Mountain protections gained wide support in 2007

For those of us who have been beating the drum about the need for mountain communities to get serious about land-use planning, it’s been an eventful year. Not only was a lot of real progress made in 2007, but signs point to an even brighter future as many progressive candidates won seats on county and town boards throughout the region.

The debate about land-use planning has taken many turns over the years. A decade ago a great majority in this region wrote it off as zoning, an intrusion on private property rights. Although there are still some who feel that way, another, more enlightened reality has also taken hold. It goes something like this: if we do nothing to control and guide development, life as we know it will change. Mountaintops would be sheared off for homes, forests cleared for more developments, farms sold for commercial interests, waterways polluted and mired in sediment, and the spiritual appeal this place holds on so many will be no more.

Jackson County commissioners took the boldest steps. When new commissioners were seated in late 2006 they were so worried about the lack of guidelines they enacted a moratorium on new developments. They wanted to stop new construction until they could develop uniform guidelines for everyone to follow. Opponents struck back, threatening a lawsuit and expressing concern that jobs would be lost and the economy dealt a punishing blow.

As it turns out those fears were unfounded. Commissioners upheld their promise to work fast, and the planning board rolled up its sleeves and wrote a comprehensive set of plans so the moratorium could be lifted within six months. The new rules guide everything from road construction to development near waterways to tree cover left on residential lots. It mandates open space as a part of every new development and vastly limits the number of homes on steep slopes.

The plan is being called the most stringent in the state, but no one who has read it can seriously believe it will stop growth. To the contrary, it should set Jackson County up for many years of sustained, intelligent growth that will have a lasting economic benefit.

What’s amazing about what Jackson County achieved is that it was done in less than six months. That should be evidence to others who are considering such a move that it is possible and that it won’t take very long.

A long list of other planning initiatives is under way (read about them in this this week’s issue on pages 6-9). Macon County also enacted a ban, though it was on high-rise construction after plans for a 10-story condominium got commissioners worried and they enacted guidelines on building heights. The county is now working on a subdivision ordinance. Maggie Valley is in the final stages of drafting a land-use plan, Bryson City is talking, and Franklin has passed one. Swain County is working on a subdivision ordinance, as is Macon. Haywood County implemented a slope ordinance, though a statewide proposal for a steep slope ordinance — introduced by Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill — failed.

These initiatives are succeeding because the attitude of citizens has changed. This mindset is putting more progressive leaders in office. Sylva recently elected new leaders who spoke often in their campaigns about planning, and they of course have the example of the Jackson County commissioners before them. New leaders in Franklin, Bryson City and Waynesville also promise to put great value in land-use planning and quality of life.

When it comes right down to it, this is a debate about values. John Edwards, a Cashiers developer and conservative who also happens to be an ardent conservationist, has been making this argument for years. To his way of thinking, it’s moral and ethical to respect the environment as we build on it. He is trying to remove partisanship from this issue, or at least make it something those on both sides of the political aisle can support.

In 2007, it seems that mindset began to take hold among the leaders in Western North Carolina. That’s something we can all take hope in.

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