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Land-use planning takes center stage in Jackson

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Jackson County commissioners have set in motion a strategy to make up for the past and plan for the future, directing the planning board to make several land-use ordinances this year’s top priority.


“We’re all agreeable to at least working on a subdivision ordinance, a steep slope ordinance that incorporates ridge top protection, and a corridor ordinance?” chairman Brian McMahan polled fellow commissioners during a work session held last Wednesday (Jan. 3).

Commissioners each nodded their heads in approval for what many will construe as a drastic change in board policy. Previous county commission boards have shown a general unwillingness to discuss, much less pass, any serious land-use regulations.

“I feel that we have passed a critical point, a tipping point, where it’s either now or never,” said Commissioner William Shelton.

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Ordinances have usually come about piecemeal in response to specific situations. When a shooting range in Cashiers proposed relocating to Tilley Creek and most residents were against the move, commissioners were hesitant even to direct the planning board to author an ordinance regulating where and how new ranges were built.

The planning board did eventually pull together such an ordinance, but when the developers of the shooting range decided to locate outside the county, the ordinance was no longer deemed critical and was tabled.

Previously, the planning board worked on ordinances independently but often presented them to commissioners to find that support was lacking, McMahan said. Four years ago commissioners changed the system so that the planning board now only works on topics commissioners specificallyask them to.

But since the planning board began work on a subdivision ordinance three years ago, hot topics such as the shooting range ordinance have take precedence. The subdivision ordinance — arguably the county’s most needed ordinance — kept landing on the back burner. McMahan said the delay isn’t the planning board’s fault.

“They are awaiting direction from us,” he said.

Even with as much work as has been done on the subdivision ordinance, which aims to hold developers to certain standards such as road width, Commissioner Tom Massie said the draft is “heavy on procedure and light on design standards.” As it is, he said he would not support it. More would have to be done to beef up regulations, potentially cross-referencing the ordinance with a steep slope development ordinance to be developed concurrently, he said. A corridor ordinance, aimed to protect U.S. 441 from overdevelopment prior to planned sewer lines being constructed, also would tie in.

Commissioners questioned land use/environmental attorney Michael Egan — who has been working with the planning board — about the possibility of enacting a moratorium on development. Egan said a moratorium usually is enacted for a period of six to nine months, which provide time for authoring regulatory ordinances. Massie and fellow commissioners said that they are not necessarily considering a moratorium, but needed to know their options.

If a moratorium was enacted, it would not apply to subdivisions currently under way. Regulations could not be applied retroactively; however, phased development could be required to come into compliance with any new ordinance, Egan said.

This move to protect the county’s resources is much needed, said Shelton. However, having run a campaign focused on land-use planning but against countywide zoning, Shelton asked Eagan what the difference is between “a pile of ordinances and zoning.” Shelton said he often hears the argument that ordinances are regulation and regulation is zoning.

“Well that’s just not true,” Eagan said.

McMahan — traditionally a property rights advocate — concurred, saying that a subdivision ordinance does not classify as zoning, whereas the Cashiers Area Land Development Plan does. The plan regulated the height of buildings, setbacks, signage, and outside lighting within a certain boundary line. McMahan said the plan effectively prohibited big box stores, which was one of the aims as a Lowe’s home improvement store was considering locating in the town. County Planning Director Linda Cable said that she had not had any complaints about the Cashiers Area plan.

“But it is a type of zoning,” McMahan said.

Despite splitting hairs on what is or is not zoning, commissioners agreed to direct the planning board to move forward with a subdivision, steep slope and corridor ordinance. With that they also unanimously approved increasing the size of the planning board from seven to 11 members, with the intent of broadening the board’s membership. Massie said that with commissioners’ push for land-use regulations, the planning board will have to step up to the task.

“Consequently, I think what that’s going to mean is a greater time commitment from the planning board itself,” he said.

Massie noted a potential need for multiple meetings per month in order to meet commissioners deadline of no later than December 2007 to have these ordinances in place.

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