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Final hearing on Jackson steep slope rules draws opinion

fr hearingAfter a three-year saga of writing and rewriting and elections and public hearings, Jackson County is likely to adopt a revised version of its 2007 steep slope ordinance at the Nov. 5 commissioner meeting. 

A final public hearing on the revised rules was held Oct. 20, drawing an audience of about 25 people, seven of whom spoke. Comments spanned the gamut from concrete suggestions for the proposed amendments to ideological support and opposition to the concept of regulation on steep slopes. 

“I didn’t know what to expect. In some ways it could have gone either way,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “It could have been a huge crowd there, or there could have been nobody.”

“Huge crowd” was definitely the descriptor for the turnout in February 2014, when the county’s planning board held a public hearing for a version of the rules produced under the leadership of the former board of commissioners. That board had favored a loosened set of rules, contending that the 2007 ordinance was too restrictive and would hamper development. 

At the 2014 hearing, a crowd turned out to express unanimous opposition to the loosened rules. That got the attention of commissioners, who were facing an election that year. They told the planning board they wouldn’t vote on anything until after the election, and the November elections delivered a board of commissioners with a majority favorable toward keeping the rules intact. By that time, the composition of the planning board had also changed to reflect the same viewpoint. 

The version of the rules now before commissioners contains few substantial changes from the 2007 version. Most alterations are technical, though the proposed rules would change the formula for calculating slope to reduce subjectivity and change the grade at which the rules would apply from 30 percent to 35 percent. The rules also clarify that it is the Planning Department’s responsibility to enforce the rules, clearing up a misunderstanding over enforcement responsibility that was partially responsible for the commissioners’ decision to pay for an audit of the planning and permitting and code enforcement departments (see story on page 14). 

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Commissioners said they heard a few comments they’d like to consider, but likely nothing that would require a substantial change from the draft document before adopting it. 

“I pretty much had heard everything that had been said before,” said Commissioner Charles Elders. “Operating a convenience store, you hear both sides daily.”

The sole Republican on the board of commissioners, Elders said he believes in the need for regulation when it comes to steep slopes but would want any ordinance to make allowance for decreased tax value stemming from limitations on how a family’s land can be developed. 

“We need to figure out how we’re going to adjust the taxes for those people, because it’s just not right for me to tell you (that) you can’t use a piece of property yet charge you the full tax value,” he said.  

Commisisoner Vicki Greene, meanwhile, supports the ordinance and said what she saw at the hearing was a crowd of people who want the rules upheld. 

“That room was full of people not wanting to make major changes, and I think what these amendments did was address some of the technical issues,” she said.


What they said 

“I don’t know what you changed it back for. We worked hard on that. It’s a slap in the face … I was there (on the planning board) three and a half years. I don’t feel like I accomplished nothing.” 

— David Brooks, Whittier (planning board member)

“The top three industries in our county have nothing to do with development and construction. They are tourism, education and health care in that order. These are valuable to us because they are sustainable. They can improve and increase over time without using the basic resource they’re dependent on … in all your actions I hope you will keep the natural environment first and foremost in your mind.”

— Jeannette Cabanis, Tuckasegee

“These ordinances force people to live in hollows or coves where landslides will flow. The ordinance will also encourage people to use those tall cut and fill slopes, removing the “toe” of ridgelines, which was mentioned as a primary cause of landslides.” 

— Doug Cody, Sylva (former county commissioner)

“With Jackson County being the greatest biosphere on the planet — and we have a lot of sacred plants here — an area of consideration involving slope should be looked at insofar as what plants are in the affected proposed area. Other than that, everything seems reasonable.” 

— Dick Darnell, Glenville

“What if you have a piece of property — and you have a lot of people on the lakes —where somebody’s got a steep slope but none of their water can possibly drain into anybody else’s property? And it goes into either the Tuckasegee or to a lake. That should be a provision.”

— Phil Fowler, Glenville

“The (pre-amendment) engineering formula for the steep slope calculation is terribly flawed.” 

— Marie Leatherwood, Sylva 

“If you stay within an area where you’re flat, you’re in fine condition for building, but the steeper the slope the more difficult it becomes. Going from 30 to 35 percent just adds to that … I think the best thing for us to do is stay with that 30 percent

— Dan Pittillo, Sylva


Watch the video

A video of the hearing on Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance amendments is available online at, filmed by the Sylva-based Canary Coalition. The Canary Coalition is an independent nonprofit primarily concerned with issues surrounding clean air and water. 

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