Archived News

Moratorium stops high-rises

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Macon County Commissioners unanimously approved a moratorium on high-rise development Monday, giving county planning and legal staff 11 months to write an ordinance that if adopted could potentially prohibit such development for a long time to come.


The moratorium was enacted in response to a Clearwater, Fla., developer’s proposal to build a 10-story condominium between Highlands and Cashiers. The site is outside Highlands’ planning district, leaving it up to the county to address.

Local residents began voicing opposition to the proposed condominiums this fall, prior to elections. During debate at a League of Women Voters forum, candidates seemed dismissive of the issue, saying they didn’t expect the project to get off the ground.

However, time did little to assuage residents’ fears. The proposal failed to go away, though the land transaction the developer needs in order to begin construction is tied up in the court system. The original landowners have filed suit against current landowners — Old Hemlock Cove Development — regarding deed restrictions that would have limited the land’s development to single family homes.

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Even if this lawsuit prevented the high-rise condominiums from being built, the ruling would only pertain to this one particular site.

Consequently, residents implored county commissioners to think only about the present but also about the future. Commissioners heard from a dozen speakers at the afternoon public hearing, many re-asserting their desire for a moratorium to be enacted.

“This is an important first step to ensure these mountains will be protected from mercenary developers,” said Mercedes Heller, who had previously spoken to commissioners on behalf of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust but this time represented only herself as a private citizen.

Her voice cracking with emotion, Heller spoke of her and her family’s Appalachian roots.

“We care about the kind of growth that occurs here,” she said. “Unplanned, unwise growth is harmful to the economy and the environment.”

But those without roots in the area also encouraged commissioners to protect their resources. Clearwater, Fla., resident Nancy Hart said that developers had destroyed the coastline with condos that now stand vacant. Such construction is what Hart said she was trying to get away from when she moved to Macon County.

“I’d like to commend you all for even looking into a moratorium at this point,” she said.

The moratorium commissioners approved is longer lasting than originally proposed, though potentially less strict on height.

Early discussions about the moratorium recommended limiting construction more than 38 feet in height — a figure derived from the state’s ridgeline development law, which prevents high-rise construction on mountain tops. But during commissioners’ Dec. 5 meeting, Bob Simpson raised that limit to four stories or 48 feet, citing Angel Medical Center and local churches as tall structures that could inadvertently fall subject to restriction. That four stories or 48 feet limit held for the moratorium’s final approval with an exemption for structures such as radio antennae, chimneys, windmills and historic sites.

However, upon the recommendation of the Institute of Government at UNC Chapel Hill, the planning board and legal staff gained time to write an ordinance regulating high-rise development. Macon County Planner Stacy Guffey said the institute advised for the time extension, as it was easier and better to come out with the ordinance in advance of the moratorium’s expiration rather than have to go through the motions of extending it. The 11-month period will end on Nov. 18, 2007.

“The other changes we made are strengthening the language,” Guffey said.

Commissioner Brian McClellan questioned the moratorium’s inclusion of the county’s growth rate. The proposal stated that the county’s growth rate was 30 percent. McClellan asked if the growth rate dropped below 30 percent if it would make the moratorium subject to legal challenge.

County attorney Leslie Moxley said commissioners could change the wording to remove the reference to a continuing 30 percent growth rate. Commissioners approved the change and adopted the moratorium.

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