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Development regs at issue in Jackson election

When Jackson County commissioners passed strict mountainside development regulations last year, opponents pledged to get even come election time.

That time has arrived, and the pro-development camp hopes to make good on its promise in at least one of the commissioners’ contests.

Commissioner Mark Jones, 48, of Cashiers will face opposition from challenger Lynn Dillard, 61, in the May Democratic primary. Jones was an advocate of the development regulations, heralded by some as the toughest in the state. Dillard, on the other hand, would like to undo some of the regulations.

There’s a second commissioner seat up for election this year — that of Joe Cowan from Webster. So far the pro-development camp has not found a candidate to run against Cowan. Cowan is not without a challenger, but that challenger supports the development regulations (see related article).

The sign-up period is open until the end of February, so more candidates could emerge before then, including some on the Republican ticket.

If both Jones and Cowan are replaced with pro-development candidates, the county’s brand-new regulations could be undone. The regulations passed 4 to 1 last year. The lone “no” vote belonged to Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan, who is not up for re-election until 2010. McMahan plus two new pro-development commissioners could make up the majority needed to undo the regulations.

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The real estate and development lobby have spent the winter seeking out candidates to run who support their view. Dillard said that’s how she got into the race.

“They approached me about two or three months ago and asked me if I would do it,” Dillard said.

While Dillard might share similar views with those who fought the development ordinances, that doesn’t make her beholden to them, she said.

“That hasn’t come up. It is not something I have had to deal with or intend to deal with,” Dillard said. “I think what they did want was a strong voice, somebody who wasn’t intimidated. But I am not pulling anybody’s agenda. I have no personal agenda or vendetta.”

It could be a big money race as far as Jackson politics go. Dillard will likely get hefty contributions from the real estate and development lobbies, which have a personal financial stake in getting the regulations overturned. Jones said it will be a struggle to compete with that kind of financial backing.

“It is very easy when someone approaches you and says, ‘I have money for your campaign fund. Will you run?’ I don’t have that pleasure,” Jones said.

Jones knows just how willing developers and Realtors are to make contributions.

“I had some developers and some business persons offer me money who I just didn’t feel comfortable taking money from,” Jones said of the race two years ago.

Jones spent nearly $8,000 during the election two years ago — about half in the primary and half during the general election. He said it all came from donations rather than his own bank account. Jones said he does have a head start this year — about $800 in the kitty from his campaign fund two years ago, plus leftover signs, bumper stickers and cards.

If the race indeed revolves largely around the development issue, it could be the closest thing voters get to a referendum on the regulations passed last year by commissioners, and could serve as a litmus test of public sentiment. Jones said it would be difficult for a candidate to win running a single-issue campaign to undo the development regulations.

“I can only go by what I have been told by people as I walk down the street, in phone calls, and emails during the height of the issue, but I feel like there is a majority of Jackson County that is truly for the ordinances that we put in place to give our mountains protections,” Jones said. “I truly feel we do have the majority of the county behind us.”

Dillard thinks the majority is against what the commissioners did, or at least how they went about it. She said the current board of commissioners has not done enough listening to the people.

“I am running to listen,” Dillard said.

Dillard said the regulations are too heavy-handed and were passed without enough input from the people. Dillard said there is merit to some of the concepts, but the policies implemented to get there are the wrong approach.

“I think there are some people that have some very good points, but it was gone about in the wrong way,” Dillard said. “I think we are using fear and force a lot more than incentive. We should go more to incentives than command that people do what we say.”

The new regulations have hurt the development economy in her part of the county, she said.

“I don’t think we are doing the right thing,” Dillard said.

Jones said it was the right thing, however, and it will become apparent looking back on these times 20 years from now.

“It was not an easy row to hoe. There were some challenges there, especially with me being up on the mountain,” Jones said. “There was name calling and finger pointing, but if you sit there and do nothing, being a county commissioner is easy. But if you address issues that are hot and controversial and opinionated, that’s when you get down to the nails and tacks.”

Unless the pro-development camp can find a candidate to run for Cowan’s seat also, getting Dillard elected won’t change anything immediately. The board would still be 3 to 2 in favor of the regulations. They would have to wait until 2010 until other pro-regulation commissioners — Tom Massie and William Shelton — are up for election and try to go after them.

Meet the candidates

Mark Jones, 48, is a manager at the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. Lynn Dillard, 61, is a retired educator. She started as a teacher, but spent most of her career as the school system’s special education director and helped start the alternative school called the Hub.

The Smoky Mountain News will profile the candidates and discuss their views on numerous issues — not just development — in the months to come.

In Jackson County ...

there are five seats on the Board of Commissioners. Two are up for election this year; the other three in 2010.

The county is divided into four geographical districts. Each district gets a seat on the board. Candidates run by district, according to where they live. Voters countywide get to vote in the races for all four districts, however, not just the race of the district they live in.

The fifth seat on the board is the chairman, elected at-large from any part of the county.

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