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Jackson planning board gets new leadership

With a slate of issues including steep slope development, cell phone tower construction and zoning rules for fracking facing the county, Sarah Thompson — formerly Sarah Graham — will be taking the helm as chair of the Jackson County Planning Board.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Thompson said. “It is a good board to work with and I enjoy conversations with diverse opinions, and that’s a lot of what we have there.”

Thompson is director of planning and development for the Southwestern Commission and has in the past directed the Downtown Sylva Association and served on the Sylva town board. She was appointed to the planning board in September 2013 by Democratic County Commissioner Vicki Greene. 

She has tended to fall more on the pro-regulation side of votes during her tenure on the board as opposed to outgoing chair Clark Lipkin, whose votes have fallen on the anti-regulation side. Lipkin was originally appointed in 2011 by then-Commission Chairman Jack Debnam, an Independent. 

“Clark’s term ends in December, and a key factor in not reappointing him as chair was that his term on the board would end before his term as chair would end,” said County Planner Gerald Green. “This is his second term and he is not eligible for reappointment.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Thompson as chair and board member Scott Baker as vice chair. 

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Thompson sees her new role as being largely organizational, giving everyone the opportunity to say their piece while still moving the discussion along. 

“The planning board stays very busy and there’s always various ordinances that the commissioners want us to review, so we can’t spend two hours every month hashing out the same stuff,” Thompson said. 

“She’s very pragmatic, very practical and always brings up great discussion points, so I think we’ll in be in good hands with her leading the group,” said Scott Baker, who will now occupy Thompson’s vacated seat as the board’s vice chair. Baker works as the vice president for information technology at Southwestern Community College and headed up the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee, a group tasked with developing planning standards for the Cullowhee community. 

Baker is also looking forward to his new role and is positive about the direction the planning board is heading. 

“It could be dangerous for a committee if everybody always agreed on everything,” he said. “Right now we’ve got a really good composition on the board of people with different viewpoints that bring in a lot of expertise in different areas.”

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