Archived Opinion

Steep slope protections a very real economic incentive

op frJackson County commissioners are going to pass a smart steep slope ordinance that will help as this region shakes off the devastating effects of the recent recession.

Commissioners are expected to pass a revised steep slope ordinance that will weaken the threshold from 30 to a 35 percent slope for the ordinance to kick in. While this change essentially does indeed weaken the ordinance, things could have been much worse, so Jackson is to be commended for the stance it’s taking.

The story of how Jackson County got to this point is interesting in and of itself. It’s indicative of how the real estate bust had a relatively traumatic effect on the mountains communities of Western North Carolina and had its leaders backs to wall as they tried to claw their way out. 

The previous Jackson County commissioners wanted their planning board to make revisions that would have more or less eviscerated the county’s steep slope ordinance. And so the planning board worked for two years to essentially do just that to the groundbreaking 2007 ordinance that the then-commissioners passed during the heyday of the nationwide construction boom. Large corporations and local developers were at that time parceling Jackson County’s private lands into huge golf course and residential developments, and commissioners wanted to make sure that the county’s threatened treasures —clean water, forested mountainsides, unobstructed mountain views — were protected rather than violated with by a hodgepodge of development.

So they passed a set of regulations that were tough yet workable, providing builders with concrete guidelines on what was and was not acceptable.

Then the bubble burst. Huge developers went bankrupt or sold off their land at rock-bottom prices, and construction throughout the mountains and the country slowed to a crawl. The commissioners who were elected to office in 2010 thought the 2007 ordinances too strict, thought the regulations were hindering Jackson County’s ability to recover from the recession. So they asked their planning board to complete a do-over, believing weaker ordinances would encourage development and bring jobs to the county.

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While there were some differences among the volunteer planning board members, they did what the commissioners wanted. But it took a long time, and when the new, weakened proposal was ready for a hearing, an election was looming in November 2014. A public hearing on that proposal drew a standing room only crowd who were irate that commissioners were going to gut the 2007 ordinance and leave Jackson County open for the kind of unchecked development that had sparked the creation of that earlier ordinance. 

That hearing helped convince the prior county board to delay any implementation of the new proposal. Then the election came, and those who wanted the weaker ordinance were voted out of office. The more progressive leaders who now run Jackson County thought the land-use ordinances were still needed. 

And so all this brings us to next week’s meeting where commissioners are expected to adopt the very slightly revised steep slope ordinance. The truth is that we are likely to never see the kind of real estate frenzy that took place in the mountains from 2000 to 2007. But people are still buying property, and that includes locals and part-time residents, retirees and young entrepreneurs. And they are coming for the same reasons they were coming pre-recession — the beauty of the mountains, the allure of the outdoors and the vibrant quality of life in our small towns.

Ordinances like those Jackson County will adopt next week are their own kind of economic development incentives. Potential homeowners and developers will know exactly what they are getting and what their neighboring landowners can’t do. Regulating mountainside development by taking reasonable and smart steps is a way of protecting the infrastructure that nature has already put in place. We don’t have to pay for these incentives, we just have to guard them through enlightened leadership.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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