Seven years war for the mountainsides rages on in Jackson
Controlling mountainside development is a universal issue grappled with across Western North Carolina.
But Jackson County’s residents have wrestled more passionately, more vocally, more extensively and more heatedly over mountainside development than almost any other county in the region.
The war won’t be won or lost with this election. But it will be a decisive battle along the way.
Jackson’s mountainside development rules are the most restrictive in the state. They emerged from the Wild West building boom of the 2000s — a boom that threatened to consume every last acre of the county with gated subdivisions to feed the insatiable appetite for high-end vacation homes.
When the rules were put in place seven years ago, opponents staged a huge but futile protest.
But the battle cry cuts both ways. With the boom days a fading memory, the rules are poised to be weakened. Once again, troops are being rallied in a protest — this time it’s those who want to preserve the mountainside building rules.
The commanders chosen by voters on Election Day (Nov. 4) will chart the strategy. Will they rollback parts of the steep slope rules on the books, or keep most of it in place?
A rewrite undertaken by the planning board during 2013 was halted in as it reached the finish line until after the election. Whether to jumpstart the rewrite, or let it die, will be up to the next board of county commissioners.
The Smoky Mountain News asked candidates to anticipate what course they will take if elected.
Joe Ward, Democrat, Whittier
“I want to protect our mountains and our view shed. I want to keep our mountains looking pristine and not look up and see a shiny roof every 10 feet. Not to say I am anti-building. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. But there are proper methods.”
Ward served on the Jackson County planning board for years. He was there when the steep slope rules were written seven years ago, and he was there for the rewrite over the past two years, although he thinks it goes too far.
“There are a few things that could be changed and made more user friendly but not to the extent that were being proposed.”
Ward said those pushing for the rewrite weren’t prepared for the public backlash, but he “felt it was coming.”
“I wasn’t surprised. I will say that some of the commissioners may have been out of touch with their constituents.”
If elected, he would send the rewrite back to the drawing board.
“I would send it back to the planning board to see if they want to review it, refine it, but if that is what they want to send to us, then I would have to vote against it.”
He doesn’t think the development rules have stifled the construction industry in Jackson more so than anywhere else hit by the housing bust. Jackson County has actually shown more building permit activity than surrounding counties, despite its tougher restrictions.
Charles Elders, Republican, Whittier
“I really don’t want to comment. I think our planning board is really the greatest. They are putting a lot of time into this and I don’t want a comment I make to influence them either way.”
Elders agreed to share a few thoughts anyway. When asked if the steep slope ordinance is too strict, he said, “Evidently it is.”
Whether the proposed rewrite went too far and watered it down too much, Elders said “I want to stay in the middle of the road.”
Elders said he hasn’t looked at the proposed revisions extensively but trusts the planning board will make “improvements” and will seriously consider their proposal, whatever it may be since they are the experts.
The next step for the rewrite? Elders wants the planning board to hold meetings throughout the county to solicit more feedback from the public.
“One recommendation I would have right now is to see them get more involved in the communities.”
He feels like the outcry at the public hearing earlier this year wasn’t representative of the whole county.
“Of course, that public hearing, we all know it was staged. It is as plain as daylight and dark.”
Elders, who has family land of his own going back a century, personally wants to protect the mountains.
“These are the mountains and they aren’t making any more of them and I want to do all I can to help preserve the mountains.”
However, the most anti-regulation member on the planning board who has argued at every turn for weaker steep slope rules was appointed by Elders.
Doug Cody, Republican, Sylva
“Some people will never be satisfied unless they can sit on their porch and look at nothing but undeveloped land. They have come and bought their acre-and-a-half and they want to dictate how the rest of the population uses theirs.”
Cody believes the rules on the books go too far and are aimed at stopping development. The rules limiting building so severely are not fair to property owners.
“If you devalue their property how are you going to compensate them?”
Cody has studied the existing ordinance extensively and was able to speak to the technical aspects of it more knowledgeably than any of the other candidates, pontificating on finer points like the method for calculating slope or measuring visibility from a public road. The ordinance is rife with subjective criteria that essentially leave a builders’ fate in the hands of the planning director, he said.
“I think some of it is very contradictory. Some of it is so vague I don’t think it would hold up in court.”
Those opposed to the rewrite have distorted the truth and hijacked the conversation with emotional arguments, preventing the rewrite from getting a fair vetting, Cody said.
“I think we need a more thorough education process for our citizens.”
He proposes a series of community meetings in locations across the county to engage a broader cross section of the citizenry in a dialog, not just those who feel comfortable speaking up at a formal public hearing.
“We have a small group show up at these meetings who are very vocal and we never hear from the other side, but we can be fair to them if we hear from them or not.”
Cody said he wouldn’t have passed the rewrite in its current form. In hindsight, the planning board’s first version shouldn’t have gone to a public hearing without a cursory review by commissioners to see if it reflected their own positions. But commissioners were trying to err on the side of not interfering with the planning board’s work.
Cody said he doesn’t try to duck on the issues, but it doesn’t always work out in his best interest.
That was witnessed at the heated public hearing earlier this year. Cody stood up in front of the angry and impassioned crowd to deflect accusations that the commissioners and planning board members were catering to their own financial interests in the building and real estate industry.
“I have been personally accused of being a crook. I have been accused of bullying the planning board. I can hold my head high because I am not a crook,” Cody told the crowd that night, defending the planning board who had been brow-beat all evening. “I want to get that straight. You are accusing these people of underhanded devious motives.”
Cody was ultimately booed from the podium, after a brief contest with audience members over whose ancestors had been in Jackson County the longest.
“I am not very timid, and not very tactful either.”
Boyce Dietz, Democrat, Sylva
“I am sure there is some of it that could be loosened up. But there is a difference in changing and tweaking stuff and just throwing everything out the door. I feel real strong about just eliminating something — bam. But I do feel like it is hard to put anything together and be perfect.”
Boyce said, in sum, the rewrite went too far, but that’s not to say the original ordinance couldn’t stand some changes, although he couldn’t talk specifics.
“I would need to look at it more than I’ve looked at it now. If there are some common sense things that need to be changed about it, we’ll do that. But we are not going to gut it.”
Dietz said he keeps coming back to the fact that no developer in seven years has asked for a steep slope variance.
“If it is to the point that we are going to gut this thing, then surely there have been a bunch of people storming in and asking for variances. I thought if it is so bad and so poor why hasn’t someone come and asked for a variance. I don’t understand why we are trying to change something when there has been no demand or push to do so.”
Dietz wants to ensure the safety of people downhill from steep slope development, and prevent people from getting swindled into buying a house on an unstable slope.
“I am not into telling everybody how to use their property or whatever, but there are some things if we do know better it could save them from getting into a disaster situation.
People who come in and buy a house that inherits all these problems, they aren’t protected. I guess that’s where the government comes in, is looking out for someone who can’t look out for himself.”
Brian McMahan, Democrat, Sylva
“I will continue to maintain the ordinance as is with its original goal and original purpose. Nothing’s perfect and there always is opportunity to make tweaks and changes. But I wouldn’t be favorable to major changes.”
McMahan was on the board of commissioners seven years ago when the steep slope rules were passed. Ironically, McMahan didn’t vote for them, although he isn’t against them.
McMahan said his lone “no” vote to the steep slope rules seven years ago stemmed from his opposition to the subdivision moratorium put in place while the rules were being written.
“I totally, totally disagreed with the moratorium. It set us off on the wrong foot and it was an uphill struggle after that.”
The moratorium portrayed an image that commissioners at the time were anti-building, and that tainted the perception of the regulations that followed.
As for the pending rewrite, McMahan said he had not studied it in detail.
“To be real honest with you I don’t know completely all of the proposed changes.”
However, he’s followed the big-ticket changes, and he’s not for them.
Unfortunately, mountainside development regulations are there to safeguard against the lowest common denominator, he said. A lot of contractors would do the right thing on their own.
“They would build it just like they would build their own house. But there are some people out there that want to turn a quick dollar, and put as many houses on a mountainside as they can and walk off — and when slopes fail it leaves a big problem.”
McMahan, like the other two challengers, said he would not support the rewrite as proposed and it would need to go back to the planning board.
Jack Debnam, independent, Dillsboro
Debnam said he has avoided weighing in on the particulars of the rewrite for fear of swaying the process.
“I don’t want to micromanage,” he said. “I want to wait and see what they come up with.”
However, Debnam does believe the steep slope rules on the books are too strict. He said it greatly limits what people can build on their property.
“They can call it what they want to call it, but the last commissioners reached out and zoned the whole county in a sense and told you what you could and could not do with your piece of property.”
Debnam said he advocated for halting the rewrite until after the election to allow for a cooling off period.
“A lot of people are passionate about it and I can understand that but I don’t think good decisions are made when passions are involved.”
Debnam said he has unfairly been accused of wanting to gut the steep slope ordinance.
“If I wanted to get rid of the steep slope ordinance would I have waited three and a half years? I think I am a little more intelligent than that.”
Debnam believes the county needs a steep slope ordinance, but that the technical language needs to be improved and the restrictions in place now should be tempered.
The limits on steep slope constructions have lowered people’s property values, and that could further impact the hit to the county’s property tax base when the countywide revaluation hits the books next year.
Candidates stake out shades of grey in steep slope debate
What, where, whether and how to build on steep slopes — it’s galvanized Jackson County for years.
The hotly-contested commissioner election to be decided next week is no exception.
Where the candidates stand on Jackson County’s steep slope building rules is at the forefront of the race. But nailing them down on the nitty-gritty of the ordinance is tougher than catching a greased watermelon.
The race pits a trio of sitting commissioners against a team of challengers.
At issue: whether the steep slope ordinance on the books in Jackson County should be weakened, and if so my how much.
Some see the rules as progressive — rightfully protecting the environment, quality of life, and coveted mountain beauty from being despoiled by greedy out-of-town developers.
Others see the rules as too restrictive — a draconian over-reach of government regulation intentionally aimed at stifling development, and in the process harming property owners.
A rewrite aimed at loosening the steep slope rules has been in the works for nearly two years. But it was halted in the spring for a cooling off period following a huge backlash from supporters of steep slope rules at a preliminary public hearing.
Now, whoever gets elected will decide what direction the rewrite takes: whether the rewrite resumes again, and if so, how much the rules will be loosened at the end of the day.
On the surface, it’s easy to say the three incumbents — Jack Debnam, Doug Cody and Charles Elders — want to roll back the steep slope rules.
And it’s easy to say the three challengers — Brian McMahan, Boyce Dietz and Joe Ward — want to keep them in place.
But that would be wrong. It’s more complicated than that.
All of them — the sitting commissioners and challengers alike — believe the rewrite went too far and watered down the existing ordinance too much.
And all of them think the steep slope rules on the books are too strict.
So that means all of them fall somewhere in between the rules on the books and the rewrite as proposed.
Where they fall on that spectrum isn’t easy to parse out.
The Smoky Mountain News picked a handful of the most hot-button issues to query them on, hoping to zero in on a more accurate portrayal of where each stands on mountainside development. Some are included here; for more, see this story online.
Ridge top rule
On the books: You can’t build on a ridge or anywhere near it. The roof or crest of a structure has to be at least 20 feet below the ridgeline. A ridge is considered anything over 3,000 feet in elevation that rises 500 feet above the adjacent valley floor.
Proposed change: You can build on all but the very highest, tallest ridges. Also, the definition of a ridge is loosened so things that counted as a ridge before and were thus off-limits to building no longer count as a ridge.
Charles Elders, sitting commissioner for Whittier seat: “I don’t like to see a roof sticking way up on top of a ridge.” But what counts as a ridge may need to be loosened. If someone has a “little rolling hill” they should be able to build on it and not get caught up in the ridge top ban.
Doug Cody, sitting commissioner for Sylva seat: “I don’t think you should be able to build a house on top of a ridge, but then again, how detrimental is it to build a one-mile road along the base of a ridge?” Building on the side of a mountain can tear up more ground and can be more visible than a house set back on a flat-topped knoll, so discretion rather than a black-and-white rule may be needed. Also, the definition of a ridge before was too all-encompassing.
Jack Debnam, commissioner chairman: The blanket ridge top rule now may go too far, given the dragnet of what counts as a ridge. But allowing ridge top building outright isn’t likewise too extreme. A compromise: keep ridge top building low-profile so it doesn’t protrude above the tree line. The bigger issue is “what’s a ridge?” That wasn’t well defined before.
Joe Ward, challenger for Whittier seat: “I am not in favor of anything on a ridge top, period.” Also, Ward supports keeping the stricter definition of a ridge in place.
Boyce Dietz, challenger for Sylva seat: “When my grandkids get older and can appreciate the mountains, I want them to appreciate them the way we can appreciate them now. I want them to see the same ridge tops our forefathers saw when they fist rode in here on horseback.”
Brian McMahan, challenger for chairman: “The last thing we want to do is have big towers or houses built on ridges that would change the skyline.”
As for the competing definitions of what qualifies as a ridge, he doesn’t have enough information to form an opinion.
On the books: The number of homes on steep slopes are capped, based on a sliding scale. The steeper the slope, the fewer the homes. On slopes of 30 percent, you can have one house every two acres. On slopes of 45 percent, it’s one house every 10 acres, with gradients in between.
Proposed change: Do away with the restriction on lot size, lifting the cap on the number of homes that can go on a steep slope.
Charles Elders, sitting commissioner for Whittier seat: “I think there will have to be limits,” but the limits in place now are too strict.
Doug Cody, sitting commissioner for Sylva seat: “I think a lot of the land lends itself to taking care of that itself.” The terrain naturally limits the feasible number of homes for a given slope, as do other conditions like septic tank siting and market desirability. “The sad thing about this is it hurts the little guy,” not the big developer who has 1,000 acres to work with.
Jack Debnam, commissioner chairman: “There again I believe every site is different. If you had the correct engineering, you may be alright with a higher density. I can’t agree if a man has one 10-acre piece and it is over 45 percent he can only build one house. There could be more than one good house site on that piece of property.”
Joe Ward, challenger for Whittier seat: “In my opinion it could have been loosened up some, but not to the extent that the rewrite wants to do.”
Ward believes there should be some limit to the number of homes on a steep slope, but perhaps not as strict as the current rule calls for.
Boyce Dietz, challenger for Sylva seat: “I can’t sit here right now and be that specific and tell you how many houses would be OK on a slope, but we are running on common sense and common sense tells you can’t overburden a slope.”
Brian McMahan, challenger for chairman: “We need to have some kind of restriction on how many houses can go on a steep area. I don’t think it would be wise to eliminate the standard in place and hope that contractors do the right thing because that is what has led to a lot of problems that we had, because people didn’t do the right thing.”