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Jackson planning board wants to toss out part of steep slope rule

The Jackson County Planning Board voted last Thursday to eliminate a pivotal component of the county’s steep slope building rules.

The planning board wants to do away with a controversial limits on how many homes can be built on steep slopes. It is one of the most stringent parts of Jackson’s steep slope rules, and the most stringent of its kind in the region.


Ultimately, any changes to the Mountain and Hillside Development Ordinance need to be approved by county commissioners, but the vote last week marked the first major recommendation by the planning board to weaken the county’s existing rules for steep slope construction.

The board has been discussing changes to the ordinance for months now in a systematic page-by-page review.

Current regulations limit the number of houses that can be built on steep slopes based on a sliding scale.

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At the high end of the spectrum — on slopes greater than 45 percent — there can only be one house per every 10 acres. Mid-range slopes with a grade of 30 and 34 percent can have one house per every two acres.

Planning Board Member Mark Jamison said the only purpose served by the rule was aesthetics by limiting development. He said the goal of the steep slope law should be safety, not aesthetics.

 “Density standards speak more to people’s view shed standards,” Jamison said. “That’s a different thing than safety.”

Jamison said the philosophy of the current planning board differs from the previous planning board that wrote the steep slope laws. 

One audience member spoke out in support of the current rules, however, and asked the planning board not to toss them out. Dan Pittillo, a retired Western Carolina University biologist who was on the previous planning board, pleaded that board members don’t undo the past work done toward protecting the county’s hillsides.

“Be careful about changing what we’ve done in the past about slope development this county,” Pittillo. “In the long run, we will have to deal with those things coming down the hill.”

Yet, the board has maintained that it is not weakening the ordinance, but instead is only tweaking it and improving it.

“We’re not trying to diminish this ordinance,” said board member Richard Frady. “We’re trying to strengthen and make it enforced.”

Only one planning board member, Joe Ward, wanted to keep the density requirements in place. Ward said keeping the regulations in place protect people who may buy a piece of property with the hopes of building on it only to find later that they can’t. On the steepest slopes, small lots can be hard or even impossible to shoehorn a house onto, given the extent of cut-and-fill needed to level out a foundation pad.

He suggested that tossing out the concept of housing density limits altogether seemed extreme.

“So, we want to throw that whole part of the ordinance out?” Ward said.

Others on the board felt the limits placed an undue burden on landowners trying to build few houses on their property. Planning Board Member Mark Jamison said the unintended consequences of the county’s regulations are that local property owners, not developers, can’t make use of their own property if they decide. 

“This is beating up on the wrong people,” Jamison said.

Planning Board Member Clark Lipkin, a land surveyor, said there is no safety justification for the density standards. He wondered where the previous planning board that initially approved the regulations came up with them.

“Frankly, I think they’re pulled out of thin air,” Lipkin said. “I’m not entirely sure we need them. If it’s not going to slide off the hill in a landslide, then why do we need density standards?”

Density standards have been cited as a regulatory way of distributing the impact of construction across a steep slope, from tree clearing to earth moving. Houses clustered on a hillside could have a cumulative effect of placing stress on the soil in one area of the mountain.

Also, larger lots mean if an uphill slope fails, it will be less likely to impact neighbors. Fewer homes on steep slopes also leaves more undeveloped ground to absorb heavy rains. The original rule writers feared too many homes could overtap the groundwater carrying capacity for drinking wells.

But the planning board doesn’t need to worry about groundwater recharge anymore, since they have a separate ordinance for that now, said Board Chairman Zac Koenig, owner of Koenig Homebuilders.

The planning board has previously extracted references to groundwater recharge from the county’s development regulations and put them in their own ordinance — although it is not as stringent as the old language. 

Koenig said the number of homes on steep slopes will naturally be regulated by the ability to put in roads and septic tanks, which are also already covered in other regulations.

The planning board and county staff also criticized what they perceived as a flaw in the sliding scale. The scale makes big jumps and isn’t graduated enough, they said. Between 35 and 39 percent slope, lots must be five acres. Above 40 percent, lots must be 10 acres.

The planning board had previously discussed the merits of a more graduated scale like the one Buncombe County uses, with numerous incremental steps. However, they ultimately decided to discard the rule altogether.

The recommendation will be part of a larger rewrite to the ordinance that will ultimately come to county commissioners for final approval later this year.


Changing of the guard

Jackson County’s steep slope law was part of a suite of development regulations passed six years ago. But the planning board today has a much different makeup, and a different ideological take on what the county’s development rules should look like.

There is also a new majority on the board of county commissioners elected in 2010. They have endorsed a review of the county’s ordinances in principle and publicly stated the current rules are too strict — but they have not weighed in specifically on what portions they want to see changed or by how much.

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