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Western counties to share land-use ideas

County commissioners, planners and planning board members from the state’s seven westernmost counties will meet this month in a first-of-its-kind attempt to discuss land management on a regional level.

The June 28 workshop in Macon County comes as elected leaders struggle to balance private land ownership rights with intense and mounting growth pressures. The Southwestern Commission, a regional council formed in 1965, represents all seven counties involved and organized the gathering.

“It is long overdue for us to have a discussion like this,” said Ronnie Beale, a Macon County commissioner who will serve as the local host. “We’re all facing the same problems because of our topography and ongoing growth, and it makes good sense for us to try not to go down the same road four or five times.”

The workshop, billed as a “sharing session,” will enable participants to identify what land management measures are currently in place and additional steps that need to be taken, said Bill Gibson, executive director of the Southwestern Commission.

The catalyst was a simple phone call from a newly elected commissioner in Clay County. Harry Jarrett, former president of Tri-County Community College in Murphy, called Gibson and suggested the time was right for such a gathering.

“With growth comes issues that we all need to look at,” Jarrett said.

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The idea was sparked, he said, from talking to Clay County residents about their concerns and seeing those same issues appear in news accounts from other counties.

In Jackson County, commissioners are moving toward a range of land-use regulations, including rules to regulate steep-slope development that exceed a proposed state law moving through the General Assembly. Haywood County already has passed a steep-slope development ordinance. Macon County is currently working on a subdivision ordinance, and Swain County is developing road regulations to ensure fire trucks can respond to emergencies that take place in its subdivisions.

“This might help prevent us from walking the same paths and stepping in the same holes others have stepped in,” Gibson said.

Governmental leaders in the region acknowledge that Jackson County’s headline-generating, no-holds-barred stab at regulating growth has paved the way for everyone else.

One public hearing in Jackson County on controlling growth attracted 1,300 people. In a show of force, workers parked construction trucks along the roadway to the meeting. County leaders there have continued moving toward land-management regulation despite the opposition.

“Jackson County stuck the plow deep and pulled hard, and has been able to keep it in the ground,” Gibson said. “It has opened up the possibilities, and made it easier for the others.”

One of the workshop’s facilitators will be Ben Brown of Macon County, a free-lance writer and advocate of new urbanism. This design concept is an attempt to revive traditional neighborhoods, where shopping and entertainment were within a five-minute or so walk for residents and mixed use — the combination of residential and commercial — was commonplace.

“The question is,” Brown said, “ is whether we can jump over all the bad planning ideas and move to some good ones. For this event, we just want to help people ask the right questions.”

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