Momentum building for wisely guiding WNC’s rapid growth

Blessed are the planners, for in their hands rest the fate of these mountains.

That phrase may sound a bit biblical or preachy to some, but its truth cannot be denied. This newspaper has been touting the benefits of land-use planning since our inception eight years ago — as have other progressive voices — and now suddenly it seems mountain leaders are listening. The truth is that a majority of voters in these mountains are now demanding rules to protect water, viewsheds, property values, landslide hazards, ridgetops, and more. As the voters go, so go the leaders.

All’s we can say is thank goodness it is finally happening.

Of all the leaders in the region, Jackson County commissioners are taking the strongest measures to wrap their arms around the unprecedented growth in their backyard. They are proposing a set of land-use regulations that are wide-ranging and very strong. Subdividing lots on steep slopes would become an involved and intricate process, requiring developers to leave a large percentage of their land — 25 percent in steep slope areas — undisturbed in order to allow groundwater to recharge and to protect against slides.

Swain County is developing a set of road regulations that would govern the construction of roads in rural subdivisions. Steep and narrow roads inhibited the movement of fire trucks during the recent blaze that destroyed several homes. These regulations are just a beginning, but it a good first effort for this county’s newly formed planning board.

Bryson City is beginning zoning discussions that will hopefully lead to its first comprehensive land-use ordinances. It does not have a set of rules on the books to govern setbacks, signs, commercial vs. residential vs. mixed-use districts, etc. Sylva is also studying smart growth practices and discussing what steps it might take.

We believe that such ordinances — particularly inside town limits — are a fundamental first step to make sure existing homeowners and business owners are not screwed by people who may buy land or property nearby. Those new owners can completely change — make that ruin — the quality of life enjoyed by nearby residents.

In Macon County, which has had several starts and stops in its land-use planning efforts over the last two decades, it seems momentum and support are building for a comprehensive subdivision ordinance the planning board is developing. A proposal is expected to land on commissioners’ desk by this fall. The county has already passed erosion control and watershed protection ordinances.

Here’s the truth about land-use measures: no matter how much people complain about controls being so strict that they will stymie growth, we’ve never witnessed that happening. On the other hand, we have seen growth stunted and property values ruined by lack of planning. When poor zoning allows incompatible entities too close to each other, like putting an asphalt plant in a residential area in Cullasaja, lives are changed. When people build on unstable mountains because engineering studies were not required, as in one Waynesville neighborhood, a family’s lifetime investment can be lost.

So we applaud these Western North Carolina leaders who are inviting their constituents to help them figure out — on a community-by-community basis — the best ways to protect a quality of life that is the envy of many Americans.

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