Jackson revisits development rules along U.S. 441

Jackson County leaders appear to be backing down from a lofty vision to transform U.S. 441 leading to Cherokee into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard.

The planning board has spent several months rewriting commercial development guidelines for the 3.5-mile stretch of highway. The result is billed as a compromise that will give prospective developers more flexibility, yet still require basic aesthetic standards.

The current regulations aren’t rooted in a realistic expectation for the highway’s future, according to Gerald Green, Jackson County planning director.

“I would be lucky if my grandchildren see it as a pedestrian corridor. It is an auto-oriented corridor,” said Green.

Proposed changes would allow larger signs, reduce the portion of a lot that must be designated as open space and allow much larger building footprints in some areas.

“We are trying to reach a balance of allowing reasonable development but making sure it maintains the goals of the community and rural character,” Green said. “Instead of taking a giant leap and making everyone mad, it would make incremental steps.”

The changes would also do away with a rule that relegated parking to the side of buildings — a design that is considered more attractive since building facades instead of asphalt would front the road. The new ordinance would allow two rows of parking in front of buildings.

A couple of changes would actually put tougher requirements on development, such as requiring a row of street trees. Still, other changes are technical only, designed to make the ordinance more reader-friendly, with no net impact on how development would look.

The five-lane highway is still largely rural in stretches spotted only with intermittent stores. An artist studio, a gift shop, a Dollar General, and a sweepstakes parlor. Closer to Cherokee, the frequency of businesses increases, with motels, gas stations and a bank joining the mix. But, it is sparsely developed for the most part.

The corridor was predicted to become a hotspot for commercial growth in coming years, largely due to Cherokee’s evolution as an economic engine in the region. There are also water and sewer lines along the road, which can spur commercial development.

New development along U.S. 441 has not come to fruition given the recession, however. Green said in his two years as county planner, he has not had a single developer submit a plan or even pose a serious inquiry.

The impending rewrite of the development regulations have been common knowledge for more than a year, however, so it is possible anyone thinking of building has been waiting on the sidelines until then.

The highway is the main route leading to Cherokee — and is known locally as the “Gateway” — but it lies outside the reservation’s boundary. It’s appearance sets the stage for tourists coming to Cherokee, however, and thus what Jackson does along the corridor is of interest to the tribe.

During a joint meeting of Cherokee tribal council and the Jackson County commissioners last month, tribal leaders talked about creating a more pedestrian friendly atmosphere in the “Gateway” area. They also questioned whether shrubbery or other plant life could be used to bring more color and life to the medians along U.S. 441 in lieu of a middle turn lane.

The standards for U.S. 441 were put in place under the previous Board of Commissioners, who were known for their progressive bent. The county hired a land-use planning consultant group and held several community meetings when drafting the ordinance. The development regulations on U.S. 441 were one of several land-use planning policies and development guidelines implemented by the previous board of commissioners.

A new Board of Commissioners came into power two years ago — with three newcomers ousting three of the former commissioners in a clean sweep election.

The new Board of Commissioners has been systematically going back to the drawing board on the land-use planning policies implemented by their predecessors.

Rather than substantially watering the regulations down, however, so far most of the changes have been minor and largely palatable to the environmental community that had strongly advocated for the original versions five years ago, Green said.

Jackson County is the only county west of Asheville that has any sort of commercial zoning or development standards outside town limits.


Want to weigh in?

Three community meetings will be held to gather public input on proposed changes to the U.S. 441 Gateway development ordinance. The meetings will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday Aug. 16, Aug. 23, and Sept. 6 at Smoky Mountain Elementary School. 828.631.2255.

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