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Steep slope ordinance rewrite timeline: The inopportune arrival of a slow but steady train

When Jackson County commissioners halted the controversial rewrite of the steep slope development rules earlier this year, critics were both pleased and skeptical.

Pleased that a rollback of the county’s steep slope rules wouldn’t be pushed to the finish line before November’s election, but skeptical that the sitting commissioners would really stop work on the rollback. Instead, many thought the incumbents were trying to save their own re-election chances and would pick up where they left off after November.

“It’s purely political,” said Brian McMahan, a challenger running for commissioner chairman. “If that’s their platform, what they campaigned on, why not do it?”

But sitting chairman Jack Debnam scoffs at the notion he was trying to dodge a political bullet.

“I’ve never cared about political backlash,” Debnam said. 

In reality, Debnam didn’t think the steep slope rewrite could proceed in a civil manner and objectively while on a parallel track to the county commissioner election. “People weren’t being rational. I was not hearing rational conversation coming from either side. That’s what I consider my job, to keep things rational,” Debnam said.

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The steep slope rewrite had been in the works since late 2012. But getting it to the finish line took longer than expected.

The planning board chipped and hammered at it for 15 months, tackling the ordinance line by line. Nothing proved simple. Merely arriving at a definition of a ridgeline or the mathematical formula for how to calculate a slope took multiple meetings to hash out.

Aside from the tedious and technical nature of the rewrite, a couple members of the planning board bogged down the pace with objections. They didn’t want to see the ordinance substantially watered down and argued to keep parts of it intact at every turn.

As the months ticked by, election season drew closer.

When the planning board finally finished the rewrite in early 2014, the timing couldn’t have been worse for the trio of sitting commissioners up for election this fall — Debnam, Doug Cody and Charles Elders — all of whom support a steep slope rewrite in theory.

The liberal, environmental constituency in Jackson County long hoping to take out this more conservative trio began sharpening their knives in anticipation.

The trajectory of the steep slope rewrite couldn’t have coalesced more perfectly for the challengers taking on the sitting commissioners. It would be working its way through public hearings during the thick of election season and land in the commissioners laps for a vote in late summer, or better yet early fall — making for ideal campaign fodder on the eve of Election Day.

A rousing public hearing in February dominated by critics of the rewrite — those who wanted to keep the current protections on the books — sealed the fate of the steep slope rewrite.

The planning board had hoped to hand their steep slope rewrite to commissioners on a silver platter. Instead, it became a political hot potato.

The commissioners tossed it right back to the planning board and told them they didn’t want it — particularly not now, and not in that form. Commissioners told the planning board to cease and desist until after election season.

“This is a touchy issue, it is very emotional issue. And in a way it is better,” said Commissioner Charles Elders. “I wish it had gotten done sooner, but sometimes it’s better if you wait.”

For the record, sitting commissioners signaled that some of the rewrites went too far, and wouldn’t adopt them wholesale as proposed. The planning board would need to revisit parts of the draft rewrite, but not right now, commissioners decided.

“I was surprised at the commissioners deciding not to go further with it. They wanted it until we gave it to them,” said Joe Ward, a member of the planning board who is running for commissioner. Ward was in the minority on the planning board, however, and was against most of the rewrite as proposed.

McMahan said it is disingenuous for them to backpedal now and the sitting commissioners should own what the planning board came up with.

“You never charge the planning board with a task you weren’t prepared to follow through with. If you didn’t want an ordinance that dealt with X,Y,Z, you don’t let the planning board just freelance. You tell the planning board ‘I want you to take this issue and develop an ordinance with these goals in mind because this is the outcome we want,’” McMahan said.

“It is hard for me to believe they didn’t have some knowledge that was going on with the planning board or that they didn’t instruct them in some way. Especially since we have a chair that controls the agenda so strictly,” McMahan added.

Debnam said he wanted to hear what the best minds could come up with, and charging the planning board with how to go about the rewrite would defeat the purpose of having a planning board in the first place.

“We had a board in place of people we really thought were capable. I don’t want to micromanage. I could wade in on it and sway what may be good information and have good information thrown out,” Debnam said. “I think you appoint people that are qualified and take their advice, or at least see what their advice is before you start making comments about what you like or don’t like because you don’t know what they are going to send to you.”

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