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After years of debate, Jackson passes revised steep slope ordinance

jacksonAfter years of debate and meetings and public input, Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance is complete.

Commissioners took a final vote on the amended ordinance last week, passing it on a 4 to 1 vote. 

“All the changes were good ones,” said County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “It’s been a long, drawn-out process and I’m glad to see it finally be finished.”

Officially called the Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance, the legislation lays out limitations and special requirements on homes built on steep slopes in the county. It’s been in effect since 2007, but in 2013 the board of commissioners sitting at the time asked the planning board to write a revised version with loosened regulations. 

When the planning board held a public hearing on their revisions last year, a crowd of speakers showed up unanimously opposed to the changes. With an election coming up that November, commissioners decided to put off a vote until after Election Day. When voters seated a new board of commissioners whose majority favored stronger regulations on steep slope development, the version the planning board — whose composition had also shifted to include a majority favoring more regulation — had been working on for the past year was shelved. 

Most of the changes in the version commissioners enacted last week are technical, but the revised ordinance does contain some key differences from the original:

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• The formula used to calculate slope has changed to yield more uniform results from the old formula, which had been criticized as subjective. 

• A “steep slope” is now defined as a slope with a grade of at least 35 percent, a slightly higher threshold than the original 30 percent. The change came in response to assurance from experts that slope becomes a factor in landslide risk when it exceeds 36 percent. 

• The Planning Department, not the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department, will be responsible for reviewing plats and calculating slope. Confusion over that responsibility had been partly responsible for criticism of the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department arising this spring. Concerns prompted commissioners to pay for an audit of the department.

“I think the planning board did a really good job recognizing some issues that need to be corrected from a staff perspective on how the ordinance is administered,” McMahan said. 

Commissioner Charles Elders, the sole nay vote on the ordinance, said he sees the benefit of regulating steep slope development but fears the existing ordinance is too restrictive. 

“I just believe we’re putting too much emphasis on what they (property owners) can’t do versus what we can help them do,” he said. 

Elders said he’d favor an ordinance with more opportunities for property owners to gain exemption from restrictions if they can procure an engineering study showing how the development can be done safely. He’d also want a mechanism to adjust property taxes to make up for lost opportunity from restricted land use. 

“If I tell you, ‘You have a piece of property here that you cannot use,’ I ought to have the authority to tell you we will reduce your taxes on that,” he said. “I just think there’s a lot more work we should have done.”

McMahan, meanwhile, contends that property values will adjust to reflect any change in development potential and pointed out that devising property tax exemptions is the jurisdiction of state, not county, government. 

“It’s almost self-correcting,” he said of property values. “If you own a piece of property that was not developable, then the value would automatically go down.”

It’s a contentious issue that is apt to continue drawing contrasting opinions, but having an updated ordinance on the books should be counted an accomplishment, Commissioner Vicki Greene said. 

“I didn’t know if I’d live long enough to see that happen,” she said.

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