Fight over planning continues to boil in Macon

If you visit Macon County, keep your head down — there’s a war over property rights in progress.

In this community of 33,922 people that presses hard up against the Georgia border, a place with a long history of attracting hardliners, militants and people whose politics are unabashedly to the right of the mainstream Republican Party, development has led to two distinct groups of people battling about what’s best to do.

One of those groups would set some controls, put brakes on what, to date, has been virtually unchecked growth. The other group — a very organized set of people, unlike the first group, which is simply a loose affiliation of planning supporters — wants nothing remotely resembling rules or regulations passed.

The latest battle was fought last week over a proposed comprehensive plan, a set of recommendations for long-range land use to help guide future development. The Macon County Planning Board — a lightening rod for members of the Property Owners of America, which drummed up an opposition turnout for a public hearing on the recommendations — compiled the plan with assistance from numerous citizen subcommittees.

Much of the plan is not particularly controversial. There is one recommendation to support “a proactive Economic Development Commission.” There’s another that seeks to ensure law enforcement services grow proportionally with the population.

But there are also land-development recommendations, including one that might put the planning board to work on regulations for construction and development on slopes. And a suggestion the county consider developing a stormwater runoff ordinance.

“They will NOT stop!” an emailed flier sent out before the public hearing, by the Property Owners of America, proclaimed. “There are people in all levels of government who want to control you, me and everything we own and do! Even though the economy is strangling, they never stop trying to expand the size and scope of government and regulation. If you love your freedom – PLEASE attend!”

Loretta Newton, a member of the group, told commissioners at the hearing she opposes the recommendations because “plans can turn into policies.”

“Let me be clear,” she said. “I’m against all zoning and against all regulations of steep slopes and it is for a very fundamental reason. Our property rights are derived primarily from the Constitution, the Fifth Amendment. I encourage you to effectively accept the current regulations we already have in place.”

Bill Vernon echoed those thoughts, though he did so in the context of claiming general support for planning — certain kinds of planning, that is, but not this kind of planning.

“Planning for sewer and water (is) a smart thing to do. Planning to accommodate growth,  … I think we could have had a good plan here,” Vernon said. Then he argued that “land-use provisions” is really “just a new word for zoning.”

“And I came away thinking, this is just chock full of hidden agendas,” Vernon told commissioners. “The economy has tanked. The last thing we need is a bunch more regulations. Keep the regulations off our backs.”

The 164-page comprehensive plan took nearly two years to complete. There were community meetings, surveys and a multitude of subcommittees to the planning board involved. County commissioners have the ultimate say on whether the plan is adopted. The previous board of commissioners sanctioned the plan, directing the planning board to tackle it. Two of the five commissioners are new to the board since then.

They will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. May 31 to review and discuss the plan.

Supporters of the plan urged the five-member commission board, a 3-2 Republican to Democrat lineup, to move forward with planning for growth.

“This comprehensive plan is a moderate, thoughtful look at the future and is the work of hundreds of Macon County citizens over several years,” said Bill Crawford, a Macon County resident who represents WNC Alliance, a regional conservation group. “The alliance supports and commends the plan as an example of good government.”

And Kathy Tinsley, who grew up on a dairy farm in Macon County, also urged commissioners’ support.

“This shows such foresight and responsibility and just care for all of us that you’ve shown in the development of this document,” she said. “As elected leaders, I very much urge you to adopt this comprehensive plan — I am sure this is a step in the right direction.”

The same for and against crowd (about 70 people turned out last week) can be expected to assemble again as Macon County heads toward considering steep-slope rules. A steep-slope subcommittee late last week brought recommendations to the planning board, which is now considering whether to endorse the proposals.    

Guiding principle of Macon’s comprehensive plan

“Work together as Maconians to create a dynamic plan that will guide long-term growth and development within the county. Through taking the initiative to plan now, we insure the integrity of our mountain heritage will be preserved, welfare of the citizens will be maximized, our natural environment will continue to flourish, and the economic vitality of Macon County will be sustained, all in ways that benefit the current population as well as generations to come.”

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