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Steep slope hearing on for Jackson

jacksonAfter two years of revisions, hearings and public debate, Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance is now approaching the finish line with a final public hearing scheduled for 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Jackson County Administration Building in Sylva.

“Hopefully this time we’re going to put it to rest,” said Jackson County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan.

The hearing, aiming to take input on revisions to the county’s 2007 Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance, has been a long time in coming, with work on a rewrite starting back in 2013 when a different board of commissioners with a different prevailing viewpoint was seated. That board felt that the regulations surrounding development on steep slopes were too onerous and wanted them loosened. 

But when a planning board hearing on the rules in February 2014 drew a crowd unanimously opposed to the loosened regulations, the issue became a political lightning rod. With an election coming up in November, commissioners told the planning board they didn’t want to make any decisions about the ordinance until after Election Day. Voters elected a new board with a majority opposed to loosened regulation, and the planning board — whose composition had also flipped to reflect a more pro-regulation viewpoint — was instructed to review the rules but not weaken them. The proposed ordinance out for public comment right now has only a few substantial differences from the original. 

The final hearing was supposed to take place last month, but commissioners called the Sept. 22 hearing off just days beforehand due to fear that they may have, inadvertently, not advertised it widely enough. The question hinged on whether courts would see the steep slope ordinance as a general ordinance or as a zoning ordinance. More aggressive advertising is required for zoning ordinances, and commissioners didn’t want to pass something that would later be challenged on a technicality. 

After discussing the issue with David Owens of the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, however, Commission Chairman McMahan said he’s confident the county is moving under the correct procedure. 

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“If I were going to project how this would turn out if it went to litigation, I suspect a court would say it is not a zoning ordinance — it’s a public health and safety ordinance,” Owens said, though adding the caveat that it’s impossible to tell for sure what a court would think absent an actual case. However, all the mailings and advertisements required for a zoning ordinance are “a pretty expensive proposition,” Owens said, so it’s not something you want to do if you don’t have to. 

“We feel confident that we were right on schedule anyway and everything was as it was supposed to be,” McMahan said. 



The 411

What: Hearing on amendments to Jackson County’s Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance. 

When: 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Where: Room A201 of the Jackson County Administration Building in Sylva. 

What: The revised ordinance contains a number of technical edits and two significant amendments. First, the county’s slope calculation formula would change to more closely mirror that of other counties, as Jackson’s formula has been criticized for being too subjective. Secondly, the applicability would change from slopes of 30 percent and up to only slopes of 35 percent and up, as information from Appalachian Landslide Consultants indicated to the planning board that slope becomes a factor in landslides only after about 36 percent. 

For more: The proposed amendments are online at under “ordinance amendments.”

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