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Seven western counties share land-use ideas

Slope and ridgetop development, protecting waterways, and farmland and open-space preservation emerged as the top land-management concerns of those responsible for implementing regional planning.

In a first-of-its-kind meeting, county commissioners, planning board members and planners from the state’s seven westernmost counties gathered Thursday (June 28) in Macon County. The 50 or so who attended spent the day reviewing current laws and discussing what measures to take in the future. They agreed that it is vital that the seven counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Cherokee and Clay — work toward regional consistency when passing land-management rules.

Fears of development spillover fueled the discussion. Local leaders said they worry that developers seeking to avoid regulations will overwhelm areas lacking safeguards as individual governments — at this time, namely Jackson County — pass land-management ordinances.

Jackson County is working toward steep slope and subdivision regulations. The scope of the proposed rules is unprecedented for a region that boasts a long tradition of supporting individual property rights over government regulation. Jackson’s proposals range from requiring developers who build on slopes with a pitch greater than 30 percent to submit environmental assessments to ordering homeowners to paint new homes in neutral colors and mute outdoor lighting.

Jackson County Commissioner William Shelton told the group that he has had Realtors in neighboring Swain congratulate him for his part in trying to manage development. They are eagerly anticipating a corresponding boost in business, he said.

Though state law forbids towns and counties from passing ordinances or tax regulations as a unified entity, nothing prevents local governments from working individually toward a consistent framework of rules, said Bill Gibson, executive director of the Southwestern Commission. The regional council provides assistance and advice to counties and municipalities in the seven westernmost counties.

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Hub Cheeks, chairman of the Clay County Board of Commissioners, stressed the need for the region to strike a balance between protecting the economic opportunities provided by development and preserving the environment.

“Not stop all development,” he said, “but on the other hand, to leave some green space.”

Exactly how planning leaders will create that balance and develop regional consistency wasn’t entirely clear, but one method discussed was to create a roadmap of sorts for developers, homeowners and contractors. The idea is to develop a tool kit for planning and to list best development practices for all 18 counties in WNC, said Ben Brown, a free-lance writer and advocate of responsible development from Macon County.

The pattern book concept has been successful along the Gulf Coast as that region rebuilds following Hurricane Katrina, he said.

The pattern book would have designs and photos to encourage people to build in ways that fit into WNC’s existing architecture and environment. Funding for the project is being sought from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Brown said.

The Asheville-based nonprofit foundation helps develop and provide charitable funding in the state’s 18 mountain counties.

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