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Jackson planning board further refines steep slope rewrites

Jackson County Planning Board members discussed axing part of the steep slope rules aimed at protecting mountain viewsheds.

The viewshed provisions stipulate new mountainside construction should  not be readily visible from public right of ways or public lands.


While the spirit of the law is to guard against eyesores on the hillsides. That could mean screening homes with trees or strategic placement on a lot so a home doesn’t stick out. But in practice, the provision is often impossible to enforce.

“I don’t think it was ever really enforced,” said County Planner Gerald Green. “In theory, it sounded good, but in realty, it was a bit more challenging.”

The viewshed protection clause left county staff with the nearly impossible task of identifying from which public lands and roadways steep slope housing projects could be “readily” seen. And public land could be defined as everything from Western Carolina University to a county maintenance yard to the Nantahala National Forest. And public right-of-way could be the Tuckasegee River, a utility line or any public road.

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“We’d have to go to all those and identify whether we could see a home located on a steep slope area from those properties,” Green said. “And does that mean from 10 miles away when the leaves are gone?”

Whether to do away with the viewshed provision is one of many planning board changes that would weaken the county’s steep slope rules. The planning board has spent months plowing through a line-by-line mark-up and rewrite of the ordinance.

Jackson’s mountainside development regulations are currently some of the strictest in the region. Any recommended changes to the ordinance still need to be brought before commissioners for a final vote, but commissioners have previously signaled they see the ordinances adopted by previous commissioners as too restrictive.

Planning board members tackled the viewshed protection at its last meeting in May.

Planning Board Member Mark Jamison thought something similar, but better written, should be considered to replace it, rather than entirely doing away with it. 

“I think there is something legitimate to be said for protecting views from public lands,” Jamison said. “That’s tourism and who we are.”

Rather than a blanket viewshed protection, Green said several important vistas in the county should be considered as worthy of extra protection. The view from the Blue Ridge Parkway of the Balsam range or the views from several high peaks in the Nantahala Forest stood out as good candidates for added protection, Green said.

He said the wording in the current ordinance tried to protect everything and in turn didn’t protect much at all.

“By making it so broad, they made it almost impossible to enforce,” Green said. “The appropriate process would have been to define those viewsheds and then define an ordinance with specific standards for protecting them.”

But even that concept raised the question of how? Would county regulators identify key views and add an extra set of regulations to property visible from those areas, asked Board Member Clark Lipkin, a surveyor. He said a law like that would still be overstepping its bounds and infringing on personal property rights.

“Maybe we could identify key viewsheds and then regulate from there,” Lipkin said. “But I would still vote against it.”

Lipkin said an unforeseen consequence of the law is that going to lengths to physically hide a building site causes more disturbance to the mountainside by forcing the house deeper into the slope and out of view. Instead, he said vegetation and other superficial blending techniques such as earth tone colors should be considered. However, the planning board previously marked out suggested building practices that encourage earth tone colors.

Ultimately, planning board members reached the consensus that the section of the Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance attempting to protect public views is no good but didn’t decide on a way of replacing it. Three members of the planning board were absent.


Ridgetop redux

Their discussion at the last meeting also revisited one of their previous and ongoing topics: whether to permit construction on “protected” ridge tops in the county.

The state already restricts construction on ridgelines high than 3,000 feet, but Jackson County passed stricter ridgetop laws as part of its mountain development regulations in 2007. 

The county law on the books prohibits construction on ridges higher than 2,500 feet that are also more than 400 feet above the nearest valley floor.

Though oftentimes more visible, Lipkin pointed out that building on a ridge top could actually be a better solution than cutting into the side slope.

“It’s less visible, flatter and safer,” he said.

Nevertheless, Green cautioned against doing away with the ridgetop provision completely to ensure ridge construction didn’t get out of control. Minimum setbacks from the edge of the ridge and other restrictions on building size or density might be one way to mitigate their impact on mountainside views.

“I don’t want to see those homes all the way across the ridge,” Green said.

No consensus was reached on the matter yet again and discussion was tabled until the next meeting. But the issue of loosening restrictions on hilltop construction is bound to be a controversial one.

Also, at May’s meeting, they discussed another topic that has proved a source of ongoing back and forth in the rewrite process. The old ordinance limited how much of a site could be disturbed during grading and construction and the portion that could be built on. The planning board has mulled whether to do away with or loosen those limits on grading.

Now, some of the planning board questioned whether there is merit to the limits, especially given other provisions that have since been struck, like limits on how many homes can be built on steep tracts.

Western North Carolina is coming off an unusually wet spring that caused landslides across the region. Most originated from construction sites, roadways and other disturbed mountainsides

In July, the board will hear a presentation of a pair of private landslide consultants who have been mapping different regions in WNC for predicting likely landslide zones for public safety purposes. Less disturbance could mean less likelihood of landslides.

“Minimizing the disturbance on those slopes does seem like it goes hand in hand with landslides,” Jamison said. “If you’re building on slopes over 35 percent then it means your building envelope needs to get smaller.”

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