Jackson County leaders have finished the first draft of a planning ordinance they hope will transform the U.S. 441 corridor in Whittier from a mish mash of billboards and unregulated growth into a model of tidy landscaping and mountain-themed architecture.
The U.S. 441 Development Ordinance made its public debut at an April 30 presentation at the Qualla Community Center. It now must go to the planning board for a review, then before county commissioners who will the decide whether to pass it into law. If it passes, Jackson will be the first county west of Buncombe to make a foray into land-use planning or zoning in a mostly rural unincorporated area.
The document, created by a county-appointed steering committee, is the culmination of a year-long process. At nearly 100 pages, it calls for mandatory landscaping and architectural standards, limits the size of signs and requires dumpsters to be screened.
Commercial development along the corridor is sparse now. But water and sewer are being installed along the highway, priming the pump for more intensive development to follow. The ordinance sets out a vision to guide anticipated growth from the outset along the stretch, which serves as an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee.
“I know what is pretty and what is ugly is a matter of perspective, but on the other hand, there is signage and a type of building construction that I don’t believe is good for the community or the southern entrance of the (Park),” said Bill Gibson, a steering committee member, at the first public presentation of the ordinance.
Jackson County Planning Director Linda Cable said the appearance of the corridor is critical, since it’s a major gateway to the nation’s most-visited national park.
“This being a tremendous tourist attraction, it’s important that the corridor remains pleasing to visitors,” Cable said.
Gibson expressed high hopes that the ordinance, “will make the corridor both a safer travel route and a landscape over time that will become more pleasing not only to folks that live here, but travel here.”
The process of creating a planning document for the corridor began when citizens approached commissioners with concern over growth poised to follow the extension of water and sewer lines. Commissioners took heed and hired consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates in November 2007 to oversee the process. What followed was a series of stakeholder interviews, workshops, and a four-day series of interactive meetings with a team of planners, engineers and architects where public input was sought to create a vision for the area.
The public had plenty to say.
“There was overwhelming participation in this event,” said Matt Noonkester, a Kimley-Horn consultant for the project. “I think that’s what made the vision so important and so valid.”
Billboards were a big issue for people during the planning process, Nooncaster said. Participants were asked to guess how many billboards lined the corridor. Estimates ranged into the 300s — far below the actual number of 68, but a testament to the perception of clutter they created.
Community members wanted design guidelines to address building appearance and advocated for the creation of a development district to guide future growth. They overwhelmingly supported the development of a community brand, which would include a color palette, appropriate building materials and signs of a certain shape and size.
“There was strong support to look at regulating building architecture,” Noonkester said.
They liked the idea of a pedestrian-friendly, four-lane road with a landscaped center median.
Public input was compiled into the Small Area Plan, adopted by county commissioners in April of 2008. The document would serve as the foundation for a more comprehensive ordinance.
The bottom-up approach to planning was lauded by many who watched the process unfold. The Small Area Plan actually received an award from the American Planning Association.
“It was a really good model, not only for the ordinance that came out of it, but also the process,” said Ben Brown, communications coordinator for the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, the region’s largest-ever planning effort. “They chose to use a charette to talk directly to the community and help shape the principals and goals of the ordinance, which makes a lot more sense. That was the first really good example in the region of how to go about planning.”
Public opinion was kept at the forefront as the steering committee worked to draft the development ordinance.
Committee members, many longtime residents of the area themselves, had to strike a delicate balance between economic development and retaining Whittier’s beauty and character.
Debby Cowan, a steering committee member, spoke of the her experience trying to reconcile the two. Cowan said she wanted to preserve the area’s natural beauty, “but also recognized that Food Lion was one of the greatest things that happened in our community.”
Gibson also talked of trying to strike a balance.
“I have a great respect for individual property rights,” he said, but at the same time, “some of the changes we’re seeing right now are not in the community’s best interest.”
Though a strong private property rights sentiment might make some mountain folk wary of growth rules and regulations, it’s also important to develop in a wise manner, said Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vice Chief Larry Blythe. The tribe was heavily involved in the process.
“It’s hard to put restrictions on people’s land, but when you’re talking about smart growth and the long term, we the tribe support this effort,” Blythe said.
During the process, committee members worked to shed their personal beliefs for the sake of what was best for the community as a whole.
“We feel like this is something that was prepared from the viewpoint of all the different people and all the different backgrounds of people in the community,” said Cowan. “While we don’t have it perfect probably, we do think the framework is something we worked very hard to make support everybody in the community.”
The committee’s efforts to include all viewpoints didn’t go unnoticed, said Michael Egan, the county’s consulting attorney on land development matters.
“I was very impressed with the dedication the committee had, always trying to think of the rest of the folks. There’s wasn’t a meeting that went by that somebody would say, let’s step back and take a look at that; let’s consider what affect that’s going to have on our neighbors and the folks who live here,” Egan said.
Billboards: Tourist draw or clutter?
The draft development ordinance for U.S. 441 encourages development that helps maintain the area’s natural beauty and character — a style dubbed “mountain authentic.” According to the ordinance, the ubiquitous large, colorful billboards that line the corridor aren’t in keeping with the area’s character, and are prohibited. The ones already in existence will be grandfathered in, however. Under the ordinance, signs are limited to 32 square feet. Preferred sign materials include brick, stone, and exposed timber.
Miami Lively, a representative of Santa’s Land Advertising, which owns a number of billboards, raised protest to the strict requirements at the public presentation of the document.
“You cannot put most people’s logos and directions on a (32-square-foot) sign,” Lively said. “The bigger the sign, the easier to read. We agree we don’t need a whole bunch of clutter, but the business owners are paying taxes for their businesses. If they don’t make money, the tax money isn’t going to come in.”
Lively added that “billboards bring tourism to the area.”
Ron Servoss, a community resident, disagreed that billboards enhance an area.
“I drove the corridor into Washington, D.C., last week, where there are no billboards allowed, and it was just wonderful to see the countryside,” Servoss said.
Noonkester pointed to the commercial corridor outside Sylva off N.C. 107, where billboards have been allowed to spring up without regulation. The road, and the unchecked growth along it, is often used as an example of what to avoid becoming.
“How many people like driving N.C. 107?” Noonkester asked, citing its sprawling strip mall and fast-food appearance. “The people of Cherokee would benefit more if this place keeps an identity they can associate with.”
The steering committee hopes it has nailed down that identity in the development ordinance.
“As we grow, I hope that future generations can look back on this group and say, they did a really good thing for this community,” said County Commissioner William Shelton.
What’s in store?
Here’s a sample of the aesthetic standards called for in the U.S. 441 Development Ordinance. For the complete ordinance, go to www.smokymountainnews.com.
• Accepted building materials include stone, exposed timber, fiber cement siding, wood siding, and shingle siding. No aluminum buildings.
• Dark and earth-tone building colors are strongly encouraged. Intense, bright, black or fluorescent colors shall only be used as accents.
• Dumpsters must be screened and blend with the building.
• Trees must be planted around parking lots and shrubs must be planted around building foundations. Landscape plans must be prepared by a landscape architect or designer. Trees must be planted in parking lots that are more than 8,000 square feet.
• Billboards are prohibited. Other signs cannot exceed 32 square feet.