Laxer steep slope rules head for public hearing in Jackson

fr jaxplanningControls on mountainside development in Jackson County could be loosened following a year-long line-by-line rewrite of steep slope rules by the Jackson County planning board.


The planning board voted last week to stop debating the pros and cons amongst themselves and move along to the next step in the process, scheduling a public hearing for February.

“It is time to make a decision that it is good enough to send out for public comment,” Zac Koenig, a builder in Cashiers and planning board chairman, said at the outset of last week’s planning board meeting.

Planning board member Dickey Woodard said public comment will be the true test of whether they got the revisions right.

“We could kick this around as long as we want to kick it,” said Woodard. “We are trying to throw a broad net over a lot of things. We can always come back and change it.”

Throughout the process, only two or three planning board members have spoken out against weakening the regulations. A couple of members have been advocates of more tempered changes.

But at the outset, the majority of the 11-person planning board held the belief that the steep slope rules were too restrictive and micromanaged what people could build on their own property.

“I don’t think you should take away someone’s rights unless you know you are benefiting the whole county,” said Clark Lipkin, a surveyor and planning board member who argued throughout the process that the existing rules are arbitrary and overreaching.

“That becomes the question of individual rights versus the populace and society and the beauty of the place and the reason people come here,” countered Tom Rogers, a planning board member who often defended the existing ordinance. “People don’t come here to watch the houses change colors.”

The first of two public hearings on the laxer steep slope rules will be held next month by the planning board.

The planning board will then give the ordinance a final once-over, deciding whether to make any final changes to it based on public input. It will then get shipped along to county commissioners.

Commissioners have the final say on what changes are made. Commissioners could tighten some of the changes, loosen it some more, or pass it just as the planning board proposes.

But first commissioners will hold a public hearing of their own.

The steep slope rules were controversial when first passed seven years ago, raising the ire of some developers who believed the rules went too far.

Now, the laxer version will likely raise the ire of those on the other end of the spectrum — those who want to limit development to protect the environment, aesthetics and mountain character.

The steep slope revisions have landed at the feet of county commissioners just in time for election season. Three of the five commissioners are up for election in November. 

One of the biggest challenges facing the public who may want to weigh in, however, will be sorting out all the changes that are proposed and making sense of them.

“The average layperson can’t picture all of this in their mind,” said Ben Bergen, a planning board member and home builder.

The planning board has been discussing the rewrite for 14 months, combing over the steep slope rules line by line, over and over. It has even been hard for some planning board members to keep up.

“I find myself checking back and forth trying to figure out did this section influence this one, did that one usurp that one?” said Rogers, who was appointed to the planning board toward the tail end of the rewrite process.



Stay tuned

A complete analysis of revisions to Jackson County’s steep slope rules will appear in coming weeks, in advance of a public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at the county administration building in Sylva.

A rewrite of the steep slope ordinance would loosen mountainside building regulations in several ways. Here are a few key points:

• Steep slope regulations would no longer apply in many areas where they do now. Steep slope rules would only kick in on slopes of 35 percent, compared to slopes of 30 percent now.

• The cap on the number of homes per acre that can be built on steep slopes would be lifted.

• Soil, hydrological and environmental impact reports would no longer be required.

• The ban on ridgetop building would be lifted. Homes could be built on ridgetops, protruding up to 35 feet above the ridgetop.

• A larger portion of a lot could be cleared, graded, paved and built on, increasing disturbance. 

• Requirements to screen mountainside homes through site placement or with trees would be removed.

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