planning regulations. But Penland's reasons for supporting development guidelines might come as something of a surprise to his detractors: Yes, Penland wants to protect individual property owners, but additionally he fervently believes that the only way Macon County will ever attract the multimillion dollar housing developments is by offering protections to developers. And those, he said, come in the form of planning regulations.
"It all boils down to jobs," Penland said. "If regulations are so bad, why is there commerce going on in the other counties? Look east — Jackson, Haywood and Buncombe are starting to show signs of growth. And Jackson probably has the most stringent guidelines of anyone. Look west — they are as bad or worse than we are, and they also don't have regulations. Look at the numbers: Numbers don't have a dog in this fight. And I want jobs to come back to Franklin."
While planning detractors hoped to see him ousted, Penland last month was reappointed to his seat on the planning board by a 4-1 vote of the Macon County commissioners . Only Commissioner Ron Haven voted 'no' to Penland's reappointment.
Haven had pushed for term limits on the planning board, a move some saw as a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the long-serving Penland — a theory undergirded by an email Haven sent lambasting Penland.
While there are now term limits, they're not nearly as strict in nature as what Haven wanted. Under the newly approved term limit guidelines, given the thumbs up by the other four county commissioners, Penland can serve a three-year term, wait one year, and serve again. The limits were not retroactively applied so the limit to Penland's tenure starts now.
The planning board, and in particular Penland, emerged in the past year as a lightning rod for anti-planning factions in Macon County. An attempt by the planning board to craft a steep-slope ordinance crashed and burned after some two years work. It was replaced, under Penland's guidance and by his suggestion, with so-called "construction guidelines" that have yet, after some four months, received neither commissioners' approval nor disapproval. The guidelines, routine in nature by most counties' measures, mainly deal with how tall and steep cut and fill slopes can be and with basic road-compaction standards.
The email written by Haven about Penland led to high political drama, even by Macon County standards, and this is a community well rehearsed in dramatic showdowns over planning issues. In a bushwhack job of the English language and, more arguably, Penland's character, Haven wrote to his fellow commissioners a couple months ago: "So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way. It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board."
Early in February, in a public forum with up to 200 people present, Haven did not retract the content of his email but did openly assert that he believes Penland is "a good man."
And Penland, for his part, speaks with apparent real respect for Haven. The hotel owner turned elected political leader is someone who doesn't flinch under fire, Penland said.
"I admire Ron," Penland said. "He will stand there and he will stay the course. That's admirable."
Niceties aside, Penland still hasn't particularly enjoyed being a metaphorical marshmallow on a stick roasting over the planning-board campfire. Serving on the planning board, after all, is a volunteer job done as a form of civic duty.
"Some days, you wake up and wonder: 'Why did I even bother?'" he said, and then explained why he does: "I love the county and I do worry about the future of kids here."
Penland is married and has children. He grew up in east Franklin; Penland lives now west of town in the Cartoogechaye community.
Sue Waldroop served as chairman of the Macon County Planning Board for six years. Though her job was tough enough, filling that role wasn't anything like what Penland has experienced.
"He's had a lot of sticks poked at him," Waldroop said.
Like Penland, this former planning board chairman is a native-born "Maconian," as the local newspaper likes to dub in print those who live in this county. Any dirt under Waldroop's nails, though, came from farming, not development.
Waldroop doesn't like what she's seeing and hearing these days in Macon County when it comes to passing what she, at least, considers reasonable, prudent safeguards on development.
"We're polarized by a group of naysayers," Waldroop said. "They've made a religion out of screaming about property rights. ... They have hindered, in particular, steep slope regulations that are so desperately needed."
If there's a Daddy Rabbit in the anti-planning faction in Macon County, that would be Don Swanson, a no apologies-sort of fellow when it comes to standing up and backing his political beliefs. Swanson calls it like he sees it, and the way he sees the situation, the planning board has long been an outright "source of agitation and embarrassment" to Macon County.
Swanson said there are too many members on the board (there are 12), and that most of those serving "are there for political reasons rather than any expertise they might offer."
"They have overreached in their efforts to regulate Macon County to the extent that our largest industry, construction, may never recover from the current economic slowdown," he said. "Land use planning at the expense of maintaining employment opportunities seems to be the aim of the board."
Swanson pointed to a recent code of conduct passed by commissioners to govern the planning board as reflecting a general "lack of civility that has been pervasive in their activities."
Those activities having taken place primarily under Penland's leadership as chairman of the planning board. One could argue that any lack of civility has been the fault, if fault it is, of both factions, and that Penland has simply been trying to ride herd, as it's said, on the equivalent of a bunch of cats.
Some of it might be unavoidable given the polarized positions. Ardent opponents of planning at the same table as advocates, expected to find common ground on a highly passionate issue, is a recipe for strife.
Penland likes the makeup of the current board, pointing to the extremes of two current long-serving members as demonstrative of its overall balance: Susan Ervin, representing the pro-planning residents of Macon County, and Lamar Sprinkle, representing the other end of that spectrum.
"You don't need 'yes' people, and you wouldn't want all pro-planning or all the other way, either," he said.
But Penland does have concerns about future members that commissioners might opt to appoint to the planning board.
"I'm worried. You need planners who want to do planning," Penland said.
As to what exactly the planning board can accomplish at this point is unclear. They have no real direction as of yet.
"All of that's going to be up to our commissioners and to the people of this county," Penland said. "And if we really don't want planning, we need to just be done with it."
A review of rules in Jackson County that guide development along the roughly five-mile stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation is steaming along but possible changes can’t come fast enough for some business owners and residents.
A petition with just fewer than 200 names protesting the current land-use ordinance landed in county commissioners’ laps this month.
David Brooks, a general contractor in the area and one of those who believes the regulations are stifling potential work opportunities, gathered the names contained in the petition. Brooks said this week that doing so was easy — he just drove along the corridor, told people what he was doing and had just one individual opt not to sign her name.
“I started at one end and came to the other,” Brooks said. “The people want it lifted.”
The petition calls on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners “to immediately repeal” the U.S. 441 corridor ordinance adopted in August 2009.
That’s unlikely to happen, however, County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
A task force was appointed last fall to review the development guidelines. It will recommend any changes to planning board, which in turn will recommend changes to county commissioners. The task force has not finished with its review, let alone kicked suggestions up to the planning board yet.
“We are at the very beginning of the review process,” Wooten said.
The development regulations were intended to prevent unsightly or out-of-character sprawl. The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. It instead lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure any development that does occur will be attractive. It also limits billboards and overly large signs, which was a source of contention when it passed.
But property owners believe their options are being limited.
“We believe that the ordinance was adopted with little input from the affected property owners, and that the ordinance causes undue hardship on property owners with the district,” the petition states. “The appearance standards, landscaping rules, and five-acre minimum lot sizes place a burden on property owners and serves to reduce property values for the citizens in this part of Jackson County.”
The Gateway land-use plan was a landmark event when passed five years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by a county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot zoning.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, who served on the board when the ordinance passed, defended the rules recently as having been developed by people who lived in that community. The Whittier/Gateway community in a series of hearings developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway.
But, Brooks said in response, “a lot of people think the decision was made before they ever had those public meetings.”
County Planner Gerald Green last fall initiated a planning board based review of the rules. A task force of people who live and work in the corridor are involved in the examination. Green said he believes the group will have recommendations ready for the planning board this spring. Revised regulations likely will make their way for commissioner consideration in the summer.
“We’re moving forward,” Green said, adding that he does not believe goals of protecting the corridor’s character and allowing development are exclusive ones.
Currently, some older motels, a consignment shop, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor. A couple of art galleries and craft shops are at the nicer end of the spectrum. Businesses catering to tourists are few and far between, but many see the corridor, which has water and sewer, as primed for growth.
Green explained in a previous interview that he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better instead of allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip. Sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.
Monday, Green said the U.S. 441 subcommittee has indeed identified some potential “nodes.”
Also being reviewed were:
• The section of the rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. Green also was concerned that the ordinance failed to stipulate that developers couldn’t just “flip” their new businesses around, with the parking lot facing the highway anyway.
• The possibility 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 has said that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.
“It was designed for flat lands, not the mountains,” Brooks said of the ordinance.
In 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.
“Growth will come, sooner or later, and I do think we need some regulations,” Brooks said, adding that he believes the ones now in place, however, are too restrictive.
Macon County’s planning board lived to plan another day. Proposed retroactive term limits, which some considered punitive because they seemed to mainly target the most experienced, pro-planning of the board’s members, were rejected by commissioners.
Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland and longtime members Susan Ervin — very pro-planning — and Lamar Sprinkle — very much not pro-planning — can continue serving under this compromise.
“We have a wonderful planning board,” said Democratic Commissioner Ronnie Beale prior to the vote. “And you’ve been lampooned, laughed at — that’s not right.”
Beale and fellow Democratic Commissioner Bobby Kuppers flatly informed their Republican colleagues that they would not support retroactive term limits, setting the stage for a compromise proposal by two of the board’s three Republicans.
“This is the 500-pound gorilla in the room, so we might as well talk about it,” Kuppers said. “I believe that retroactivity — by making them retroactive — that is a thinly veiled effort … aimed at individuals.”
Many of those individuals were in fact present at the meeting. Some spoke earlier that same evening during a nearly two-hour public hearing on term limits for the planning board. Penland was not there.
The brouhaha over Macon County’s planning board ignited after Republican Commissioner Ron Haven sent a recent email expressing his concerns and misgivings about the planning board to fellow commissioners. It is unclear whether Haven understood that his email was by state law a public document. But it was, and the contents of his missive landed with the commotion of a pussycat being thrown into a dog party.
Haven, in his email bomb, accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Penland be ousted, thus targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations. Haven suggested the board possibly be abolished. He dubbed Penland a “dictator.”
Beale, who earlier that evening had drawn laughs and guffaws from the crowd at the expense of speaker and developer Michelle Masta because she doesn’t reside in Macon County, reprimanded Haven for what Beale considered unseemly behavior.
“To attack a volunteer is out of bounds,” Beale said. “To call them a dictator; that is out of bounds.”
Kuppers, too, proved eager to defend the planning board as a whole and Penland in particular. Kuppers is running for re-election. Corbin and Republican Jimmy Tate are running for their commission seats, too. Both Corbin and Tate were originally appointed, not elected, to the board.
“We don’t have to resort to accusations and ridicule,” Kuppers said.
Haven, for his part, acknowledged that he “brought the people tonight.” There was standing room only at the Macon County courtroom, which meant with overflow into the hall probably 150 to 200 people were there.
Clearly emotional and visibly red faced, Haven took a microphone in hand and stood in front of the jury box and addressed the crowd. The four other commissioners remained seated during their public comments.
“I’m not here cutting no one down,” Haven said, then accused some of “flying to conclusions.”
“‘Oh,’” Haven suddenly hollered into the microphone in an apparent imitation of those upset, “‘they are trying to throw us off the planning board.’”
“I done it out of fairness,” he told the crowd. “And this has nothing to do with politics. I want to be fair.”
A victim perhaps of his emotion, Haven never quite successfully elucidated what exactly he had intended to accomplish with the email and subsequent proposed term limits.
Thirty-three people spoke during the public hearing on the term limits. Most appeared to support at least the concept of planning, which, in Macon County, should never be considered a given.
Former Planning Board Chairman Sue Waldroop defended the work done by volunteers on the board, calling it a “thankless, sometimes frustrating, undertaking.”
“Contrary to recently published charges that planning board members wish to dictate to their fellow citizens, no planning board … has that power,” she said.
Waldroop spoke against term limits, saying that it would “cripple” the board’s ability to conduct business.
Bill Crawford also spoke against the concept, saying it seemed an attempt “to remove some specific people. And that’s not right.”
But, several speakers called on commissioners to pass the term limits exactly as Haven had proposed.
“Requiring a turnover in planning board membership will lead to broader citizen participation,” said Vic Drummond. “I believe greater diversity would improve the board.”
Bruce Thorne said he believes a “new infusion” of thought via new board members was needed.
“We need new blood in the system,” Thorne said.
Planning Board Member Jimmy Goodman said he knows “plenty” of residents who want to serve but “can’t get on for political reasons.”
At times the debate went beyond term limits, as when Loretta Newton told commissioners that no one should be allowed to tell her what she can or cannot do on her private property, but that they do anyway.
“You can regulate my private use of my property. You can make it so I can’t even enjoy my property.”
Other Macon County residents called for a more “civil discourse,” as planning board member Larry Stenger put it, when discussions vital to the county surface as they surely will.
The Macon County Board of Commissioners agreed to term limits that start only after each of the planning board members completes another term in office. And, instead of the harsh three-year boot off the board before possible reappointment that was originally proposed, commissioners voted on a shortened one-year timeout.
Planning board terms of service will consist of two three-year terms, for a total of six years before the required one-year respite.
The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Ron Haven, who made the original proposal to enforce retroactive term limits, voting no. Commissioners Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers voted yes.
Not long ago Kristina and Bruce Oliver invited a local couple they’d met in nearby Franklin to come play cards with them at their newly constructed house in Diamond Falls Estates.
The phone rang about the time the visitors were expected to arrive at the subdivision, a 285-acre development in the Cartoogechaye area of Macon County bordered on three sides by the Nantahala National Forest.
The local couple apologized and said they’d misunderstood the Olivers’ directions. They had driven somewhere else by mistake. They were lost in a construction zone and weren’t sure where they were or which way to go next. Not to worry, Kristina assured them after getting a description of what the couple saw from their vehicle’s windows. Just keep going, Kristina said, that house on the hill a short distance ahead was indeed the Olivers’ new home.
Drive into Diamond Falls Estate, just out of sight of the entrance gate and the ubiquitous-to-every-mountain-development clubhouse, past the perfectly manicured expanse of lawns, and you might understand why that visiting couple was confused. The subdivision does indeed in places resemble a construction zone, even now some two years after buyers started handing over dollars for lots in what the developer touted as “North Carolina’s latest green community.”
“The primary issue is the roads. We were all told that they would be paved,” Oliver said. She and her husband paid $61,000 for their lot and built a two-story house that was completed last fall.
“We’ve put a good chunk of our retirement savings into this,” said Oliver, a former financial controller and vice president of finances for a specialty store chain.
On this rainy day the roads in Diamond Falls Estates were rough quagmires of gravel, red subsoil mud and pools of water. Without four-wheel drive, they would be impassible. The Olivers, who live fulltime in Birmingham, Ala., purchased a full-sized Nissan four-wheel drive pickup truck because, they said, of the poor condition of the subdivision’s roads.
Michelle Masta and L.C. Jones of Franklin represent Diamond Falls Estates’ developer, Shirley Buafo. A message left with Buofo’s secretary at her workplace Monday in Macon, Ga., went unreturned as of press time.
To hear Masta tell it, Oliver is a bad apple spoiling an entire barrel of subdivision fun. Masta flat out accused Oliver of “telling lies” about the true situation in the subdivision. Masta said that there aren’t any issues with the roads in Diamond Falls Estates. At least, she said, on the part of the developer of Diamond Falls Estates. The real estate company that might have made promises buyers relied on? Well, that’s a different matter.
“I don’t appreciate Kristina Oliver making accusations that aren’t true,” Masta said. “We are doing everything we can out there. If a real estate agent told them something that was not true, we have no control over that – they need to go after the real estate company or report it to the N.C. Real Estate Commission.”
Masta said, not entirely accurately, that Oliver is the only one of 65 lot owners in Diamond Falls who “has a problem.” In fact, other homeowners besides Oliver are also concerned about the roads.
“We were sold a bill of goods,” lot owner Mark Moore of Atlanta said bluntly in a telephone interview.
But, Masta is correct in noting that not every lot owner is unhappy about the subdivision’s progress. Catherine Shea of Florida, who with her husband owns two lots in Diamond Falls Estates and is building on one of them next to Oliver, said she has found Masta and Jones responsive to issues and complaints.
“I’m not concerned yet; I’m really not,” Shea said.
Not that she’s A-OK with the condition of roads in the subdivision, either, however.
“The real culprit in planting a seed of negativity in Diamond Falls was the real estate company,” Shea said. “They out and out lied.”
That would be the group that marketed Diamond Falls on Oct. 4, 2010, when many of the lot owners first saw the Macon County subdivision.
“We’re not the bad guys,” Masta said of the development side of Diamond Falls Estates.
The chirpy advertising slogans that worked to attract buyers in 2010 sound so inviting: “indulge in an oasis away from the everyday;” “pure natural beauty preserved for the fortunate few.”
And there’s this paragraph in the online sales literature: “Have peace of mind knowing that protective, yet simple, building covenants will help maintain the overall beauty, theme and value at Diamond Falls Estates.”
Oliver finds it difficult to overlook the audacity of that sort of sales pitch. But, you are mistaken if you believe she’s angry. Oliver isn’t a woman who wastes much time on anger: a member of Mensa International, the high IQ society, she’s marshalling her facts and figures and laying out a strategy for moving forward. She and husband Bruce are members together in the society, a fact that was mentioned incidentally when the discussion turned to Western North Carolina’s own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, who blew up an abortion clinic in Birmingham. The Olivers, it turned out, were in Mensa with nurse Emily Lyons, who was disfigured in the explosion.
Moore said those involved have likely just crossed paths with one very intelligent woman who will work without respite to hold them accountable. Moore said he and some others in the development rely on Oliver to keep them abreast on what, for now, they claim is a lack of development in the development.
Some of the roads in the subdivision are an undeniable mess. But it could have been worse, Oliver told commissioners during a public hearing last week on planning issues (see accompanying article). That’s because the county’s subdivision ordinance will require the development company to pave the roads in at least a portion of Diamond Falls Estates, she said.
Development in Diamond Falls Estates was divided into two phases. The second phase, which included Oliver’s lot and house, was bonded, ensuring that the road will eventually be paved. This thanks to the subdivision ordinance, which was passed, enacted and amended by the time she and her husband bought a lot there last year.
A void in planning regulations is hampering development in Macon County, Oliver said. Not, as developers and anti-planning forces claim, the other way around.
“And there are a million regulations that are imposed by the developer on home owners,” Oliver said. “They just don’t want any imposed on them.”
Dan Kelley, another lot owner in Diamond Falls Estates, made a similar argument in an email sent to planning board member Al Slagle that was provided to Macon County commissioners.
“I know of four other houses (in addition to his) that would currently be under construction if not for the lack of development in Diamond Falls,” Kelley wrote. “My position on this and others within Diamond Falls is the quickest way to stifle business is for the word to get out that promises are not being honored.”
That said, Kelley wrote a follow up the next day via an email. Masta provided Kelley’s follow up to The Smoky Mountain News. That second email noted: “I do expect promises to be kept but at the same time I believe that L.C. (Jones) has acted in good faith to comply with owners’ needs.”
Kelley noted that he believes “the main issue” involves the original real estate company “promising roads completion and then when people go to Diamond Falls and see that no roads have been asphalted that leads to suspicion and people drawing conclusions.”
For his part, however, Moore is refusing to build until there is clarity about whether the roads will or will not be paved in Diamond Falls Estates.
“I’ve always wanted to have a house back up in the mountains,” the Atlanta resident said by phone late last week. “This looked perfect, and I loved the lot.”
Moore planned on building a 2,700-square-foot house, initially to serve as a second home and ultimately to become a retirement destination. Moore has the architect’s design already in hand. He estimated that it would probably cost him a total of $700,000 to build, which isn’t chump change to local builders and contractors struggling to survive in a dour economy.
“But I’m just not going to spend that kind of money until the roads are done,” Moore said. “It’s crazy — those are four-wheel dirt tracks.”
Land planning, that perennial lightening-rod topic in Macon County, will likely shape if not outright dominate the upcoming campaign for three of the five county commissioner seats.
Up for election in Macon this year are Republicans Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate and Democrat Bobby Kuppers.
The current five-member board has been mired in debates about land regulation, with opponents vigorously attempting to block any county efforts toward regulations, and proponents equally intent on seeing something — anything — put on Macon County’s books.
Chairman Kevin Corbin, a Republican who will seek re-election, said the land planning debate certainly dominates discussion. But he said there’s more to conducting the county business than any single issue.
“I think it’s part of it, and it gets a lot of attention. But the truth is, the county commissioner’s role is so broad,” Corbin said. “It’s only a part of what we are doing.”
That might be true, but there’s also no doubt that Macon County’s ongoing battle to determine what role, if any, the county will play in shaping development is going to be at play in this election.
“I think it will, and it’s a discussion that needs to be had,” said Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who filed for re-election on Monday seeking a second four-year term in office. “I want us to have a good-spirited discussion.”
Kuppers is facing competition from a Democratic challenger, Rick Snyder, and said that he expects Republicans will vie for the seat, too.
“But I don’t know who that would be, but I’m sure that they will,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if there is not a Republican running.”
Snyder said that he was running because he thought there was “need for a new direction,” with an emphasis on job creation. Snyder manages properties in Macon County. He said land-planning issues, however, were not triggering or influencing his decision to run.
One of the current commissioners up for election, Republican Jimmy Tate, was previously a member of the planning board. He only recently was appointed to fill an empty seat on the board of commissioners. Tate, like most of the other candidates, said he does expect planning issues to heavily influence the upcoming election.
“I wish that weren’t true, but I think it will be,” the Highlands resident said.
Tate said he does believe in land planning, and that he believes there are ways for the county to move forward on the issue.
Macon County’s commission race is complicated to say the least.
Two of the three commissioners whose seats are up for election landed on the board of commissioners after being appointed — not elected — to fill vacancies left by outgoing commissioners in the middle of their terms.
Commissioner Jimmy Tate, who is from Highlands, has only been on the board for a couple of months. He was appointed to fill the seat of former Commissioner Brian McClellan, who resigned in November following his second DWI charge. Tate, if he indeed runs as expected, will be running to fill McClellan’s unexpired term: the seat will open again in 2014.
Kevin Corbin, in turn, was appointed to fill out the remainder of state Sen. Jim Davis’ term after the commissioner-turned-state-politician beat state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, during the last election. Corbin, who filed for election Monday, is not like Tate filling an unexpired term; his would last for the standard four years.
If Macon County commissioners decide to impose term limits for the planning board, beleaguered planning members could become the only ones out of dozens serving on various county boards who are subject to limits on how many years they can serve.
Historically, Macon County commissioners lacked enough volunteers to fill the ranks of its various advisory groups, from the airport authority to solid waste committee to parks and recreation board. Members — especially caring ones dedicated to the particular issue — were welcome to keep serving as long as they were willing.
These days, however, some commissioners are suggesting term limits, at least for the controversial planning board. This follows months of pitched battles between pro-planning and anti-planning factions. A decision by commissioners is expected next week.
If term limits were retroactively imposed, the move would effectively eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the planning board.
“If you do have term limits it doesn’t mean you could never serve again,” Macon County Manager Jack Horton said. “It would give a break in service to give other people opportunities.”
No one quite knows how long some of the longest-serving volunteers have served on the planning board, even the volunteers themselves — Susan Ervin is the acknowledged winner with some two decades of service. Mark West has been on the board for many years, too, so many that, like Ervin, he doesn’t remember his appointment date. Chairman Lewis Penland likewise has years of planning-board work to his credit.
But, that type of service isn’t confined to Macon County’s planning board. Ed Shatley has been a member of the county’s Economic Development Commission for at least as long as Ervin has the planning board. He was chairman in the 1990s, Shatley remains chairman today. Horton remembered that the veteran volunteer — who brings an acknowledged and unquestioned wealth of understanding and history to his unpaid service — was serving on the EDC in 1972 when Horton did his first stint as the Macon County manager.
But, there haven’t been calls among commissioners for new blood to the EDC via term limits. Nor have there been discussions about “balance” being ensured by adding anti-economic forces to an economic development-charged group.
These discrepancies have led some in Macon County to openly speculate that this sudden push for term limits is simply anti-planning politics in action. Planning Board member Al Slagle last month told The Smoky Mountain News that he believed it likely the advisory group was being “loaded” with anti-planning members under the guise of creating “diversity.”
Macon County has some 50 boards, committees and advisory groups.
County administrators have identified 13 of Macon County’s volunteer groups as high priority, meaning there is a more stringent and outlined application process for membership. These include the planning board, airport authority, EDC and the tourism development groups for greater Macon County and Highlands.
But, most board and committee members labor in total anonymity in unglamorous-to-most, but critical, service: there’s the Nursing and Adult Home Community Advisory Committee, the Dangerous Dog Board, the Garden Committee.
“Some boards are more difficult to fill than others,” Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said in acknowledgement.
The problem of finding an adequate pool of volunteers isn’t confined to Macon County.
“I think it’s fair to say that we have some challenges in identifying qualified persons to serve on committees,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in an email interview. “We put the word out to the public about submitting an application of interest as we were hoping to build a roster of folks who wanted to service on boards and committees, and to hopefully have some basic information about experience and background. Unfortunately, the response was very minimal.”
In contrast, Haywood County generally has an adequate number of applicants, County Manager Marty Stamey said. Seven people recently applied for two positions on the health board, for example.
The same is true in the town of Bryson City and in Swain County, according to administrators there.
Cindi Woodard, assistant to the Swain County commission board, said that volunteers in that county serve three, three-year terms, take a break for a year, and are eligible again — a similar proposal to what Macon County Commissioner Ron Haven made recently for that county’s planning board.
“Usually people whose terms expire, they would love to serve again,” Woodard said.
Lee Galloway, an 18-year veteran town manager for Waynesville, said there are no term limits on any of the boards and commissions there — and he cautioned in a roundabout way on the dangers of losing experience by instituting them.
“There are some boards that have members who have been on for the entire 18 years, and having that knowledge and expertise and history is fantastic,” Galloway said.
Giles Chemical pledged last week to do what it could to appease neighbors fed up with intrusive truck traffic on their town streets, but residents maintain the small industry has outgrown its location.
Throughout the day, trucks traveling to and from Giles Chemical to pick up or drop off loads have caused headaches for neighbors. Some truck drivers routinely park their trucks in the road in front of Giles’ Smather Street warehouse, blocking traffic and causing potential safety hazards.
However, all parties involved — including the Waynesville town board — hope “No Parking” signs will help remedy residents’ concerns about tractor trailers, which also end up with their wheels in people’s yards and driveways.
“Keep your fanny off my property,” joked Mayor Gavin Brown as the board discussed posting the new signage.
Town leaders agreed to put up no parking signs along the nearly 1.5-mile stretch of Smathers Street between Plott Creek Road and Commerce Street. That in turn will allow police to ticket any vehicles stopped or idled on the road.
“Cops can make some money off these guys,” said Earl Bradley, owner of Earl’s Automotive on Smathers Street.
It will take the town about a month to post the signs.
In the meantime, Giles Chemical has posted its own signs attempting to corral truck traffic and prevent jams. The company agreed to post such signs last spring.
Signs now direct all tractor trailers to a staging area and instructs truckers to call for questions or further directions.
The hope is that truck drivers will idle in the off-street staging area until the warehouse’s load dock is clear. Giles will then inform the driver when he or she access the dock unimpeded.
The process aims to keep traffic flowing on Smathers Street and prevent tractor-trailers from blocking the road.
“I think that’s a good idea,” said Paul Benson, Waynesville’s town planner. “That’s going to be a hard problem to solve. Honestly, it will continue to be a problem.”
The no parking sign proposal resurfaced as Giles Chemical seeks zoning approval from the town. Giles current zoning classification prevents it from expanding at its current site.
It was rezoned when the town revamped its land-use standards and now wants to be rezoned as commercial-industrial, which would allow for future expansion.
The rezoning was an “unintended oversight,” said Patrick Bradshaw, who sat on the land-use plan review committee.
Heavy industrial technically isn’t allowed in the downtown central business district. Giles’ operations were grandfathered in but can’t expand beyond their current footprint without town approval.
“We simply need our permitted use to be reinstated,” said Matt Haynes, director of manufacturing.
Giles Chemical will have to wait another couple of weeks to hear whether Waynesville’s Board of Aldermen will approve or deny their request for rezoning, however.
During the meeting, Haynes reminded attendees and the aldermen that Giles, the leading producer of Epsom salt in the U.S., contributes to the local economy.
“Giles has been an honorable and valuable member of this community for a long time,” he said.
About seven Waynesville residents attended the board meeting last week and spoke out against Giles’ rezoning request.
“They have outgrown,” said Mark Yops, a resident of Love Lane, adding that he is “constantly having to wait for the semi-trucks.”
The rezoning would be “more disruptive,” he said.
Earl Bradley, owner of Earl’s Automotive on Smathers Street, said that he must already deal with truckers blocking the road and using his property to back into Giles’ docking area.
“I don’t see it being any different if they get to build more,” he said.
Bradley showed pictures and video of trucks using the street and his parking lot to maneuver into the dock. Bradley said he must often inform truckers that they are not allowed on his property.
“I have to go out there many, many times a day when I should be attending to the business,” he said. “Who is going to control that?”
Part of the problems is that there’s only a small space in front of Giles’ warehouse to make a three-point turn, one that even the most adept truck drivers have difficulty nailing consistently.
“They are trying to put that truck into a match box,” said Peggy Roberts, a Mill Street resident.
The warehouse was built about a year ago, and Giles is still tweaking its procedures, Haynes countered.
“As with any new facility, there are issues,” he said. “It is not the easiest maneuver in the world; it is doable.”
Haynes added that as time passes, more truckers are turning into the loading dock without trouble and without blocking the street.
A couple of the residents said they were glad Giles was prospering but that the rezoning and a possible expansion of the Smathers Street location would only add to already existing problems.
“I would love to see Giles Chemical expand and thrive for another 50 years,” Roberts said. But, “things have gotten greatly out of hand.”
The noise generated by Giles’ operations prevents her from using the front rooms in her house as well as her porch, Roberts said, admitting that the company has made efforts to tone it down.
“Please do not rezone this,” she said.
Alderman Libba Feichter compared the dilemma to the Judgment of Solomon, saying it is hard to appease both parties. In the story, two women fight over a child, and Solomon says he will compromise with them by cutting the baby in two.
“Short of dividing that baby down the middle, what do you do?” Feichter said. The decision is “very difficult for me.”
Aldermen Wells Greeley agreed, asking whether a compromise could be reached.
“I have got to believe somewhere there is some middle ground here,” Greeley said. “I’ve got too many concerns from these folks and from (Giles), too.”
Town officials discussed approving a conditional use permit as a happy medium, which would favor both sides. For example, under its current zoning, Giles may operate anytime day or night. However, if the town moves forward with a conditional use permit, Waynesville officials could restrict its hours of operation.
Currently, Giles is only open during the day, Haynes said.
In the end, the board decided to table the request until its next meeting.
What: Giles Chemical will hold a public meeting where citizens can address their concerns operations at its current facility and discuss the basis of the rezoning request.
When: 4 to 6 p.m., Feb. 8
Where: Waynesville Fire Station 2 on Georgia Avenue
The fate of Macon County’s planning board and whether it will exist in a meaningful form will be decided at next week’s commissioners’ meeting.
At stake are the implementation of term limits, and whether those term limits should be retroactively applied to those currently serving. That could eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the board.
There’s also the question about whether the planning board should be diminished by commissioners from its current role as an ordinance-producing group to something like an “advisory” panel that generates suggestions.
An email last month from Commissioner Ron Haven to fellow county commissioners ignited the firestorm. He accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland be ousted, targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations, and further suggested the board might could be abolished.
Haven’s email generated more subdued, controlled responses from fellow commissioners during their last meeting. But the iron hand is still in the velvet glove as far as pro-planners are concerned.
“What it really seems like is that they are trying to load the planning board with people who are anti-planning and who are diametrically opposed to planning, though there’s talk about diversity,” said Al Slagle, a member of that board.
The more recent appointments to the planning board — those made since a new Republican majority won control of the county commission a year ago — have been people who are open about their desires for no, or extremely limited, land-development regulations.
This battle has been decades in the making. Macon County commissioners have long resisted instituting planning regulations sent to them for approval by their planning board.
“This kind of open opposition is new,” said Susan Ervin, the only woman on the planning board and the longest serving member. Ervin has emerged recently — after two decades of service — as a lightning rod for criticisms of that group.
“There have been bumps before, though,” Ervin said. “Maybe 11 or 12 years ago, we tried to introduce a land-use plan that didn’t go anywhere, either.”
Although the county has a subdivision ordinance, it has been stuck on passing a steep slope ordinance despite work on one being in the works for three years. The planning board finally scrapped the slope ordinance last summer and replaced it with more basic construction guidelines, but commissioners have not yet given them the thumbs up or down.
The term-limits idea being floated might not accomplish removing Penland, who declined to comment, or Ervin, if that is indeed the goal.
The county would need to go back and determine exactly when each planning board members was appointed, according to Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the commission board. Additionally, the March 1972 ordinance that formed the planning board underwent revision in 2004. It might prove necessary to start members’ terms from that date, he said.
Mark West, another longtime serving planning board member who is pro-planning but could be considered more moderate in his views than some on the board, expressed discomfort at the tone of the debate.
“We’ve always been able to disagree politely,” West said. “To respect each other and be able to shake hands. I see it turning into a more hostile environment, and one that doesn’t serve the county well.”
The bottom line for West is ensuring reasonable planning measures in Macon County that adequately ensure the public’s safety.
“If you can contain a slide on your property, I don’t have any personal concerns about that,” West said. “But I do think the county has an obligation when it becomes a down-slope hazard to others.”
The open battle over the planning board’s fate has not engulfed those county employees involved in the planning realm. Planner Derek Roland, to date, seems to have risen above the fray, as has veteran County Manager Jack Horton. That has not always proven the case in past county fracases. Learning to handle such situations is part of being a government employee, Horton said.
“Sometimes you just have conflicts to deal with,” he said. “And we are here to do a job and to give advice where advice is necessary. But the commissioners are the ones who are elected to make the decisions. As staff, we give all the facts about an issue that we can, and bring back to them the best information that we can on a particular subject.”
Horton pointed out that those commissioners also must face the repercussions “of praise or blame,” whatever that turns out to be.
Earl Bradley watches from the parking lot of his auto repair shop as a tractor trailer struggles for 15 minutes to align itself with Premier Chemicals’ loading dock across the street in Waynesville.
Bradley has videotaped the trucks for months, with multiple cameras constantly recording the saga playing out on Smathers Street. Despite assertions to the contrary by Premier’s management, Bradley’s videos are evidence of the daily plight faced in the neighborhood.
The delivery trucks park in the middle of the road, block their driveways, tear up their yards, scatter gravel and mud, run over the curbs and generally disturb the neighborhood as they pickup and drop off loads at the warehouse.
“I shouldn’t have to put up with this,” Bradley said. “They’re not a great neighbor.”
Residents and business owners near the small factory have grown so tired of the trucks they have appealed to Waynesville town leaders to crack down on the problem.
Most of the trucks are independent and are not owned by Premier (formerly Giles Chemical), but residents say the company could do more to compel better behavior from the trucks coming and going.
Premier Chemicals employs around 70 people and is the leading producer of Epsom salt in the nation. It has a manufacturing facility in the Frog Level district of downtown Waynesville, as well as a warehouse farther down Smathers Street.
Because Smathers Street is a small, two-lane road, tractor trailers going to and from Premier Chemicals have a difficult time maneuvering. There’s only a small space to make a three-point turn, one that even the most adept truck drivers can’t nail consistently without some luck.
Truck drivers are also forced into Bradley’s private parking lot. The trucks block the flow of traffic and have caused undue wear and tear to his lot, he said.
One day, Bradley went as far as posting a listing of the municipal codes that Premier Chemical was breaking. But, he said they didn’t care.
“They’ve got municipal codes that they break everyday,” Bradley said.
It is not just Bradley who has had problems with trucks on his property.
James Haney, who lives on Smathers Street, said that the trucks have used his driveway to maneuver as well and also ran over his flowers. And, although the company promised that changes to its loading dock would help remedy neighbors’ concerns about truck traffic on Smathers Street, Haney said Premier did not keep its word.
“Everything they said they were going to do, they didn’t do,” Haney said.
Premier Chemical takes in and ships out close to 10 loads each day, according to Matt Haynes, the company’s director of manufacturing.
Bradley said that he did not know off the top of his head how many trucks stopped at Premier each day, but that it is more than 10.
Mayor Gavin Brown said Premier Chemicals is an important industry to the town, providing much needed jobs. Unfortunately, it is not easy for factories and neighborhoods to coexist in close proximity, he said.
“That is a historical problem. We have heavy industrial right against residential, and there is going to be friction. There always is,” he said.
Brown said there are things Premier Chemical could do to be better neighbors, however — mainly telling its truck drivers to alter their habits.
If Premier schedules its trucks better, the traffic would be staggered and wouldn’t have to park in the street, sidewalks and people’s yards, Brown said.
Brown said the town could also help out by passing some specific parking and traffic laws for Smathers Street. After a few weeks of the town’s police officers enforcing the new traffic laws, it should send a message to the truckers and to Premier to figure out a better way.
Neighbors will ask the town board at its meeting this week to post “no parking” signs on Smathers Street and penalize the company when it breaks municipal codes, such as driving over sidewalks and tearing up neighboring yards.
In fact, residents were promised nearly a year ago that the town would install “no parking” signs, but they have yet to appear.
Waynesville’s planning board voted at a meeting last March meeting to post no parking signs along the street, setting the stage for police officers to ticket offending trucks.
“I think that would take away about half the complaints we get about Giles,” said Town Planner Paul Benson.
However, because of an oversight, the issue did not reach Waynesville’s Board of Aldermen until this month. The planning board had said yes, but the request for the sign was never kicked up the ladder.
“It just got lost,” Brown said.
The no parking sign idea resurfaced as Premier Chemical seeks zoning approval from the town that would allow the company to expand in the future. Heavy industrial technically isn’t allowed in the downtown central business district. Premier’s operations were grandfathered in, but can’t expand beyond their current footprint without town approval.
For now Premier wants to add a 3,000-square-foot storage shed on the backside of its main building. But the zoning change the company is seeking could open the door for additional future expansion as well.
However, residents are concerned that Premier will expand on top of them.
“We need manufacturing. We need the jobs, but we want people to not suffer,” Benson said. “It’s a balancing act.”
The Waynesville Board of Aldermen will have a public hearing on whether to put in the “no parking” signs on Smathers Street and the change in zoning.
Driven by a Republican-dominated commission, Macon County’s beleaguered planning board will undergo wholesale changes that likely include member term limits and a lessened, some might argue silenced, voice in writing development ordinances.
But these steps, agreed to in concept by commissioners during a Saturday workshop, might not repair growing chasms among the county’s leaders regarding the planning board’s proper role. Or, who should lead the planning board.
Commissioner Ron Haven didn’t mince words in a recent email to fellow county commissioners. It went viral almost as quickly as Haven hit the “send” button last Friday night.
In the email, Haven demanded the ouster of Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland. Penland has been a vocal champion for steep slope regulations, and was instrumental in pushing for mountainside construction standards — a stance Haven apparently disagrees with, based on his characterization of the planning board as dictators and his call to possibly abolish it.
At the workshop, Haven accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. While feuding on the planning board has been shared by both sides — with opponents of steep slope regulations at least as vocal about their own positions as pro-planning advocates — Haven blamed Penland.
Penland’s term on the planning board is expiring. Commissioners must decide whether to reappoint him. Haven warned commissioners not to renew Penland’s appointment. He said if they did, they would pay for that decision during the next election.
“So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way,” Haven wrote in the email. “It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board.”
Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers defended the 12-member planning board, which he served as liaison to until recently.
“We handed them a prioritized list,” Kuppers said. “We told them as you complete one, move to the next — that list was approved by the commissioners. To their credit, they have followed that list … in fairness they did what we asked them to do. And to say they didn’t is really unfair.”
Haven, a conservative Republican, defended his take on planning and the planning board.
“I have always felt planning is a good thing,” Haven wrote in his email. But, “I feel this board is a nonfunctioning tool to the commissioner board and the citizens. When all that is important it [sic] to make citizens surrender their property rights, hinder job growth, and be a dictater [sic] then where if [sic] freedom in America if it can’t start at home.”
Penland on Monday said that he does find some common ground with Haven. The commission board needs to “quit kicking the can down the road” as Haven asserted in his email and make decisions about planning in Macon County, said Penland, who is a golf-course developer in real life. Penland for now declined further comment on Haven’s unflattering description.
Saturday, in what at times included terse and sharp exchanges among the five commissioners (three Republicans and two Democrats), the future shape of the planning board began to emerge.
For pro-planners in Macon County, it isn’t pretty: the board likely will not make decisions or have much meaningful say regarding land planning. Instead, it would make what Republican commissioners’ are dubbing “recommendations.”
“For lack of a better term, I’d call it a bullet list,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said.
In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, Corbin laid out a vision for the planning board that would reduce its role from writing proposed ordinances to suggesting general parameters, and then having the county attorney develop ordinance language.
Commissioner Jimmy Tate of Highlands had a front-row seat of when serving on the planning board. Tate was selected to be the commissioners’ new liaison to the planning board.
“They get bogged down … on how to rewrite one word,” Tate said, adding the bold promise he’d “get them on a sled and slide right through that.”
The spillover from Haven’s email and the Saturday commissioners’ discussion are likely to reverberate for the foreseeable future. Conservationist Bill McLarney, a highly regarded aquatic biologist in Macon County who is married to longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, shot back in defense of polite manners in a widely distributed email of his own.
“I am dismayed by what appears to be the low level to which political discourse has descended in this county,” McLarney wrote. “Hopefully Mr. Haven’s letter is an anomaly; it is certainly an embarrassment to us all. To the extent that the commissioners and we the public allow this sort of ignorant outburst to inform county policy and decisions, we are all losers.”
Commissioner Ron Haven’s push for planning board reform comes as county leaders continue ruminating (three months and counting) on whether to pass construction guidelines developed by the advisory group.
By most counties’ standards, the guidelines are routine — they mainly deal with cut and fill regulations and with road-compaction standards. The planning board hoped to see the construction guidelines incorporated into two existing county ordinances, the soil and erosion regulations and subdivision regulations. The subdivision regulations are now under review. This marks at least the fifth or so time in Macon County the subdivision regulations have been re-examined at commissioners’ request since being adopted.
The construction guidelines were the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep-slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and lukewarm support from county commissioners, the proposed ordinance was replaced with more basic construction guidelines.