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Wednesday, 07 March 2007 00:00

Moratorium debate reveals deep rift in Jackson

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The debate over a proposed moratorium on new subdivisions in Jackson County is divided into two main camps: those who claim an economic downturn will result and those who feel protecting the mountains from unsavory development is critical to the county’s future.

 

A public hearing on the proposed moratorium last week brought out dozens of passionate pleas from both sides. The idea of a moratorium was broached by county commissioners last month as a stop-gap measure. The county is in the process of writing development regulations to curb the anything-goes climate of growth currently under way in Jackson County.

County commissioners fear a tidal wave of developers will rush to get their subdivisions started before the new regulations go into effect. Subdivisions already approved would be exempt from any new rules. A six-month moratorium would stave off such a rush until regulations can be passed.

Those in the real estate and construction industry claim jobs will be lost if a moratorium is imposed.

“This is being read as stopping construction and the ability for people to work in Jackson County,” said Buddy Smith with the Jackson County Home Builders Association. “The potential loss is something we can’t put our finger on. If we lose one job and one family has to go without food, is it worth it?”

County building records indicate there is plenty of work to tide the construction industry over for six months. There are 467 subdivisions already on the books that would not be subject to the moratorium. There are more than 4,000 lots not subject to the moratorium that could be built on in the meantime.

John Edwards, a contractor in Cashiers who supports the moratorium, said he can’t find enough workers locally and has to hire from out of the area — spending about $1 million out of the area on his last three houses alone. He said there is still plenty of work in the pipeline for the local labor force.

But others claim even one less house being built will impact the industry.

“This is a knee-jerk reaction. I lose one job I got to start laying people off,” said John Lothotsky. “The ordinance sounds like an attempt to slow development or at least make it so difficult that people get frustrated and go somewhere else. This sounds an awful lot like ‘I’ve built my house now lock the gates.’”

The real estate industry — from bank loans to real estate commission — claim they would be heavily impacted as well. Roger Plemens, president of Macon Bank, said he has $25 million in outstanding land development loans in Jackson County. Developers count on income from the sale of lots to pay back those loans. Plemens said he has already lost a deal with two potential borrowers due to the moratorium.

“I am not sure we would approve a development right now in Jackson County because we don’t know the rules we are playing by,” Plemens said.

Steve Woodham said he recently invested his life savings in a 50-acre tract of land with the intention of doing a subdivision, but fears he can’t sell it now.

“I don’t have deep pockets. If you pass this moratorium it will put me in deep trouble,” Woodham said.

Terry Beye of Glenville said he is in the same boat. The uncertainty of new regulations coming down the pipe will make it hard to sell a 40-acre tract he is marketing.

“Only a fool would come in and buy it not having any idea what would happen in six months,” said Beye.

On one hand, that would be the case regardless of the moratorium, because the county clearly intends to enact development regulations in the next six months. But if it weren’t for the moratorium, the buyers could get their subdivision plans grandfathered, so the prospect of future regulations wouldn’t be a deterrent. Of course, that’s exactly what moratorium supporters fear.

“Do we want a large addition of inadequately designed subdivisions in Jackson County in the next six months?” asked Sonja Himes.

Supporters of the moratorium accused the real estate and construction industry of fear mongering and lying in pamphlets sent out by the thousands to households across the county. Several speakers came to the podium waving the mailer and condemning it.

“After I received this card in the mail like thousands of other folks yesterday, I to decided to join the fray,” said Bill Gibson, speaking for what he called the silent majority. “I like so many others fear the frantic pellmell development we are currently witnessing. It cannot continue with serious consequences to our environment, our culture, our heritage and our people.”

Speakers in support of the moratorium said the county has the right to protect itself from exploitation.

“Our region has been aggressively marketed throughout the county by developers and realtors who express intent to establish a serious of large and exclusive enclaves,” said George Rector.

“Surely those in the real estate industry aren’t blind to the fact that all the slopes aren’t there for them to be developed,” said Roger Turner.

“It is elected officials’ jobs to protect the people who would be hurt most by unbridled aggression and greed,” said Vera Guise.

Some speakers argued for a slower pace of development that can sustain the economy for decades to come.

“While rapid growth may bring an economic boom that creates jobs here today, very often a boom is followed by a bust,” said Avram Freidman. “We need an approach that encourages sustainability rather than a boom and bust economy.”

“The county commission has something more important to do than protect our pocket books today,” said Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin. “They have to protect the economic future of our children.”

If a six-month moratorium is an economic crisis, what happens 30 years from now when all the land has been built on?

“Do we want to be remembered as the kind of people who eat well and let our children starve?” said Peggy Dawson.

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