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Wednesday, 07 February 2007 00:00

Jackson may put temporary stop to growth

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Jackson County commissioners have taken the first step toward temporarily stopping new subdivision development, calling for a Feb. 27 public hearing on a six-month moratorium.

 

Commissioners voted 4-1 to call for a public hearing on the moratorium, an action that stops in its tracks any subdivision plat not yet submitted to the county.

Close to 200 audience members packed into the commissioners’ board room, spilling out into the hallways, standing along the boardroom walls and sitting on the floor Monday night.

Commissioners have called for the planning board to author a document that would create minimum standards for subdivisions such as lot size and road width, as well as prevent steep slope development. Jackson has seen a rapid increase in the number of large subdivisions throughout the county, such as the new River Rock development at the old Singing Waters campground near Tuckasegee. An overwhelming majority of the 24 public speakers commenting on the issue were in support of a subdivision ordinance, but the sticking point was the proposed moratorium on development while the planning board works on the ordinance.

“I would like to see you working on the subdivision ordinance rather than working on ways to keep me from working,” said Greg Ward.

A moratorium would be “an absolute financial disaster,” said James Woodham of Cashiers. Woodham, a developer, said that a moratorium will lead to job losses and would be punitive against those who do things right, have complied with state and federal laws, and have good relationships with the county’s erosion control officer.

John Ashcraft, a Western Carolina University employee living in Sylva, agreed, saying that a moratorium would go beyond hammer and nails to affect the banks, marketing agencies, carpet stores, electric supply stores, lawyers, paving contractors, real estate agents and each job market associated with the housing trade. Ashcraft called the potential moratorium “drastic action” against people who paid good money for private property.

However, a comment made by Bill Coward drew loud rumblings from the crowd. Upon saying that he believed a lot of people in the room were against a moratorium, the back half of the room uttered agreements and a smatter of applause, while the front half of the room hissed a low and extended “no” — showing an almost equal divide between pro- and anti-moratorium camps.

“We don’t want our county to look like Eaglenest in Haywood County,” said Eddie Palmer of Frady Cove.

The community of homes that is a combination of the Eaglenest development and Laurel Ridge Country Club looks like temples on the stuck on the side of a mountain, said Palmer, a real estate agent. Jackson County can no longer hide from development, as it’s been found, he said. Palmer too was in support of a subdivision ordinance but against a moratorium.

The public reaction is in line with what former Cashiers-area commissioner and developer Eddie Madden predicted.

“Everybody that I have come in contact with from the real estate community to the members of the bar association of the county to the home builders association, kind of across the board from that industry, seem to be on board with the concept,” Madden said of the subdivision ordinance.

However, Madden said that if the current board of commissioners does choose to enact a moratorium, it should be kept to a minimum time length — for example, 60 to 90 days.

“If they’ll keep it to a reasonable time frame most people will be supportive I think,” he said.

Commissioners have discussed enacting a moratorium that potentially would be longer than absolutely necessary, due to changes in state law that make it easy to end a moratorium early, but hard to extend it. A six-month time period is included in the proposal, though language suggests it could be lifted sooner if an ordinance is approved.

Once a real estate developer, Bill Lyons said that he wasn’t sure if six months is too short or too long, but either way he told commissioners, “Good luck, you need it.”

Following public comments, chairman Brian McMahan opened the floor for commissioners to begin discussion about the proposed moratorium, which would prevent further development while a subdivision ordinance was written. After a long silence, McMahan said that commissioners needed to select a date for a possible public hearing, choosing 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27.

However, the way the draft ordinance instituting a moratorium is written, the simple act of calling for a public hearing makes any subdivision plats submitted from Tuesday morning (Feb. 6) onward potentially subject to the moratorium and subdivision ordinance if adopted.

If the moratorium is put in place, it will not apply to “Any preliminary or final subdivision plats that have been accepted for review by the County prior to the call for the public hearing to adopt the moratorium.” It will apply to those submitted after the call.

The language is an attempt to prevent an onslaught of plats being submitted like happened in Buncombe County where developers were trying to beat the deadline for tougher building regulations to take effect, said Commissioner Tom Massie.

Chairman McMahan disagreed with the language, saying that it was unfair to developers who many not have had any knowledge of the potential impacts. The Monday night meeting was the first time the public had seen a copy of the draft ordinance and the first time they would have learned that subdivisions would be affected beginning Tuesday morning if commissioners moved forward with a public hearing.

“I don’t think it would be fair to those people,” McMahan said.

All commissioners — including McMahan, who has traditionally been a strong property rights proponent — were in favor of a public hearing.

“I’m not against having a public hearing to allow the public to make comment,” McMahan said. “I’m against it going into effect tonight.”

McMahan asked whether commissioners could set a public hearing date without making plats that have not been submitted subject to the potential moratorium and subdivision ordinance.

“I don’t personally believe that in the next three weeks that we’re going to be overwhelmed like Buncombe County was,” McMahan said.

Although county attorney Paul Holt said that yes, the draft could be amended, Massie fought McMahan tooth and nail for the language to remain the same. Massie argued that the fact that commissioners have been discussing a moratorium and subdivision ordinance has been in the local papers for nearly a month, and that the meeting’s turnout showed that the public was aware of what was going on, and if anything, it would not be fair to cause county staff to be inundated with plat submittals.

“I don’t see any problem with it,” said Commissioner Joe Cowan, saying that it was worth it to keep the language in light of rumors circulating about more developments totaling several thousand acres in the works.

Perhaps feeling outgunned, McMahan called for a motion regarding the pubic hearing. Commissioner William Shelton motioned for a hearing to be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27 with the draft moratorium language unchanged. Cowan seconded the motion. McMahan was the lone dissenting vote.

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