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Controversial planning board likely sentenced to backseat in Macon

Driven by a Republican-dominated commission, Macon County’s beleaguered planning board will undergo wholesale changes that likely include member term limits and a lessened, some might argue silenced, voice in writing development ordinances.

But these steps, agreed to in concept by commissioners during a Saturday workshop, might not repair growing chasms among the county’s leaders regarding the planning board’s proper role. Or, who should lead the planning board.

Commissioner Ron Haven didn’t mince words in a recent email to fellow county commissioners. It went viral almost as quickly as Haven hit the “send” button last Friday night.

In the email, Haven demanded the ouster of Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland. Penland has been a vocal champion for steep slope regulations, and was instrumental in pushing for mountainside construction standards — a stance Haven apparently disagrees with, based on his characterization of the planning board as dictators and his call to possibly abolish it.

At the workshop, Haven accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. While feuding on the planning board has been shared by both sides — with opponents of steep slope regulations at least as vocal about their own positions as pro-planning advocates — Haven blamed Penland.

Penland’s term on the planning board is expiring. Commissioners must decide whether to reappoint him. Haven warned commissioners not to renew Penland’s appointment. He said if they did, they would pay for that decision during the next election.

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“So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way,” Haven wrote in the email. “It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board.”

Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers defended the 12-member planning board, which he served as liaison to until recently.

“We handed them a prioritized list,” Kuppers said. “We told them as you complete one, move to the next — that list was approved by the commissioners. To their credit, they have followed that list … in fairness they did what we asked them to do. And to say they didn’t is really unfair.”

Haven, a conservative Republican, defended his take on planning and the planning board.

“I have always felt planning is a good thing,” Haven wrote in his email. But, “I feel this board is a nonfunctioning tool to the commissioner board and the citizens. When all that is important it [sic] to make citizens surrender their property rights, hinder job growth, and be a dictater [sic] then where if [sic] freedom in America if it can’t start at home.”

Penland on Monday said that he does find some common ground with Haven. The commission board needs to “quit kicking the can down the road” as Haven asserted in his email and make decisions about planning in Macon County, said Penland, who is a golf-course developer in real life. Penland for now declined further comment on Haven’s unflattering description.

Saturday, in what at times included terse and sharp exchanges among the five commissioners (three Republicans and two Democrats), the future shape of the planning board began to emerge.

For pro-planners in Macon County, it isn’t pretty: the board likely will not make decisions or have much meaningful say regarding land planning. Instead, it would make what Republican commissioners’ are dubbing “recommendations.”

“For lack of a better term, I’d call it a bullet list,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said.

In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, Corbin laid out a vision for the planning board that would reduce its role from writing proposed ordinances to suggesting general parameters, and then having the county attorney develop ordinance language.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate of Highlands had a front-row seat of when serving on the planning board. Tate was selected to be the commissioners’ new liaison to the planning board.

“They get bogged down … on how to rewrite one word,” Tate said, adding the bold promise he’d “get them on a sled and slide right through that.”

The spillover from Haven’s email and the Saturday commissioners’ discussion are likely to reverberate for the foreseeable future. Conservationist Bill McLarney, a highly regarded aquatic biologist in Macon County who is married to longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, shot back in defense of polite manners in a widely distributed email of his own.

“I am dismayed by what appears to be the low level to which political discourse has descended in this county,” McLarney wrote. “Hopefully Mr. Haven’s letter is an anomaly; it is certainly an embarrassment to us all. To the extent that the commissioners and we the public allow this sort of ignorant outburst to inform county policy and decisions, we are all losers.”


A long and winding road

Commissioner Ron Haven’s push for planning board reform comes as county leaders continue ruminating (three months and counting) on whether to pass construction guidelines developed by the advisory group.

By most counties’ standards, the guidelines are routine — they mainly deal with cut and fill regulations and with road-compaction standards. The planning board hoped to see the construction guidelines incorporated into two existing county ordinances, the soil and erosion regulations and subdivision regulations. The subdivision regulations are now under review. This marks at least the fifth or so time in Macon County the subdivision regulations have been re-examined at commissioners’ request since being adopted.

The construction guidelines were the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep-slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and lukewarm support from county commissioners, the proposed ordinance was replaced with more basic construction guidelines.

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