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Macon planners seek high-rise moratorium

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

The Macon County Planning Board wants county commissioners to enact a moratorium on any construction over 38 feet in height to temporarily stop construction of a 10-story high-rise condominium just outside of Highlands.


The moratorium would provide time to consider adding such buildings to the county’s high-impact use ordinance, planners say.

The proposed condos are to be located on a tract just off U.S. 64 near the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital. The tract is outside Highland’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) — a special area beyond town limits that is subject to town zoning laws but not town taxes.

“They knew that our regulations would not allow that sort of project,” said Larry Gantenbein, Highlands zoning administrator.

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Highlands enacted an ETJ one year ago this month, after a year and a half spent updating the town’s land-use plan. The town has a self-imposed requirement to update the land-use plan every five years. With each update since the mid-80s has come a recommendation to create an ETJ; however, it wasn’t until the most recent update that town aldermen followed through with that recommendation, Gantenbein said.

Upon creating the ETJ, the town drew its lines the full one-mile beyond town limits that the law allows. The reasoning was three-fold Gantenbein said: to protect the town’s watershed, to control commercial development along the corridors into town, and to control incompatible development on closely adjoining parcels, such as asphalt plants going up near homes.

The proposed high-rise is a concern in each of these three areas. It’s in the Highlands watershed, it’s along a heavily traveled corridor into town, and residents throughout Macon County have judged it incompatible with the mountain landscape and neighboring uses of any kind.

More than 20 people spoke out against the high-rise at a Macon County commissioners meeting this month, including Bob Wright, a Macon County Watershed Council member and president of the Cold Springs Property Owners Association. The Cold Springs development is located north of the proposed condo site.

Wright created a digitally enhanced photo illustrating what a typical 10-story condo would look like on the site. The condo complex towers above the tree line. However, the lay of the land is such that North Carolina’s ridgeline development law, which prevents development on the tops of mountains, does not apply. The law was written after a similar structure was built on a clear-cut mountaintop near Sugar Mountain ski resort.

And as far as the county’s permitting agencies are concerned, if the proposed high-rise met the local building codes, permits would be granted. Looks aren’t a part of the considerations.

“It’s kind of a wake-up call,” Wright said.

While citizens opposed to the high-rise have succeeded in getting the planning board to recommend a moratorium, the question remains whether county commissioners will enact it. The matter will either be the last contentious matter the sitting board of commissioners address or the first for the incoming board. The last meeting of the year will be held Dec. 3. Either way, it’s a matter that’s drawn much public concern.

“I think they’ll have to take it pretty seriously,” said Macon County Planner Stacy Guffey.

During election season debates, candidates participating in a League of Women Voters’ forum about local issues seemed predominately dismissive of plans for the high-rise, saying they didn’t expect for the project to get off the ground. That assumption may have at least some merit, as prior landowners Kenton and Linda David have filed suit against current landowners Old Hemlock Cove Development over a deed restriction that would prevent the high-rise from being built.

Old Hemlock Cove purchased the property from the Davids in 2003 with restrictions on the 19-acre tract limiting its development to single-family homes. Those restrictions were not listed on the deed; however, it was the Davids’ understanding that the restrictions would remain in place. Old Hemlock Cove wants to sell the property to a Clearwater, Fla., developer, who in turn plans to construct the high-rise.

The suit has yet to be resolved.

“It could go either way, we don’t really know yet,” Wright said of the pending legal decision.

A moratorium would at least provide another avenue to address the issue, should the lawsuit be decided in favor of the developers.

“A moratorium doesn’t pass a law, it just says ‘let’s wait a minute and think about this,’” Wright said.

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