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Revised steep slope rules spark debate at planning board

fr jaxsteepslopeJackson County’s steep slope ordinance made one last stop at the planning board before heading to a public hearing, but it went out with a bang as some members took issue with the version commissioners would ultimately consider for adoption.

“Honestly, it’s not just the fact that my work has been scrapped — that our work has been scrapped — but that it was done in such a way as to be very confusing as to what’s going on and with the appearance — no offense to anyone here — but with the appearance of something underhanded,” said planning board member Clark Lipkin, who was chairman of the board during much of its work on the ordinance. 

Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan and County Manager Chuck Wooten were present in the audience at the planning board’s meeting last week when Lipkin was discussing the issue. 

For more than two years, the planning board put Jackson County’s steep slope development rules under a microscope, crafting a line-by-line rewrite that watered down existing steep slope protections on the books.

The controversial rewrite was carried out under the previous board of commissioners who felt the rules were too strict and were hampering development. In post-recession Western North Carolina, development could use all the help it could get, the thought process went. 

But a public hearing on the revised rules held in February 2014 drew a crowd of speakers unanimously against the weakened regulations, and county commissioners realized the issue had become contentious enough that there would be no point in touching it until after the election later in the year. 

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The prevailing views of the board flipped in November. Post-election, the majority of commissioners no longer favored the rewrite that was set in motion by their predecessors.

Hence, the “scrapping” of the rules Lipkin and some of the other members of the planning board had worked on for two years. 

“It’s not wrong or sneaky, it’s just not the way (Lipkin) wanted it to be,” said board chairwoman Sarah Thompson in a follow-up interview. Thompson, who was on the board during the the last third of the rewrite, had opposed the revisions.

“I know that’s frustrating. I would hate to work on something for two years and have someone throw it away, but that’s just the reality of how these things work,” Thompson said.

David Brooks, who had favored weaker rules, echoed Lipkin’s sentiments. 

“There’s some real good things we did, and they’re just throwing them out,” he said. 

Commissioners decided to only take a couple of elements of the rewrite under consideration, rather than the entire rewrite. Those few surviving pieces of the rewrite are what’s now headed for a public hearing. 

“The majority of the current board of commissioners strongly feels that we don’t want development on ridgetops, that we want to maintain the integrity of the ordinance, and therefore we decided to make only the changes that were necessary,” McMahan said in a follow-up interview.

After the new board of county commissioners was seated, McMahan said he took an informal poll of members to see whether anyone wanted to consider the revised rules. Commissioners were unanimously against it. 

“It was a dead issue as far as we’re concerned,” McMahan said. 

The commissioners aren’t the only ones to undergo a changing of the guard. The composition of the planning board is dramatically different today than it was when the rewrite was launched three years ago.

The planning board is no longer heavily weighted with members who want weaker rules. Six of the 11 members on the planning board today weren’t on it when the rewrite began, and don’t necessarily agree with it themselves.

The planning board has revisited certain elements of the steep slope rewrite since January, picking out the pieces the new majority was willing to support.

John Jeleniewski, who’s heading the planning office after the former planning director resigned, compiled those into a new draft of the steep slope rules that the public will soon have the chance to weigh in on. 

Most of the changes are technical, small corrections meant to clarify the language rather than alter the substance. But the new draft does contain two significant changes. 

First of all, steep slope rules won’t kick until a slope reaches a steepness of 35 percent. That’s a more generous threshold than the old standard of 30 percent. Less land will be subject to the steep slope rules as a result.

However, Thompson said, she doesn’t believe that change actually represents a weakening of the rules. 

“There’s so many variables,” she said. “The slope is one. But then you have the soil condition, you have the density of the construction to consider.”

The board talked “extensively” about the subject when former county planner Gerald Green was still on board, Thompson said, hearing from a variety of experts, including Appalachian Landslide Consultants, who reported that slope mainly becomes a risk factor for landslides when it’s at least 36 percent. 

Board member Tom Rodgers, on the other hand, isn’t convinced that 35 percent is the best threshold.  

“My concern in these accountings is that we don’t know that 35 percent is the right number for Jackson County,” he said. “A (landslide) study has not been completed for all of Jackson County. I remain a strong advocate for doing so, so we know what the right number is.”

The other change to the ordinance, though, could also influence which slopes fall under the rules. 

Jackson County’s existing method of calculating slope percentages has come under fire recently as being subjective, unlikely to result in the same measurement twice. 

The amendment would make Jackson’s calculation process look a lot like that of other counties, creating a more understandable and easily navigable process.

“I think a lot of people questioned with the old formula whether we were really getting accurate slope calculations,” Thompson said. “There seemed to be too much room for subjectivity.”

The planning board voted to recommend the rules, as amended, for a public hearing, with Lipkin and Brooks providing the sole votes opposed. 

Commissioners will set a final hearing date for the rules this week, likely for sometime in September. 

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