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Ridge top homes eliminated from Cullowhee development plan

Ridge top homes eliminated from Cullowhee development plan

The Jackson County Planning Board approved construction of the 38-home Solitude Development in Cullowhee in August 2016, but following concern over the ridge top development contained the plan, the developer returned this month with a revised plan containing only 33 homes — none of them to be built on a ridge top.

“There was a little bit of concern about the ridge top development,” Senior Planner John Jeleniewski told the planning board Aug. 10. “The owner has gone back to the drawing board with his engineering. They’ve moved the development back down to the lower part.”

solitude topoThe original plans had called for 12 homes on the higher-elevation portion of the property sitting back from Old Cullowhee Road, the remaining 26 to be clustered together at the entrance off Ed Norton Road. The revised plan would place all 33 homes — a mix of duplex and single-family units — in the 4.5-acre clustered development at the property entrance, with 11.37 acres placed in an open space conservation easement. The remaining 5.7 acres would be left for possible future development.

While the property has an average slope of 55 percent, the area to be developed has a milder 30 percent slope, below the 35 percent threshold required for regulations with the county’s steep slope ordinance to kick in. Therefore, the planning board had only to approve the revisions under the less restrictive subdivision ordinance.

That approval came unanimously, with planning board member Ken Brown voicing his strong support as he made the move to approve the request.

“I think they’ve done a commendable job of redesigning,” Brown said. “This whole conceptual plan has a far better look.”

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Board member Keven Hawkins expressed some concern with the plan to build retaining walls rather than using benching to stabilize the soil — Jeleniewski said that, because of the terrain, building benching to the specifications required would require disturbing more land than would building a wall — but Hawkins ended up joining the other board members in approving the development.

The Solitude development was originally approved last year when the planning board was in the midst of discussions about tweaking elements of the recently revised steep slope ordinance. Since the revised ordinance went into use, staff members had found some issues with the language finalized during the 2014 revision.

In particular, they found that while the ordinance defines protected mountain ridges as ridges that are at least 2,500 feet above sea level with a drop of 400 or more feet to the adjacent valley floor, the ordinance does not define what an adjacent valley floor is. Many ridges are connected to multiple valleys, so which one should be measured against the 400-foot limit?

In the case of the Solitude development, the planning department found itself put to the test. The ridge on which the original plans had called for construction of 12 homes was connected to multiple valleys — with drops both over and under 400 feet.

Ultimately planning staff recommended approval — which the board provided — based on its usual policy of using the least restrictive interpretation of any given ordinance. However, the issue catalyzed continued discussion about the ordinance’s weaknesses and the need for a definitive map of which ridges in Jackson County do and don’t meet the definition of a protected ridge.

Currently, the county’s GIS department is working to create such a map, a project that is expected to be a long and labor-intensive process. No recommendation to change language in the steep slope ordinance, such as adding a definition of adjacent valley floor, has yet made its way from the planning board to the county commissioners, but the board will likely continue to discuss the issue.

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