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One for the books: Steep slope hearing encapsulated in print

The public hearing on Jackson County’s steep slope regulations struck Dave Waldrop as special. 

“It was so unbelievable,” Waldrop said.

The February meeting that focused on the possible revision of Jackson County’s steep slope development ordinance attracted an impassioned crowd decidedly against revising with the regulations. Waldrop himself sang an original ballad called “Mr. Operator.”

“It just went 43 times, let’s keep what we have. You don’t go to a meeting very often when 43 people get up and basically say ‘Amen,’” recalled Waldrop. “I came home almost trembling.” 

Speakers at the hearing implored the Jackson County Planning Board not to weaken development regulations adopted in 2007. No one spoke in favor of revising the regulations. Jackson County commissioners have since signaled that they won’t be touching the issue until after the November elections. 

Waldrop was touched by the outpouring of public sentiment displayed at the hearing and has recently published a spiral-bound book titled Saving these Sacred Mountains that provides a raw account of the event. 

“I thought, in this case, raw material was the best way to go,” Waldrop said. 

The book is a collection of verbatim public comment and steep slope-related materials. Background on the issue is provided by Tom Massie, a county commissioner at the time the ordinance was adopted, and the text of Jackson County’s Mountain and Hillside Development Ordinance, including the revisions approved by the planning board in January, is also included. The book is being sold at City Lights bookstore in Sylva for $30.

“I don’t figure it’s going to sell. I didn’t do it to sell. I did it to capture what’s going on,” Waldrop said. “So that I can hand this to my kids and my grandkids and they can look back and say, ‘Here’s what happened.’”

Julie Mayfield, co-director of Western North Carolina Alliance, an environmental organization, is one of the public speakers featured within the pages of transcripts in Waldrop’s book. 

“I think it has great value as a narrative about this issue,” Mayfield said of the booklet.

During the hearing, Mayfield spoke about the farmhouse her grandfather built. She told the planning board that they were in a position to either “protect and defend the beauty of Jackson County or open the door to its destruction.”

“I think my relations would roll over in their graves if they knew that the county would be opened up,” Mayfield said, describing the potential ordinance revisions as “a step backward.”

Carl Lipkin, chairman of the planning board, disagreed in February with such an assertion and he still disagrees today.

“A lot of this is perceived problems, not actual problems,” Lipkin said. “People thought we were talking about tearing the mountains down or not tearing the mountains down. It’s not that simple.”

The planning chair does recall a swell of community participation — “It certainly did generate a lot of energy” — but views the February event in a different light than those who spoke that night. He feels the steep slope development issue generated such energy because people latched onto it and allowed it to embody a larger struggle.

“I think the steep slopes and the ridgetops symbolize in peoples’ minds the whole environment vs. construction,” Lipkin said. “It more than symbolizes, it encapsules the conflict, or the perceived conflict. It allows people to say, ‘This is the green side, this is the brown side and this is where I fall on that line.’ It’s an oversimplification in my mind.”

While the public comments at the hearing may have been impassioned, Lipkin also feels some of them were off base, that the commenters may not have fully understood the revisions being proposed by the planning board. The chairman said he was not swayed by the display.

“I try to make my decisions based on a little more thought and a little less passion than I saw at that meeting,” Lipkin said.

The planning board chairman said he would have also like to have seen some opposing viewpoints expressed during the hearing. The balance, he said, would have been beneficial.

“What could you have possibly learned from a room full of people that said they same thing,” Lipkin said.

Appalachian storyteller Gary Carden wrote a short piece for the booklet titled “Synergy.” The author appears impressed by the show of public input at the hearing, but is ultimately pessimistic about their mission. 

“I think you’re obligated to really resist,” Carden said. “But your chances are poor. The best you can do is delay.”

The author isn’t entirely hopeful that the powers that be will listen to the pleas of the public speakers from February once the steep slope issue is taken back up. 

“I think they’ll compromise,” Carden said. “And then they’ll compromise again. The future is a series of compromises.”

Waldrop shares this view. Impassioned public comment aside, he feels that eventually Jackson County’s ordinance will be revised in some fashion. 

“If money rules, this ordinance will be whittled away,” Waldrop said. 

In any case, people will now have a spiral-bound recollection of one part of the conversation that led to whatever eventual steep slope regulations the county settles upon. Western Carolina University has ordered a copy for archival purposes.

“This one little book is going to be a tremendous research tool,” Waldrop said.



Jackson’s steep slope saga

In 2007, Jackson County adopted what were considered to be some of the most comprehensive mountain development regulations in the state. Recently, officials have been considering a revision of the regulations. Opponents of revising the development ordinance content that the regulations will be watered down. 

The Jackson County Planning Board began its revision process last year. After hearing a resounding ‘no’ from attendees of a Feb. 20 public hearing, county commissioners have shelved the revision process until after this November’s election. 

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