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Steep slope hearing postponed: Commissioners kick back date to comply with public notice laws

jacksonThe final public hearing in the two-year-old saga of revisions to Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance was all set to take place Sept. 22, but last week county commissioners decided to cancel the hearing and reschedule for a later date. 

“It’s not a stall tactic,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “It’s not in any way anything other than I want to be extra careful and make sure we’re doing this right.”

Counties are required to publicly advertise hearings on any ordinances they’re planning to adopt, amend or repeal, but ordinances that deal with zoning laws require a greater effort to get the word out than other types of ordinances. The county advertised the steep slope hearing in accordance with rules governing typical ordinance revisions, but discussions with the University of North Carolina’s School of Government revealed that a court might see the steep slope ordinance — officially called the Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance — as a zoning decision. 

“The reason I was very cautious and asked for the board to not move forward with the public hearing is I don’t want to have a set of standards and then a large developer decides to challenge this down the road,” McMahan said. In that case, the county could find itself losing on a technicality if the court found the hearing had been improperly advertised, he explained. 

“While the slope map is not really a zoning map in the traditional sense, it is termed a district and it does establish regulatory boundaries. So it may well be prudent to follow the requirements for a zoning map amendment,” David Owens, a professor in the School of Government, wrote in an email to Jackson County Permitting and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders. 

Commissioners will likely set a new hearing date at their Oct. 1 meeting for sometime later that month. Because of the large number of property owners affected, Jackson County won’t have to mail notices to each individual property owner, as happens for zoning changes affecting smaller areas. But leading up to the new hearing date, the county will do some more intensive advertising, including placing roadside signs in high-traffic areas and buying ads in newspapers and radio stations, as the law requires. 

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The public hearing, once scheduled, will signal the wind-down of a two-year process of revising the rules governing construction on steep slopes. Before the November 2014 elections, the prevailing view on the board of commissioners was that the existing steep slope rules were too onerous and in need of loosening. So, the planning board invested more than a year into a line-by-line rewrite of the rules before holding a public hearing in February 2014. The large crowd that turned out there made it clear they did not support the relaxed rules, and commissioners decided the issue had become too political to vote on with an election coming up. 

The November elections seated a new board that wanted to see the stricter rules stay in place, so the version of the ordinance out for public hearing now contains only minimal changes from the original 2007 document. Namely, the new version would change Jackson’s slope calculation formula to more closely mirror the system used by other counties and up the grade at which steep slope rules kick in from 30 to 35 percent. According to landslide experts used by the county, slope becomes a factor in landslide risk mainly when it exceeds 36 percent. 

The proposed ordinance is online at www.jacksonnc.org/planning.html under the “Ordinance Amendments” heading. 

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