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Jackson planners consider open space for new developments

Developers in Jackson County could be asked to designate 25 percent of new developments as conserved open space under a provision the Jackson County planning board is weighing.


The provision is one of several requirements under consideration that would make Jackson County the most restrictive place in Western North Carolina for developers to build. Jackson County is in the process of writing both a subdivision ordinance and steep slope ordinance. While restrictive, the bold measures go further to protect views and the environment than any other regulations currently on the books in WNC. The planning board is meeting weekly to hash out the language of the ordinances. The planning board tackled the open space provision last week for the second time in recent weeks.

A rough draft of the ordinance originally called for 30 percent of a development with more than nine homes to be designated open space. But at a planning board meeting four weeks ago, the provision got drastically revised — the open space requirement would apply only to subdivisions of 100 acres or more and had to be only 5 percent of the land area.

The change was made at the impetus of two planning board members: Zac Koenig, a builder, and Richard Frady, who generally favors less regulation. Koenig and Frady initially were the most outspoken members on the planning board and consistently advocated for weaker standards. But planning board members on the other end of the spectrum have since taken a more vocal stance. Dan Pittillo, Kim Cowan and Joe Ward have taken the lead role in advocating for tougher standards and fighting off attempts to weaken the language.

At a recent meeting, Pittillo, Cowan and Ward argued that the open space provision needed to be revisited because everyone had not agreed to the looser language.

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“Some people were still processing it and thinking about it and all of a sudden there was a consensus declared. It was a consensus only by a few people,” Cowan said. Cowan said removing the open space provision defeated a major purpose of the entire ordinance.

Pittillo said open space was important for the absorption of rainwater that hits the mountainside.

“We are going to be buried with stuff coming down the mountain otherwise,” Pittillo said, suggesting an open space requirement in the neighborhood of 50 percent. Others argued the open space was needed to replenish the ground water table.

Frady objected. He said there would be plenty of open space around houses on individual lots to suffice. A sliding scale will dictate the density of housing on steep slopes. A sliding scale will also dictate how much of a lot can be covered with driveways and rooftops. That will lead to plenty of open space around homes, Frady said.

That’s not the same thing, others argued.

“If you subdivide the open space so it’s in everybody’s yard, you lose some of that value,” said Michael Egan, an environmental attorney and consultant working with the planning board.

The conserved open space would be held collectively by the homeowner’s association, or could be donated as a conservation easement.

Frady said he didn’t like the idea of homeowners having to pay property taxes on a tract of open space.

“You are paying taxes on something you don’t own,” Frady said.

Cowan disagreed. Every homeowner in the development would be a partial owner of that open space.

“You have the use of it. You own that open space,” Cowan said. “You can enjoy it.”

There is a loophole for developers who don’t want to designate open space. They can pay a fee to the county instead and the money would be used to create a public park somewhere in the area. Frady didn’t like that either.

“Then it would be up to all taxpayers in the county to maintain that park,” Frady said. The same could be said of any public park, however.

Frady said most developments would have a certain amount of open space anyway due to marginal lands.

“We are talking about a subdivision with good useable land, why should we limit them. When we got good useable land, why not use it all?” Frady said.

Wayne Cobb, a planning board member, held up a picture of a jam-packed mountainside development in Buncombe County.

“We don’t want something like this,” Cobb said.

Frady suggested a compromise of 10 percent open space. Ward countered with 25 percent. The board then took a vote on it. Frady, Koenig and Bob Carpenter voted against it — as did Pittillo on grounds that it should be more than 25 percent. Ward, Cowan, Sue Bumgarner and Cobb voted for it, creating a tie. It was then up to Richard Wilson, the chairman to break the tie.

“I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, you would have smaller lots and be closer to neighbors. By the same token, you get to enjoy a big open space around you,” Wilson said. The board decided to pencil in the 25 percent open space provision, with the ability to revisit it in the future.


Creek setbacks

Frady also didn’t like a provision that called for a 30-foot setback from streams — not just a 30-foot set back for houses, but a 30-foot setback for lot lines. That 30-foot buffer could count toward the open space requirement. Frady didn’t like the idea of homeowners not being able to own the property down to a stream bank.

“Let me own all the way down to the stream,” Frady said. “But make a 30-foot setback that I can’t do anything with.”

Cowan said you would still be able to walk down to the creek and enjoy it, but you wouldn’t own all the way up to the creek. That means others in the development could enjoy the creek as well because the homeowners’ association would collectively own the buffer.

Wilson, chairman of the planning board, said the water quality of mountain creeks was too important not to have the setback.

“Some of these major developments are going in the watersheds. That’s everybody’s water,” Wilson said.

Frady didn’t gain much traction except from Koenig on the attempt to change the set back rule.

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