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The public weighs in Jackson residents speak out on proposed development regulations

A procession of impassioned speakers pleaded with Jackson County commissioners to slow the rapid pace of development on mountainsides during a public hearing Monday (June 11).


About 150 people attended the public hearing to weigh in on proposed development regulations that would make the county more protective than any other in Western North Carolina, and possibly the state. The majority voiced support for the proposals.

It was a stark contrast to a public hearing held four months ago over a moratorium on new developments. Nearly 1,300 turned out for that, with the majority railing against the idea of a moratorium. Realtors and developers led the charge, backed by hundreds of construction workers who feared the five-month moratorium would cause a work slowdown.

The moratorium was passed anyway by a 4-to-1 vote of county commissioners. It was intended to stave off a flood of developers from launching new subdivisions while the county worked on its first-ever development regulations, ending the anything-goes climate of mountainside construction. The moratorium did not affect developments already under way or halt homes from being built on existing lots.

The county planning board spent the past four months drafting development regulations for subdivisions and steep slopes. The regulations are pending approval by county commissioners, setting a new stage for development in Jackson County by the time the moratorium is lifted on July 8.

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Leaders of the opposition movement say the masses did not turn out for the public hearing on the proposed regulations because it seemed pointless. The county commissioners seem bent on an anti-development agenda regardless of public sentiment, they said.

“Everyone I’ve talked to said they aren’t even going to show up,” said Marty Jones, a Realtor in Cashier. “We voiced our opposition to the moratorium. The voters clearly opposed it and the commissioners did it anyway. It’s like, ‘we know what you’re going to do, so why show up?’”

Those on the other side have a different explanation for the relative lack of opposition at this week’s public hearing. The economic slowdown predicted over the moratorium never came to fruition, exposing the arguments of the Realtors and developers as merely looking out for their own pocketbooks, not the overall welfare of the county.

The public hearing revealed one thing both sides could agree on: mountainside development in Jackson County has led to strong philosophical divisions. While technical arguments over soil stability and the groundwater table were numerous, speakers returned time and again to the underlying issue of whether too many people are moving to the mountains too quickly.


Proposed regulations

The Jackson County subdivision and steep slope ordinances will regulate everything from slope engineering to nightlighting. Below are a few highlights of the proposed ordinances.

• Who it applies to: New subdivisions and new lots.

• Who it doesn’t apply to: Developments already underway are exempt, as are all existing lots recorded prior to the passage of the ordinances. The exemption is only good for five years, however.

• One more exemption: Existing lots recorded prior to the passage of the ordinances will be exempt from certain provisions for longer than five years — namely provisions that would otherwise make the lot unbuildable. For example, if the lot doesn’t meet the minimum lot size or the only possible house site is too close to a stream or ridgeline, the lot owner would be exempt from those provisions, so they can build on it.

• Open space: 25 percent of new developments must be set aside as open space, either owned communally by the homeowner’s association or placed in a conservation easement.

• Due diligence: Any construction on slopes greater than 30 percent requires a topographic survey, soils report, hydrology plan, and geotechnical analysis. For individual lot owners, the assessments only have to be done for the portion of the lot being disturbed.

• Lot size: Density follows a sliding scale based on the slope. Lots must be a minimum of two acres on slopes with a 30 to 35 percent grade; 2.5 acres on slopes with a 35 to 39 percent grade; 5 acres on slopes with a 40 to 44 percent grade, and 10 acres on slopes greater than 45 percent. Homes can be clustered as long as the overall home to acreage ratio is met.

• Paving over mountains: The portion of a lot that can be covered with an impermeable surface (i.e. roofs and driveways) is limited, based on a sliding scale. The steeper the slope, the less of the lot that can be covered. For a 40 percent slope, for example, only 5 percent of the lot can be covered in roofs and driveways.

• Tred lightly: To avoid excessive cut-and-fill slopes for building pads, homes on hillsides should “step-down” the mountain with a split foundation to conform to the natural contour of the slope.

• Blending in: No wholesale clearing of trees in front of a home for views. Natural vegetation must be retained to screen at least 50 percent of a the face of a building when viewed from the nearest public road. Homes should use natural, earth-tone color palettes. Outside light should be muted and kept from spilling onto neighboring properties. The roofline of a home must be at least 20 feet below any ridgeline.


What they're saying

Not strict enough

Carl Iobst of Cullowhee thought the regulations were too weak. Iobst wants slopes off-limits to development, period.

“Development of any kind on a slope of 25 percent or greater is unacceptable,” Iobst said. Iobst condemned “developers and their henchmen” as pillagers of the land, criticized gated communities and elite preserves, and likened today’s pace of development to strip-mining.

Mountains belong to all

“These mountains aren’t a commodity for developers. The mountains have a heart and soul that lies with the people and animals who respect them. This land is here for our pleasure but not our abuse. This is one of the last few frontiers in this country that does have wilderness in it. We are always talking about saving the rainforests. Well, how are we going to stop the developers from destroying Jackson County? It’s not that different,” said Patty Hooper Holly.

Ordinances overboard

Jay Pavey, an attorney, accused the county commissioners of pursuing a personal anti-development agenda and called on them to resign for not respecting the best interest of the county’s future.

“Many people are completely clueless as to what you are trying to shove down their throats,” Pavey said. “This is an issue about competing ideologies and not one of safety or any other issue. One side says they do not want to see development regardless of whether they own the property. Their position is all about being able to view green ridgetops they do not own. The other side wants to do with their property what they want within reason.”

The greater good

“These ordinances are our opportunity to avert the worst effects of overzealous development in Jackson County. Any claims to property rights that we or any others may make, need to be viewed in light of the larger rights that we all share to a safe and healthy environment,” said George Rector of Cullowhee.

Too much exemption

Myrtle Schrader of Cullowhee objected to the carte blanche exemption of existing lots. Existing lots were initially exempt only from requirements that would make the lot unbuildable — such as an existing lot that didn’t meet the minimum lot size. The exemption was broadened to exempt existing lots from everything — including the amount of tree cover that must be left around a house and cut-and-fill stability guidelines.

“More than 8,000-plus building lots will be exempt from the ordinances for the next five years. That conflicts with the purpose of the moratorium. We all live downhill and across from someone else, so we need to keep that in mind.”

Exemptions needed

Elaine Zachary, a Realtor in Cashiers, said the exemptions on existing lots were needed. People who already own a lot had a reasonable assumption of what they wanted to build and what it would cost. Complying with new regulations would change that.


“I believe that the ordinances as proposed were the results of many hours of countless compromises. This means that individuals supporting different sides of the issues did not get what they hoped for, but both sides got some of what they wanted,” said Jim Wallace of Cullowhee.

Time has come

“I’m one of those mountain boys that has always wanted to do things the way I want without someone telling me,” said Keith Shuler, who lives along Scotts Creek. “But there comes a time things are changing so fast you really need things to be in place to protect some of the things happening and going on here in the mountains.”

For the future

“When you were elected the public spoke very clearly to say we need growth and development planning now. It should be done in a way future generations will be proud of instead of regret,” said Melissa Cowan Smith, a nurse in Jackson County.

Too far

The people of Jackson County would be appalled if they knew what was being called for in the regulations, said Cheryl Woodham. The public thinks the ordinances are targeting big developers, but in fact they will be most burdensome to those who have small tracts of just 20 or 30 acres they hoped to develop one day.

“The little landowner is being treated the same as the big developers, and I just don’t think that’s right,” Woodham said.

Weighing interests

“Thank you for looking out for all the interests of people of Jackson County, not just the developers, real estate agents and bankers. Congratulations on having the foresight and courage to consider and hopefully adopt a set of land-use regulations that are wide-ranging and strong,” said Vicki Greene, who lives in the Webster area.

Too strict and one-sided

“I would much prefer to see the creeks run clear instead of muddy. I would like to see the green mountainsides behind me instead of the scars from roads cut for development. However, the proposed ordinances are not a fair way of addressing them. It is not fair to impose burdensome regulations on everyone instead of punishing those who pollute,” said Clark Lipkin, a surveyor who lives in Tuckasegee. “Who is to say that a house on a ridge spoils the view of someone below any more than the house of someone in the valley spoils the view for someone on the ridge. If you think that is ridiculous, that’s because you live in the valley.”

Back off a bit

“I applaud your courage. I don’t know how it would come out if there was a (countywide) vote. I imagine it is pretty much evenly split. But something needs to be done, and you’re doing something,” said Phil Fowler of Glenville.

But the ordinances as written are too strict, he said. “You are on the right path, but you need to slow down a little bit and think about some of these things,” Fowler said.

Clock is ticking

“I don’t want these mountains being destroyed, and I’m watching them being destroyed by the developers, the same developers that destroyed Florida. They don’t want regulations. They don’t want to jump through the hoops of restrictions. But when people don’t regulate themselves, unfortunately big brother moves in and regulates them,” said Jim McCarthy.

Put it to a vote

“We are not in a plutocratic Republic. Something with the sweeping kinds of changes being proposed should be presented to every voter in the county to address and be able to say yes or no, up or down,” said Ernest Hall of Greens Creek.

Taking others’ land

Eddie Palmer, a Realtor, said the ordinances will illegally take people’s land. The rule that requires 25 percent of new developments to be set aside as open space is effectively taking people’s land.

Share the resources

“The resources in Jackson County are for everyone, not just the elite,” said Jennifer Krell of Scotts Creek.

Times are changing

“When my people came to Jackson County in the 1830s there weren’t a lot of people and there wasn’t much need in the way of ordinance. You could put your toilet right over the creek. There was plenty of room and plenty of space and not many people and it really didn’t matter because the environment would absorb it. It’s not that way anymore. We can’t have things the way they’ve been being. It is very obvious some rules are necessary,” said David McGuire of Sylva.

Mountains in their own right

Kathy Calabrese of Cullowhee supports the required screening of mountainside homes and earth-tone paint colors.

“Even though some people want their private property rights to build what they what, it tears into my soul to look up at a green mountain and see some white ugly thing sticking out. These mountains have the right to have their beauty and integrity maintained and not torn into by ignorance.”

Build with caution

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, a geologist at Western Carolina University, said the jury is still out on whether slopes will hold up to development.

“We are in the middle of a huge experiment. The high intensity steep slope development hasn’t really started until the last 10 years. That’s not very much time in a geologist’s point of view. I would start with stronger ordinances and then loosen up as we understand how these mountains work.”

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