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Jackson commissioners hold final say on looser steep slope rules

A rewrite of Jackson County’s development regulations are well underway by the Jackson County Planning Board. It will be several more months before they finish, and final changes are ultimately up to the county commissioners.

The board of commissioners has a very different makeup today than the one six years ago when the first hillside building ordinances were put in place. In the 2010 election, three new commissioners — Jack Debnam, Doug Cody and Charles Elders — were elected to the board, and one of their stated campaign platforms was to rework the controversial development regulations considered among the toughest in the state.

Critics of the ordinance point to the 2010 election as a mandate from voters.

But claiming victory in the court of public opinion might not be so clear cut. The subsequent county commissioner election last fall muddied the waters. Both of the commissioners elected in 2012 — Mark Jones and Vicki Green — largely support the steep slope ordinances as written. Jones in particular beat out a pro-building challenger from the real estate arena whose top campaign pledge was to rollback some of the tougher regulations.

The Smoky Mountain News checked in with the five current county commissioners to gauge their philosophy on the potential changes, as well as other ordinances tweaked by the planning board during the past two years.


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Doug Cody, Republican, elected commissioner in 2010

Cody believes that the downturn in the building market in 2008 was mostly due to the national recession but believes the county’s ordinances didn’t help matters. In particular, he decried the five-month moratorium that halted new subdivisions from coming on line while the first set of development regulations were being drafted.

“We’ve had some decisions made in the past that kept us from growing when we should have been growing,” Cody said.

Cody said he respects certain parts of the ordinance that address safety and smart building practices but thinks they go too far and are hampering the economy.

“I think the ordinances, generally speaking, were too stringent,” he said. “A little bit of moderation, review and common sense will put us in a position where people can benefit more from having their property and make it a little easier to build a house.”


Charles Elders, Republican, elected commissioner in 2010

Since he started on the county board more than two years ago, Elders said he is listening closely to the complaints and desires of local builders and contractors, many of whom oppose all or parts of the regulations in their current form, as he formulates his stance on potential changes.

“Builders have been saying they’d like to have an ordinance that makes it easier to build houses.” he said. “I’d like to talk more with builders and contractors and get their thoughts on it. There are a lot of them unhappy or disappointed with how things are now.”

He hopes the planning board will soon have a draft of changes for commissioners to review, because he feels that it’s important to implement the changes in a timely matter. However, he said he wants to make sure they are done right.

“We’re in a hurry, but we don’t want to rush the (planning) board too fast,” he said. “It is something in my view that needs a lot of attention.”


Jack Debnam, Independent, elected commissioner in 2010

Debnam said he is taking a backseat role while the planning board comes up with a revised ordinance to present to commissioners. He said he trusts the judgment of the planning board, which includes people from across the spectrum — from environmentalists to those in the building industry — and claims not to be meddling in the process.

“We’re relying on them to bring the recommendations to us,” Debnam said. “I’m not going to second guess them or give them demands.”

As for his philosophy on why the ordinance may need reworking, Debnam said its good for lawmakers to take a look at any extensive set of regulations periodically to re-assess them.

“Now that things have changed in the economy, building has slowed down on its own, I think that there needs to be a fresh look taken at what we’ve created,” he said. “Not to weaken the ordinance as much as update it to cite the times.”


Vickie Greene, Democrat, elected commissioner in 2012

Greene said her election and fellow Democrat Mark Jones’ reelection in 2012 lend credence to the belief that Jackson County voters wanted to protect the current mountain hillside building rules.

“One of the things I ran on was to keep the mission of the mountain hillside and subdivision ordinances — to make sure whatever changes are made leave the original intent in place,” she said. “The voters in Jackson County had a clear choice.”

Greene said she is open to certain changes but will oppose anything too drastic. Most importantly, even though the proposed changes are still in their infancy, she would like to see community members get involved and start weighing in on the direction they’d like to see the revisions take.

“More citizens should be attending the planning board meetings,” Greene said. “I don’t think it hurts to be talking about it now.”


Mark Jones, Democrat, first elected commissioner in 2006

Although Jones was around to pass the first set of regulations, he admits that it was a trial run, and now, it would be prudent to revisit the rules and evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t. But, he said, he would oppose any major changes and is especially opposed to allowing building on ridge tops — which is currently prohibited but has been a topic of discussion.

“The ordinances need to be revisited,” he said. “But I’m not sure we want to take the natural beauty of the mountains as some communities have done, and some communities regret, chopping up those ridge tops just for the view factor.”

Jones is also concerned about potential changes to housing density that limit the number of homes on steeper slopes and what that could mean for landslides and the groundwater supply.

“Have there been studies recently?” Jones said. “Until I hear some true, recent documentation, my position is going to be the same.”

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