Last week, Jackson commissioners voted 4 to 1 to call for a public hearing on a proposed subdivision ordinance — an action that in effect made any subdivision plats that had not yet been submitted to the county for review potentially subject to a moratorium on development and further regulation. Close to 200 audience members packed into the commissioners’ board room, spilling out into the hallways, standing along the boardroom walls and sitting on the floor during the meeting. More than 20 public speakers each took their turns, most chastising commissioners for considering a moratorium and lauding them for pushing for subdivision regulations.
“I really ask that you think about it before you just shut the door on something,” said builder James McManus of Sylva.
“Second-home development is not an economic gift to our county,” said Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin of East La Porte.
The group of Realtors and developers who shanghaied the media briefing Thursday reiterated these views and pushed County Manager Ken Westmoreland, consulting attorney Michael Egan, county planner Linda Cable and other county staff members for answers about the moratorium’s potential impact.
One of the major talking points was that the development industry professionals would be out of a job if the moratorium passes. The group, along with many public speakers at last week meeting where the moratorium was first proposed, argued that carpenters, excavators, even lawyers and bankers may find themselves in need of business if a halt is put to new development.
“What about the people who build these homes?” asked Cashiers Realtor Marty Jones.
Scott Rooth, of Rooth and Associates in Sapphire, concurred, saying that the county’s economy is based on construction and tourism.
However, some people say that the plea to preserve the working man’s job bears little merit.
“That’s a cry wolf situation,” said John Edwards, a homebuilder in Cashiers.
There are plenty of homes already under construction, enough building permits already issued, enough subdivisions already under way, to keep workers employed for the duration of the moratorium, Edwards said.
“And I appreciate people coming in here because I wouldn’t make a living otherwise,” said Edwards, who has built 34 homes in the area.
While the moratorium is proposed to last six months, Cable estimates that it will take the planning board three months to complete work on a subdivision ordinance. Meanwhile, Edwards said “I’ve got two lots and if anybody’s out of a job, let me know.”
But the Realtors and developers who showed up Thursday argued that a de facto moratorium already is in place.
“What about the moratorium now, Ken?” Jones asked.
“There is no moratorium,” Westmoreland replied.
A miscommunication between county offices resulted in a temporary halt to the recording of any and all land deeds the Tuesday following commissioners’ call on Monday, Feb. 5, for a public hearing. The problem was rectified by about 11 a.m., Westmoreland said, but there has been a change in the administrative process.
Before the call for a public hearing, plats were recorded with perhaps five minutes of review, said Bob McMahan in the county’s land records office. They were checked for names and addresses, a correct description of the land in question and whether it was in the watershed. However, now the register of deeds office is the first line in determining whether a plat is in a subdivision and if so, whether the developer has vested rights to allow construction to continue during the moratorium (see sidebar).
Westmoreland said that the county is still accepting all plats for review.
“Nothing’s going to come to a screeching halt,” he said.
But Jones and fellow Realtors argued that nevertheless the change in administrative process denies them due process. The change in county policy came before the public hearing.
“It’s illegal and it’s wrong,” Jones said.
General statute that defines the procedures for a moratorium allows such changes, Westmoreland said. And the purpose of establishing a review process and making any plats recorded after the call for a public hearing was to prevent a rush of developers trying to get their plats recorded before the moratorium hatchet falls. Prior to the call for a hearing, Commissioner Tom Massie said that the various land records offices had been getting a significant number of calls from people who had subdivisions platted but had not yet had them recorded and were now looking into doing so to beat impending regulation.
Cable said that the phone calls and inquiries had continued, but since the call for a hearing developers are wanting to know what they can do to qualify for vested rights, which would allow them to build during the moratorium. Cable said that after answering their questions developers seemed more at ease with the situation.
Enacting a moratorium and subdivision regulations will in the end help preserve what so many people love about the area — the natural beauty and local environment. There may be an impact felt in the real estate community, as some buyers might be hesitant to purchase land in a new subdivision where regulations may apply. However, Commissioner William Shelton said that after all is said and done, Realtors will have a better product to sell.
“I think this is unfortunate that we’re faced with a moratorium because this is something we should have done five years ago,” Shelton said of subdivision regulations.