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Keeping up with the Joneses in Jackson’s commissioners race

A race for Jackson County commissioners this fall has come down to a contest of the Joneses.

The similar names on the ballot — Mark Jones versus Marty Jones — will no doubt keep voters on their toes when they walk into the polling booth. The views of the two candidates, however, are anything but identical.

The seat is currently held by Mark, a Democrat. In a predominantly Democratic county, in theory he should be able to stroll back on to the board. But two years ago, Jackson County’s voters ousted three sitting Democratic commissioners and swept in a line-up of conservatives.

The upshot? While Jackson’s voters are decidedly Democratic — outnumbering Republicans 11,300 to 7,100 — the race is by no means a shoe-in for Mark. Voters showed two years ago they were willing to cross party lines in their local commissioners race — either that or the county’s 9,000 unaffiliated voters tipped the scales en masse.

In the past, however, Republicans often didn’t bother to run for Jackson commissioner, as is the case with the other commissioner seat on the ballot this year. Likewise, Mark enjoyed the luxury of no Republican challengers when he ran for re-election four years ago.

“I didn’t think there was anyway a Republican could win,” Marty said when asked why he didn’t take Mark on back in 2008.

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For his part, Marty has been a self-proclaimed independent most of his life. He only registered Republican this year, largely to set up his bid for county commissioner. Running as an independent is a tough road, so he bit the bullet and picked a party — as for which party, it was a no-brainer.

“As I get older, I get much more conservative,” Marty said. “The Democratic Party seems to be getting much more liberal and leftist.”

Mark said party politics rarely matter among the county commissioners, however. Although Mark went from serving on an entirely Democratic board of commissioners his first four years to being in the minority the past two years, it has had little bearing, he said.

“We have worked together well,” Mark said of the current board, despite differences in party affiliation. Mark doled out compliments to each of the three new commissioners that came on the board two years ago.

Here’s a look at some of the top issues in the race.


Development regulations: economy killer or far-sighted protections?

Perhaps the biggest distinction between Mark and Marty is their stance on a sweeping slate of development regulations put in place five years ago. Marty would like to see some of those regulations undone, while Mark wants to keep them in place.

Mark said that makes this race one of the most important ever facing the county.

“This race is so important to the future of Jackson County,” Mark said. “We have taken great strides to protect the mountains and people’s safety and property. Building a home on a steep slope is still allowed. It just takes a little extra engineering to make sure it stays put.”

Marty claims the development regulations were so arduous they killed Jackson County’s all-important building and real estate industry.

“Let me lay the cards on the table. I have been fairly apolitical in the 40 years I have been in the county. What this showed me is how quickly a five-member board can impact the local economy,” said Marty, a real estate broker by trade. “That to me said ‘If I am going to survive, I have to get active.’ That was a wake-up call for me.”

Mark countered that the regulations have become a scapegoat for the industry looking to blame someone for the real estate crash.

“I think Marty is angry over what has happened to his real estate industry. He has had some hard times, and he is not the only one,” Mark said.

Mark disputes that the regulations were in any way responsible for the real estate crash.

The first regulations hit the books in summer of 2007, which was the same time the national recession hit.

“The ordinances coincidentally came about at approximately the same time, if not a couple of months prior to the bona fide national recession,” Mark said.

Marty disagreed.

“You can make that argument, but the question is whether voters will buy it,” Marty said.

The regulations made the recession come sooner and go deeper than elsewhere.

“They started the decline of our economy a year before the rest of the nation,” Marty said.

Marty wouldn’t wager whether the commissioners at the time recognized the regulations would slow development. Perhaps they actually aimed to slow down what they saw as an unfettered building rampage — and were willing to accept that calculated risk. Or perhaps they failed to do due diligence and assess the impact the regulations would have, Marty said.

Either way, Marty said it was wrong to sacrifice the economy.

But Mark points to the number of residential building permits issued in Jackson County compared to its neighbors as proof that the regulations didn’t cause any more of a crash here than elsewhere.

“Jackson County led every county Haywood-west for all four years for residential building permits,” Mark said.

On that basis, perhaps the regulations were good for growth, he said.

“Those ordinances did not kill construction. If anything, it enhanced property values. You know somebody is not going to slide down on top of you,” Mark said.

Mark fears undoing the regulations could hurt the county’s economy in the long run.

“Eventually, it will hurt the goose that laid the golden egg,” Mark said.

Marty countered that in his view Jackson County’s most precious resource is her people, and protecting their interests is more important.

Marty’s issue wasn’t only with the regulations that were passed, but the five-month moratorium on new subdivisions that preceded the passage of the regulations. It was a particularly egregious move for a commissioner supposed to represent Cashiers, where real estate and development are particularly prevalent.

“We don’t have Harrah’s nearby. We don’t have the hospital industry. We don’t have the university,” Marty said. “Those jobs were ones this district depends heavily on, and it is my view he turned his back on the working families of this district.”

The Jackson County planning board has recently launched a review of the county’s steep slope building rules, and some changes are imminent. Mark believes Marty would most certainly push for the regulations to be watered down during the process.

Marty said he is not anti-regulation, however. He believes in well-engineered slopes, foundations and retaining walls as a matter of safety. But some of Jackson’s regulations are purely aesthetic.

“To my knowledge, no one has died from a house color,” Marty said.

For the record, however, the county’s ordinance does not dictate house colors, it merely recommends neutral colors. Mark equated such claims to fear mongering.

“They are stretching the truth and putting out misinformation,” Mark said. “Your ordinary citizens haven’t taken the time to read the ordinances, and they are hearing the misinformation.”

There are other regulations that Marty sees as too arduous, however, like the limit of only one home per every 10 acres — although the stringent threshold only applies to the very steepest slopes of more than 45 percent. Existing developments and lots were exempt from many of the rules.


Last election’s upset

Marty believes the development regulations cost the seats of three commissioners voted out of office in 2010. Whether Marty can direct that same furor this time around against Mark remains to be seen.

After all, the controversial development regulations Marty is campaigning against have been on the books five years. Whipping up voter backlash over a five-year old issue could be difficult.

But, it is hardly ancient history for the hundreds of people in development, construction, real estate and related fields, Marty said. They’ve not yet recovered from the drop in development.

“There are an awful lot of builders and contractors who lost homes,” Marty said. “There are still people hurting in that industry.”

He still remembers the standing-room only crowd of 1,300 that filled the auditorium at Southwestern Community College in 2007 during the height of controversy over the development regulations coming down the pike.

“In my view when you go against that many people, when you seek re-election, you’re going to be in trouble,” Marty said.

Indeed, opponents at the time warned the commissioners they would be voted out of office if they went ahead with the regulations. The warning didn’t come to fruition just one year later in 2008, however. Two Democratic commissioners who supported the regulations were up for election that year, and neither saw the stomping they’d been promised.

Mark was one of those. If the development regulations didn’t come back to bite him then, why would they five years later?

But, Marty points to what happened in 2010 as proof the electorate didn’t forget.

“I believe it gave people two more years to stew on this and get their game plan together,” Marty said.

However, it’s hard to say whether voters two years ago were truly punishing commissioners for their progressive development regulations. Nationally, the political pendulum had swung to the Republicans, with the conservative party not only taking back Congress but also rising to power in the state General Assembly for the first time in a century.

The three Democratic commissioners in Jackson County who lost their seats may have been simply collateral damage, especially given that one of the three Democrats voted out had been against the development regulations — yet wasn’t spared the upset.

Marty disagrees with that theory, however, believing it was far more intentional.

“They were definitely voting against the sitting commissioners,” Marty said of the 2010 election.


A Cashiers proponent?

Marty questioned whether Mark has been a good advocate for the Cashiers area. He cited the snail’s pace at which the Cashiers recreation center moved forward during Mark’s first four years in office.

“If you are going to be a good leader, you have to be willing to move a ball forward,” Marty said.

It took new commissioners coming on the board in 2010 to get the project done, and they aren’t even from the Cashiers area, Marty said.

Mark claims the new Cashiers Recreation Center as one of his accomplishments, however, despite it taking a while. Other county building projects, including a senior center and new library, were simply first on the list. Both those had been in the queue longer, and the plan was always to get around to the Cashiers Rec Center as soon as those were done. It had nothing to do with the new commissioners who were elected but would have happened anyway, Mark said.

“We were lucky as it is to get this rec center in less than 10 years,” Mark said.

Still, Mark has not always won among voters in his own district. In the Democratic primary in 2008, two other candidates on the ballot garnered more votes combined that Mark did. While Mark individually had more votes than his two challengers, Marty pointed out that the majority of voters from their own district had chosen a candidate other than Mark in 2008.

Mark defended his role as a champion for the Cashiers area. He has been a major advocate of getting a community well and water system up and running in Cashiers. Cashiers has no public water system, and instead relies on individual wells. The creation of a community well was a step in the right direction, but Mark wants to expand it to a reliable, full-fledged public water system.

“Three years ago, we had wells going dry. Businesses’ wells going dry,” Mark said. “It makes me concerned when we go into another drought that all we have are these systems pumping water from the ground, and what happens in July when we have 12,000 people up here?”


Property value roller coaster

One of the biggest challenges that could be facing the next board of commissioners is a countywide property revaluation. The stakes are high, since property values determine how much people pay in property taxes, and how much the county rakes in for each cent on the property tax rate.

Given the decline in property values, the county is bracing for less money coming in from property taxes after the mandatory property revaluation hits the books in 2016. The revaluation will assign new, current property values to every home, lot and tract of land in the county.

A revaluation was initially scheduled for this year, but fearing a dramatic decline in the county’s property tax base, the current board of commissioners postponed it until 2016. In the meantime, people are paying taxes based on property values that are over-inflated. Marty said he doesn’t agree with that decision.

Mark said it was the right one, however. He feared that the decline in property values was concentrated among high-end properties. If their taxes came down, the tax burden would be shifted to the middle and lower income property owners.

Mark said the hope was that by 2016 property values will come back up and make it a non-issue.

But if they haven’t, a drop in property values on the county’s books will force tough decisions.

“If values have gone way down, if you want to bring in the same amount of revenue, you would have to increase the millage rate,” Marty said. “I would certainly prefer not to increase it.”

But keeping the tax rate the same would mean less money in the county’s coffers, and thus budget cuts.

“What are you going to do?” Mark said. “What are you going to cut?”



Who’s up for election?

Two of the five Jackson County commissioner seats are up for election this year. While commissioner seats are divvied up by geographic districts, all voters countywide can vote in all the races. Districts merely determine where the candidate must hail from.

Here’s a snapshot:

One seat has no opposition. Vicki Greene, a longtime community planner and retired assistant director of the Southwestern Development Commission, clinched the seat representing the Cullowhee and Webster district in the Democratic primary. No Republicans are running, so the seat is hers. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who didn’t run again this year, currently holds it.

The second seat pits Commissioner Mark Jones against challenger Marty Jones. Both are from Cashiers, but the district also includes Glenville, Canada, Sapphire, and Hamburg.

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