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Macon wrestles with impact of subdivision ordinance

Although Macon County passed its first subdivision ordinance more than a year ago, Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Beale wonders whether enough was done to protect developers with projects already underway.

Developments that pre-dated the new rules may be hamstrung when attempting to sell lots today, if those lots are subject to the ordinance, Beale said.

“If they have a buyer for a piece of property in this day and age, we don’t want the subdivision ordinance to be overly cumbersome,” said Beale, who shared his concerns a commissioners meeting last month.

Beale inquired about what type of “grandfathering” could be put in place for existing subdivisions with lots that weren’t officially recorded but perhaps existed on the developer’s personal master plan.

The county’s zoning administrator, Jack Morgan, said the county gave ample warning to developers when the ordinance was adopted. Developers were given 90 days to decide whether to register their properties on the county’s plat books.

“That 90-day period was to give people who had subdivisions the opportunity to record their properties that hadn’t been platted yet,” said Morgan.

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At that time, developers had to decide whether or not to plat their properties, with the consequence that they would then have to pay taxes on individual parcels. By leaving them un-platted, they knew they would have to eventually comply with the new ordinance.

Beale’s concern is that the county will continue to run into developers who don’t realize their properties are subject to the ordinance if they haven’t been platted, even if they fall within existing subdivisions.

Beale said he’s not interested in undermining the intent of the ordinance but he believes the county needs to make a concerted effort to educate the public.

“The discussion is –– with the older subdivisions how does the ordinance play a role and what does it say you have to do?” said Beale. “A lot of it is misunderstanding and it’s not easy to read. An ordinance is a law and we want to make sure it’s understandable.”

Macon’s subdivision ordinance was developed under the direction of the Planning Board as a way to protect lot buyers and create standards for subdivision development.

The ordinance has a few main components, but primarily governs how steep and narrow roads can be. It also requires developers to create a homeowners’ association and enter a bond agreement with the county should they abandon the project with unfinished or unstable roads.

“It’s not a heavy-handed ordinance at all. There are some out there that would break your back,” said Morgan. “Macon County’s intent –– we didn’t have any regulation at all and that’s when we had the great Macon County land grab. We needed some structure in place.”

The ordinance was approved in June 2008 but didn’t take effect until September to allow for a 90-day waiting period.

In a county with over 600 subdivisions, some of which are over 30-years-old, getting the word out to all of the interested parties has not been simple.

Because Macon’s ordinance wasn’t designed to be restrictive, Susan Ervin, a planning board member, doesn’t think the county should look for ways around enforcing it.

“I feel like the ordinance should apply in every case that it possibly can,” said Ervin. “These were not designed to be onerous requirements. They were a way of structuring good development. It’s not something we should be looking for ways to get around.”

Realtor John Becker of Exit Smoky Mountain Realty essentially agreed with Ervin’s assessment.

“My opinion is if guys have stuff in the ground then it should be exempt but if the stuff isn’t platted yet then it has to come up to snuff,” Becker said. “Most of the stuff they’re trying to put together is safety-oriented and making sure the consumers are protected.”

Ervin said the ordinance has a provision for a developer to be exempt if they can show they spent a substantial amount of money and resources on a subdivision project before the new rules took effect.

Beale has directed Zoning Administrator Jack Morgan to come up with a public education program for the ordinance to be presented at a public hearing in January on some minor housekeeping revisions to the ordinance.

“We realized that the realtors and the surveyors and such — the people who use it everyday –– we’ve not yet determined the best way to get out there and explain to people exactly what the subdivision ordinance says,” Beale said.

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