Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho it’s off to home we go

Farewells and hellos from Commissioner Tom Massie highlighted this week’s lame-duck county board meeting in Jackson County.

The ousted elected official, taking advantage of the final meaningful business meeting of this particular set of commissioners, wished his successors luck and good fortune.

Republicans Doug Cody (replacing Massie), Charles Elders (replacing William Shelton) and conservative-but-officially Independent Jack Debnam (replacing Chairman Brian McMahan) were in the audience, seated demurely toward the back of the room.

“This is an interesting job,” Massie said. “While I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the past four years, it has been a privilege I’ll always cherish.”

There will be a meeting to take care of housekeeping details at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 6. At 6:30 p.m., an organizational meeting by the new board of commissioners will convene. Cody, Elders and Debnam will join current commissioners (both Democrats) Mark Jones and Jay Cowan. The two men have two years remaining before they are up for re-election.

Voters in Jackson County on Nov. 2 upended the 16-year stranglehold Democrats enjoyed on the commission board. Now the new commissioners’ promises of fiscal conservancy and putting builders in the county back to work are about to be tested.

Massie told his replacement(s) being a commissioner, in the best of times, is challenging.

“And these are not good times,” he said.

New Jackson commissioners, new county agenda

Jack Debnam says he’s simply trying to get his feet on the ground and figure out what needs to be done first before he and two other newly elected commissioners take control next month.

Debnam, running as an unaffiliated candidate, successfully unseated Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. Unlike most of the county commission boards in the area, Jackson County voters — not fellow commissioners — elect their board chairman.

As the top leader of the board and its only full-time member, Debnam, a real estate agent who owns Western Carolina Properties, will make $16,190 a year. Part-time commissioners (the other four men on the board) in Jackson County make $11,519.

Jackson County voters on Nov. 2 sent incumbent Democrat commissioners a strong, definite message. Now, the new guys have to decipher exactly what that message meant. At least they do if they want to remain in voters’ good graces.

 

What’s next?

“There’s a scene at the end of the movie, “The Candidate,” when Robert Redford has been elected to the Senate and he says, ‘What do we do now?’ My guess is that a lot of candidates — both local and national — can relate to Redford’s character,” said Chris Cooper, a political science and public affairs professor for Western Carolina University.

In addition to Debnam, Republicans Charles Elder (replacing Democrat William Shelton) and Doug Cody (replacing Democrat Tom Massie) will join current commissioners Joe Cowan and Mark Jones. Democrats Cowan and Jones are up for reelection in 2012.

This marks the first time in 16 years Republicans have been able to seize seats on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Debnam, while unaffiliated, received support as a conservative candidate from the Jackson County GOP.

“The public sent a clear message that they want change — change in Jackson County, change in Raleigh and change in Washington,” Cooper said. “Watching President Obama try to capitalize on the ‘change’ platform, however, shows how difficult it can be. Add to that, that our local officials still have to contend with Democrats on the commission … it might be tough for the Republicans to execute the plans they campaigned on.”

What did they campaign on? Doing everything differently than their Democratic predecessors, essentially. There were promises to:

• Review Jackson County’s rigorous land regulations, and get the local builders building again.

• Examine the county budget for fiscal waste, department by department.

• Decide whether to add on to Smoky Mountain High School.

• Move forward with a promised recreation center in Cashiers.

• Consider allowing voters to decide whether future commissioners should not just reside in the district they run for, but also to let voters in those districts decide the winners. This has been a front-page issue, and received the editorial support of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving the southern end of Jackson County. No more voting at-large, in other words, but by district.

Also on the table? A decision about property revaluations — as in, when best to do them.

 

A chicken in every pot

“I feel sorry for those guys, I really do,” Shelton said. “I think it is going to be a pretty short honeymoon. If there isn’t a chicken in every pot in six months, people will be mad.”

Shelton argued the ousting of the board’s majority was not an indictment on the land regulations commissioners passed. Rather, he pointed to a county pay-raise study that resulted in the highest paid employees receiving raises: lower-paid employees — not so much.

Shelton also threw in the county’s unsuccessful battle with Duke Energy over saving the Dillsboro Dam, plus an overall national and state sweep by Republicans.

Whatever the reason, the conservatives have taken charge in Jackson County.

Debnam, asked if the board would fire County Manager Ken Westmoreland, showed a certain political agility in his response. In other words, he didn’t really answer the question.

“It’s not going to be up to me,” Debnam said. “There are five commissioners … we are going to scrutinize several positions.”

 

Steep slope/land regulations?

“They’ll probably all be reviewed at the beginning of next year,” Debnam said. “… I’m not looking to repeal everything.”

Debnam made noises about holding a meeting with the two newly elected commissioners and the two remaining Democrats from the old guard, saying he could do so legally now without calling an open meeting. Whether that skirts the spirit of the law is certainly debatable.

The new board chairman said he’s met with McMahan (“he was gracious and helpful,” Debnam said) and he is meeting with various county officials.

The new commissioners will be sworn in at 6 p.m. on Dec. 6.

Ashe handily returns as Jackson County sheriff

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe won his third term in office Tuesday, easily beating back a challenge from political newcomer Mary Rock.

Ashe, 51, a Democrat, has been in law enforcement for 29 years. He started in 1981 as a dispatcher and jailer for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, working his way up to the top post. Ashe made stops along the way as a detective and as chief deputy.

Ashe has initiated a slew of anti-illegal drug programs in Jackson County, an inmate-work program and more, which — in addition to his years of experience — he emphasized strongly and repeatedly during his campaign.

Earlier headline-generating news that Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports apparently didn’t deter voters.

Rock, a registered Democrat, ran as an unaffiliated candidate. She hoped by doing so — by avoiding being beaten by Ashe in the May primaries — she’d give voters more time to get to know her before the midterm election and increase her odds of winning.

Rock, a professional bail bondswoman, is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the military police for two years, and spent an additional five years in the reserve.

 

Jackson County Sheriff
Jimmy Ashe (D)    6,672
Mary Rock (U)    3,760

Jackson County says no thanks, no more to incumbent commissioners

Jackson County voters upended the board of commissioners Tuesday, calling an abrupt end to progressive land-development regulations that had set this county apart from all others in far Western North Carolina.

The dismantling of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is likely to resonate with other commissioners in WNC. Voters here clearly sent an unmistakable message not to move too far, too fast, when it comes to standing in the way of the region’s development juggernaut.

One of the three Democrat incumbents who lost was Chairman Brian McMahan, who actually cast the sole ‘no’ vote among commissioners against the current development regulations. He also opposed a subsequent moratorium on subdivisions, which some blamed for compounding an economic slowdown in the county.

McMahan, however, was consistent in supporting most of the regulations that were put in place: he just didn’t support all of them. His moderate position, however, didn’t prevent him from being ousted from the chairman’s post by challenger and political newcomer Jack Debnam, who ran unaffiliated with any political party.

Just 92 votes separated the two men in the unofficial tally Tuesday night.

Incumbents William Shelton and Tom Massie joined McMahan in the defeat.

“We’re historical,” said Shelton late Tuesday night, after learning he’d lost to Republican challenger Charles Elder, a former commissioner who represents a more traditional way of doing things. It is a way that Jackson County voters clearly found suited them far better than what had been taking place.

Massie, like Shelton a progressive Democrat when it came to regulating development, was defeated by Republican Doug Cody, a newcomer to Jackson County politics.

“I think it was just the perfect storm,” Shelton said, pointing to a national mood of ousting incumbents, Democrat Party apathy, right-leaning Tea-party influences and local voters upset about the stringent development regulations adopted in Jackson County.

Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners — including Shelton and Massie — enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions.

Another piece of commissioner legislation that likely stuck in voters’ craws was an attempt to wrest the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam has been torn down.

A poll of Jackson County residents this summer was a harbinger of sorts: the poll showed only 33 percent of participants had a favorable opinion of their local government, and 46 percent were unfavorable.

The poll, conducted by the WCU Public Policy Institute in partnership with The Smoky Mountain News, questioned nearly 600 voters and had an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

 

Jackson County Board of Commissioners (Chairman)

Jack Debnam (R)    5,055

Brian McMahan (D)    4,963

 

Jackson County Board of Commissioners (District 1)

Charles Elders (R)    6,022

William Shelton (D)    4,916

 

Jackson County Board of Commissioners (District 2)

Doug Cody (R)    6,075

Tom Massie (D)    4,824

Dead man gets a ‘My Vote Counted’ sticker

From the we-really-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up file, election workers in Jackson County didn’t bat an eye when a woman this election cycle brought her dead husband along to vote.

Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections, said the sadly mistaken woman showed up for early voting at the Scotts Creek site and told an election worker her husband wanted to vote, too.

The election worker, mystified, looked around. But she didn’t see anyone resembling a husband. Perhaps he needed help with curbside voting, she asked?

Not exactly. Instead, the confused woman whipped out a small urn from inside her pocketbook and told the election worker her husband’s name. Sure enough, the man’s name was listed on Jackson County’s voter rolls — along with a notation that the gentleman was deceased.

The election worker explained that in Jackson County (at least not right out like this in the open) dead people couldn’t legally vote. But the suggestion was made, and found agreeable, that he could “help” her vote, if she’d like.

She did like, and the woman and her (ahem) husband voted. The election workers gave her a “My Vote Counted” sticker for the urn when the vote had tallied.

The dead-man-voting account is rivaled by another election-day story from Polk County. An election worker there went to help someone with curbside voting. The man who wanted to vote wasn’t wearing pants. We were unable to ascertain whether wearing pants is a legal requirement for voting in North Carolina. An election worker in Polk County who answered the phone snottily said she didn’t consider the matter news.

Learn glassblowing at the Green Energy Park

Benjamin Elliott will teach a glassblowing workshop for beginners from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 4 and 5 at Jackson County’s Green Energy Park in Dillsboro.

Elliott has worked with glass as a medium for 11 years. In 2009 he obtained a master’s degree in glass from Kent State in Ohio before returning to the area to open his own studio in the Burnsville.

Students will learn the basic skills necessary to begin to sculpt and blow objects using hot glass. Techniques will be taught in gathering, centering, marvering and blocking. This course is designed for students with little, or no, prior experience. Class size is kept small so there is plenty of instructor and bench time for each person.

Participants should dress in clothing made of natural fibers and wear close-toed shoes and long pants. Bring a bag lunch to eat during the brief lunch break each day.

Space is limited. Pre-registration required.

Cost $295 for two-day class, due at registration

For more information or to register 828.631.0271.

Information session on ‘fixing’ N.C. 107 set for next week

Are you ready to rumble? Because here we go again: The great debate in Jackson County on whether traffic congestion along N.C. 107 in Sylva should be fixed, and if so — how — is back.

Since the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation has conducted separate traffic studies, each intended to explore different fixes to the same problem.

The preliminary results of one of those studies is about to go public: potential redesigns of N.C. 107, Sylva’s major traffic corridor, which takes in the primary portion of the county that is experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, state DOT officials will hold what’s being dubbed an “informal meeting” in Sylva. They intend to publicly layout what they claim must be done if N.C. 107 is truly going to be fixed.

There are six concepts on the table. Three of those concepts would include building an additional road, the controversial Southern Loop, since renamed the friendlier-sounding (and the transportation department claims, more accurate) “N.C. 107 connector.”

 

‘Here it is’

The connector, as originally conceived, would blaze a new road through the mountains. Five miles of construction destroying homes, farmland, and taking in streams and forests — a proposal, that on the face of it, is simply too destructive for serious contemplation by many in the county, including those who stand to lose their homes.

Opponents won a small battle when the transportation department broadened its language describing the N.C. 107 connector as a “multi-lane” freeway to include the possibility of a smaller, two-lane road, at least for the purpose of study.

Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the group that acted as the brake on the transportation department’s original plans for a multi-lane bypass, has started revving its engines.

The citizen-action group has pretty much lain dormant for the past few years. But this week it held an organizational meeting at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Members are promising to once again bring accountability to the process, and to insist on the inclusion of a wide array of community voices before any decisions are made.

“DOT has forgotten we’re paying attention,” said Jason Kimenker between serving up cups of lightly curried butternut squash soup to his lunch customers at the Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro, smack dab beside the section of N.C. 107 that is being eyed for improvements. “We have simply been waiting to find out what they were going to do. And, here it is.”

But whether Smart Roads can inspire hundreds of Jackson County residents to participate in what’s often a tedious and mystifyingly complex process — as it once did — remains to be proven. The first test comes next week, at the transportation department’s information session.

 

Meeting is a response to public pressure

Joel Setzer doesn’t actually have horns and a tail, though to hear some critics of the transportation department, that might come as something of a surprise.

In reality, Setzer is a polite, well-spoken Jackson County native who made good and became the very top dog for the 14th Division of the state Department of Transportation. That means he’s division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Jackson County and encompasses the westernmost tip of North Carolina. Today, Setzer lives on the land he was raised on, commuting a few miles each day from Cullowhee via N.C. 107 to his tidy office — replete with pictures of family members and trout — located in the division’s headquarters near Webster.

“This, in essence, is to help answer the question — ‘Can you fix 107?’” he said of the upcoming meeting.

What happened, Setzer said, is the transportation department really listened. No, really, he said, truly they did.

They heard residents (lots of them, hundreds of them at a time at some points), keep asking whether another road (N.C. 107 connector) was necessary. There were questions about traffic counts, about politics versus need, about desires to build roads positioned against a more environmentally friendlier concept of working in the existing footprint.

That led to the information session (not a public hearing) to share what is known at this point. This, Setzer said, is not required of the transportation department — but the project is controversial, and there have been a lot of questions raised.

The central, nagging question? Whether the transportation department is really doing what the community wants in considering a connector, or by making significant improvements to N.C. 107. Or, are these men and women primed to build roads when a few cars back up on the highway, simply shoving their pet projects down the throats of a reluctant citizenry, all the while egged on by a shadowy yet powerful coalition of would-be developers?

Connecting a network of side roads and linking rural routes to relieve pressure on N.C. 107 is the solution the Smart Roads group advocated when it was active. That option was not included in this study.

 

 

What’s on the table?

Here’s what’s being dubbed the six “concepts.” They make only limited sense without accompanying illustrations and maps and explanations from engineers. Those will be forthcoming, Setzer promised, at the information meeting:

• Concept 1 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with no N.C. 107 connector, approximately 6.2-miles long.

• Concept 2 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 6.2 miles long.

• Concept 3 — Superstreet concept (think Cope Creek, along U.S. 23/74, where turnout lanes are now) with access management/non-traditional intersections and no N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 4 — Superstreet concept with access management/non-traditional intersections and with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 5 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with no N.C. 107 connector.

• Concept 6 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with the N.C. 107 connector in place.

Right off the bat, it is critical to understand that each of these six concepts were drafted using a “D” level of service: “A” would represent the best operating conditions; “F” the worst. “D” is generally considered acceptable in urban areas, the transportation department noted in a document outlining the concepts for N.C. 107.

Setzer acknowledged that even the level of service used as the baseline in drafting these concepts is arguable. And, surely, will be argued.

One additional, very important point: Setzer said he must know what “the county’s vision” is today. Build, don’t build; improve, don’t improve — “people are going to have to say, ‘What is an acceptable level of service?’” Setzer said.

“There needs to be a community discussion on what it would take to fix 107 … and I don’t think you can proceed without knowing where the duly elected officials stand. We need to know what the vision is. Without that, we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.”

 

What Smart Roads advocates want

If you want to get involved, it pays to know what you are getting involved in. Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance promotes these alternatives:

• Expand and connect existing roads to accommodate present and future traffic.

• Implement access management concepts and other “traffic calming” solutions for N.C. 107.

• Encourage walkable communities, making it easy for people to get where they need to go without driving.

• Build and expand bike lanes and support the Jackson County Greenway plan.

• Develop public transportation and utilize pre-existing railroad lines.

• Advocate for DOT to use earmarked funds for transportation alternatives.

• Preserve the Tuckasegee River corridor for public use.

Interested? Then learn more at http://wnc.us/smartroads.

 

Understanding N.C. 107

N.C. 107 is the only major north-south transportation route in Jackson County, and serves as a “collector” for numerous secondary roads, many of which are dead-end roads that have no “connectivity.” It joins Sylva in the north with Cashiers in the south, traveling through Webster, Cullowhee and Tuckasegee in between.

There is dense commercial development along U.S. 23 Business and N.C. 107 between U.S. 23-74 and N.C. 116. About 95 driveways intersect this 3.3-mile roadway segment. Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are located along, or near, N.C. 107.

N.C. 107 is a five-lane, curb-and-gutter roadway with narrow 10-foot wide travel lanes from U.S. 23 Business to approximately 1,000 feet south of Fairview Road. From there, N.C. 107 transitions to a four-lane, median-divided facility. Under 2008 conditions, the five-lane section is at, or over, its traffic-carrying capacity during peak traveling hours. By 2035, the entire five-lane section will be operating over capacity.

SOURCE: N.C. Department of Transportation

 

Get Involved

WHAT: Informational meeting on fixing traffic problems on N.C. 107 in Sylva.

WHERE: Balsam Center (Myers Auditorium lobby), Jackson County campus of Southwestern Community College, 447 College Road in Sylva.

WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5-7 p.m.

WHY: To share six “concepts” that could fix perceived traffic-flow issues.

WHO: Sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.

Jackson sheriff’s candidate’s only option — complain to sheriff

Is Mary Rock paranoid, trying to garner a sympathy vote? Or is her opponent for sheriff, incumbent Jimmy Ashe, really targeting her by destroying campaign signs?

Over the past week or so, three signs — the large ones, which cost about $100 each — encouraging voters to cast their support for Rock have been defaced or cut up. One near Cullowhee Valley School, where early voting is taking place, has been hit twice. This last time nothing was left, she said, but the backboard.

(Rock called The Smoky Mountain News on Monday to complain after being requested to let this newspaper know if something additional happened. This after two signs were ruined at an earlier date).

Rock said she might simply take a spray paint can and scrawl the words, “Vote for Mary Rock” on the backboard. That, she said, would be difficult to destroy. It certainly would be cheaper. And, something that easily could be done before the November election. You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes, she said, to get those campaign signs back after you order them.

Ashe did not return a call by press time Tuesday requesting comment.

Rock, 43, is a professional bail bondswoman making an initial bid for public office. She wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County. Doing so won’t be an easy task — Ashe is a two-term incumbent and Democrat in a Democrat-heavy county. Rock is running unaffiliated with any political party. But really, she is a Democrat, too, and is registered with the board of elections as such. Rock picked this route to give voters more time to get to know her, because she figured she’d get knocked out of the race in the May primaries if she ran as a Democrat.

Rock said she believes Ashe, his supporters, or both are trying to get her to “have to deal” with the sheriff’s department. The proper route for Rock would be to file complaints at the sheriff’s department, which she said would simply set the stage for further discomfort or even harassment.

“I can see why no one runs for public office,” Rock said of her experience.

Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

Jackson County commissioners passed a slate of sweeping development regulations in 2007 designed to rein in what they saw as runaway development. Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting not only the environment and but also the quality of life from irresponsible mountainside construction.

The end of the laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County, that had paved the way for a proliferating number of gated communities over the past decade, angered real estate and building interests. The homebuilder’s lobby pledged to oust the four commissioners who voted in the regulations.

They failed to do so two years ago, however, when both Commissioner Mark Jones and Joe Cowan were re-elected. This year, they have their shot at Shelton and Massie. While Brian McMahan was the lone vote against the regulations in 2007 — and works for the county’s largest gated community Balsam Mountain Preserve — he has been subject to the same attacks as his fellow commissioners.

That didn’t stop the three of them — Shelton, Massie and McMahan — from taking the stage at a candidates forum sponsored by the Jackson County Homebuilder’s earlier this month.

Their opponents, however, declined an invitation to a forum hosted by Jackson County environmental groups.

What could have been tit-for-tat forums — dominated by the opposing forces of developers and environmentalists — instead fell flat. Since challengers stayed away from the environmental forum, the sitting commissioners were left preaching to the choir, and a small one at that since there was little motivation among the general public to attend a one-sided forum.

The sitting commissioners criticized the challengers for failing to show.

“I wish they could have been here tonight. I wish we could have had some good dialogue on the economy and the environment,” McMahan said.

“I think our opponents are conspicuously absent,” William Shelton said.

“I am sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to hear from our opponents, to hear what they believe in,” Tom Massie said. “We don’t know where they stand on these kind of issues.

Shelton and Massie have rejected the accusation that the development regulations passed in 2007 are to blame for the slump in real estate and development.

“We have tried to beat the drum that the policies in Jackson County are not what has killed our economy. These ordinances did not kill the economy,” Shelton said.

Massie said the challengers on the ticket want to “roll back the ordinances.”

“The subtext of their message is they don’t like the ordinances and they want to go back to the way it was four years ago. But we’re not going to go back to the way it was four years ago,” Massie said.

Jackson commission race stands out in complexity

Ambivalence toward development, and who should pace and manage growth in a manner that preserves the natural beauty of the mountains, has surfaced as the central debate in the race for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners.

Three seats are open on the board. This includes the top the chairman’s position. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but are elected by countywide voting, or at-large.

In most Western North Carolina counties, the races for commission seats are fairly easy to categorize and subsequently, to analyze: newcomers — generally supportive of land regulations — versus long-timers — generally oppose land regulations.

Jackson County, however, is more complicated than generalizations allow. Two of the most ardent supporters of the strict development regulations now in place are scions of old mountain families: Tom Massie and William Shelton, both incumbents.

Additionally none — not one — of the commission candidates is in favor of a total absence of development regulations. Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated (all are represented in this year’s race), each in some manner, and at some level, acknowledged the necessity and responsibility of overseeing growth.

Other issues are also on the table this year: the deal struck with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam; pay raises that seemed to mainly benefit the already-highest paid of the county’s employees; and budget issues.

See also: Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

 

Regulating development

Background: Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. Others protested that too many subdivisions — 238 — were exempted. The “vested rights” were to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers in the planning stages. This, in turn, angered those wanting stricter growth controls.

When it comes to growth, the most hands-off candidate is Charles Elders, Shelton’s Republican opponent and a former commissioner. Even Elders, however, gives a nod to “some regulations” being necessary to protect the mountains. He is calling for a study of the current set to see if they need revision.

Shelton, a Democrat, voted for the regulations now in place. He said they weren’t developed willy-nilly, but followed a great deal of public comment from a cross-section of the county’s residents.

“I supported the temporary moratorium on new subdivisions because I felt the county needed time to develop the minimum standards without the planning department becoming overwhelmed with new applications that were simply trying to get into the system before any regulations were passed,” Shelton said.

Additionally, blaming a local governing board for a national recession doesn’t make sense, Shelton said.

But Republican Doug Cody, who is battling Massie, a Democrat, thinks the regulations should be examined “in considerable detail.”

“I also think that there should be input from a larger cross section of the community,” Cody said. “For example, I feel that there are creative ways to construct very low-density housing on steeper slopes without harming the environment.”

Massie pointed out the regulations were actually developed by members of the county’s planning board, which included a representative of the Home Builders Association. And were tweaked by commissioners. He characterized the advisory board as “reasonable, concerned citizens.”

What wasn’t reasonable — in his mind, at least — was what happened after the moratorium was placed on new developments conceived after February 2007.

“The regulations did not cause the slowdown in construction or real estate sales,” Massie said. “However, the hysteria generated by elements within the real estate and construction industries may have done more to damage that sector of the economy than the actual moratorium.”

If there is a man in the middle on these development issues, that is Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. He, among the candidates, cast the sole ‘no’ vote on current development regulations. He also opposed the moratorium on subdivisions.

“Did we really accomplish anything with a moratorium but alienate and frustrate many in the public?” McMahan queried rhetorically when asked about his vote.

But McMahan’s position is more complicated than simply dismissing the regulations that were passed, because he supports — and has been consistently on record as doing so — most of what is in place.

“I found it to be true that everyone was in favor of having stable slopes,” he said. “Everyone wanted some assurances that their neighbor’s property would not slide down the mountain and destroy or damage their property.”

Everyone also wanted safe and good access and roads, McMahan said, and “appropriate” buffers.

“I stopped in my support … when the ordinances went a step beyond those health, safety and protections aspects and started trying to regulate aesthetics, which is what ‘looks good.’’

McMahan also disagreed with lot-size requirements, which he said effectively limited some development possibilities.

His opponent, Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is having a difficult time delineating himself from McMahan on this issue because, frankly, their views on the subject are so similar.

Debnam supports the development regulations, but argues that he doesn’t think “we needed to cover everyone with the same blanket set” of rules. He, too, believes the moratorium was a terrible mistake.

“The implementation of the moratorium, in my opinion, gave us a five-month jumpstart on the rest of the nation in our economic downturn because of the question of what could happen next,” Debnam said.

 

Dillsboro Dam

Background: Jackson County tried to exercise eminent domain and take the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam now has been torn down.

Elders said he believes a little more skill at the negotiating table would have served Jackson County residents better than the bare-knuckled battle that took place with Duke.

Well, Shelton responded, of course it’s always nice to sit back and scrutinize someone else’s decisions: “Hindsight makes it easy to say that we should not have fought the fight, now that history shows we lost,” he said. “However, at the time I thought it was worth the gamble. If you look at the amount gained through the settlement against the amount spent, then you have pretty much a zero-sum game.”

Cody, like Elders, doesn’t approve of the “adversarial approach” taken by the county. His problem on this issue? Neither does his opponent. In fact, Massie voted against continuing “the legal wrangling” once the county’s appeal was denied.

“I felt it was a desperate, costly, gamble with little hope for success,” Massie said.

McMahan disagrees with that assessment, saying the fight made Duke pay more attention to the demolition than it might have otherwise. Such as sediment removal, and riverbank restoration. He agreed with Shelton that, ultimately, the situation was about break-even.

Not so fast, Debnam said.

“‘A wash?’ he said, “$500,000 out-of-pocket to area attorneys, who knows how many hours of county employee time, and we get what the stakeholders had agreed to. I think that should be considered ‘a bath.’”

 

Pay raises

Background: The county instituted a pay plan for employees. Some have since protested that the only employees who truly benefited were already those who were the highest paid.

Why in the world pay someone to conduct a study when the Institute for Local Government could have been consulted, and for free, Elders wanted to know. Additionally, Shelton’s challenger said it was disappointing to watch as the lowest paid tier of employees didn’t seem to reap rewards — only those at the top.

This issue is a tough one for the incumbents. Well-intentioned the study might have been, but the effort to bring a level of fairness to the pay scale that is based on experience, education and length of service didn’t exactly work out as thought. This truth Shelton acknowledged.

“In hindsight, I feel that our board made a mistake by voting on this policy without taking into account … the ‘career ladder’ portion,” he said. “That said, I still believe that we have a fair system in place that, in the long run, will serve the county well.”

Cody, like Elders, believes paying for a study was unnecessary, and that it unfairly rewarded those at the top tier.

Massie, like Shelton, seemed uncomfortable with what took place.

“I still support those raises,” Massie said, “but I should have better understood the impact the ‘career ladder’ … would have on pay levels of the employees with the most seniority. Had I fully understood that, it might have impacted my decision.”

McMahan, alone of the incumbent commissioners running for office, is unapologetic on the issue. The old pay plan didn’t adequately compensate some employees, and the county had too much turnover of critical personnel, he said.

“In a two-year period, the board met at seven different occasions in which the plan was discussed publicly in some way. No member of the public ever voiced the first complaint until after the plan had been presented, funded and implemented,” McMahan said.

 

Managing the dollars

Background: Being an incumbent is tough. You actually have a record to defend. But here’s one issue on which Shelton, Massie and McMahan are difficult to fault. Neighboring counties had huge budget shortfalls, layoffs and other fiscal nightmares. Jackson sailed through, with very little belt-tightening.

All in all, Elders acknowledged, the county is in pretty good shape. Wouldn’t hurt to build the tax base up, he said, and get an economic development commission re-established to focus on job growth.

Shelton said the current board “trimmed down the budget incrementally” during two budget cycles.

“This past year, we cut our budget by close to 10 percent across the board, with the exception of the fire departments,” he said. “Jackson County has a healthy debt-to-asset ratio in comparison to surrounding counties, and has a strong fund balance.”

Cody isn’t prepared to credit the incumbents even for a strong budget performance — he believes the only reason this county functioned better during the extended recession is because property values were so high.

“In my opinion, the county officials overspent while the national and local economies were slowing down,” he said.

But Massie said Jackson County certainly has done a very good job of managing its budget, thank you very much. Line items were reduced, overall expenditure reduced, money was placed in a rainy day fund to help offset future problems.

“I think that the fact that Jackson County has not had to do layoffs, furloughs and severely cut services is a testament to the sound leadership of the county manager, finance director, department heads and employees,” McMahan said.

(Note: For those not-so-good at picking up on subtleties, this is an oblique defense of the county pay raises — the highest paid who got more pay under the study did a good job on the budget, ie., county manager, finance director, and so on.)

Debnam simply refused to acknowledge that even Jackson County’s budget might be sound, and that commissioners did a good job on this part of their job. Or anything else particularly.

“Until I can get in office and have a cost accounting done, I will not know what kind of job has been done,” he said.

 

More information

Some candidates weren’t there, but if you want to know where the ones who did attend a forum put on by regional environmental groups stand on certain issues, here’s a video clip courtesy of the Canary Coalition: www.youtube.com/watch?v=raasOuOc7_0
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