Steep slope issue headed for a November showdown
I think Jack Debnam was wise to delay action on the rewrite of the Jackson County steep slope rules until after the November election, but I don’t believe that will take politics out of the final decision on this issue.
No, to the contrary, the county board’s decision to delay action has provided voters with at least one issue to discuss and dissect ad infinitum in the coming election season. Sitting commissioners and candidates alike will be forced to stake out their position, and by the time voters step into the booth on Election Day, they will know where each candidate stands.
The rewrite of the steep slope ordinance in Jackson County has been an 18-month-long process by the planning board. For those who haven’t followed the issue, the first thing to know is that Jackson has one of the stiffest steep slope building ordinances in the state of North Carolina. That ordinance was crafted and passed by the former board of commissioners during the time before the current economic slowdown, back when the rural mountain areas of Jackson County were getting swallowed up by big-money developers from all over the country.
The current proposal crafted by the planning board would weaken those steep slope rules. After the rewrite, a public hearing in February to discuss the proposal revealed a very organized, very vocal group of citizens who were adamantly opposed to what the planning board was presenting. In fact, not a single speaker at the hearing supported the measure.
Let’s be honest. Many in Jackson County likely support weakening the measures or doing away with them altogether. Some probably want a rewrite but still want measures to protect mountainsides and streams from overzealous developers. Those at the public hearing seem to be in a camp who fully support the ordinance currently on the books.
The political reality of this situation looks something like this: two of the commissioners who passed the original ordinance were voted out of office four years ago. So was the county board chairman, who opposed the ordinance as too strict but was still swept out with the other incumbents. Three commissioners who will be on the November ballot were the ones who beat them: Commission Chairman Debnam, Doug Cody and Charles Elders. All three of those candidates called for a rewrite of the steep slope ordinance, though they aren’t necessarily in lockstep as to what that rewrite should look like.
I want to be clear. This newspaper has come out in favor of stiff steep slope rules that will preserve the integrity of the mountains and the environment. We don’t support shackling development; to the contrary, we want to encourage smart growth that will benefit our region for generations and not just allow a few to reap immense short-term profits at the expense of those who have called this area home for generations.
So perhaps Debnam is right. Let’s just take a breather. While taking a breath, though, the planning board deserves some credit. This all-volunteer group has been working diligently, developing an ordinance that — I suspect — the majority believed a majority of the county board wanted. After all, the planning board is filled with the county board’s appointees. Agree or disagree with the current proposal, this group has been working.
If Debnam is right, then so is Avram Friedman. The Jackson County resident and environmental activist had this to say about the delay: “You could say the process is working. People have real power. When they get organized and show up, it works. It influences government policy. That is the purpose of public comment and the democratic process.”
Call it politics, call it the democratic process, call it what you will, but this issue is headed for a November showdown. And I believe Jackson County voters will demand to know where the candidates stand on the steep slope regulations. We will see then just where the chips fall.