GOP shift spells trouble for planning advocates

Commissioners’ appointment of a man to the Macon County Planning Board who has openly opposed that very concept has sparked outrage and an outpouring of support for the board’s beleaguered members.

The showdown for now is in Macon County, a conservative mountain community with a history of attracting newcomers whose ideologies are on the political fringes. But the questions raised are identical to those also being hotly debated in other mountain counties: Is land planning important? Will this region set meaningful restrictions on development? If so, when?

“Folks, we’re looking at two choices,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board and a professional golf course developer, told a standing-room only crowd last week.

More than 100 people turned out for a special called meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

“The vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few,” Penland said. “Or, a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.”

ALSO READ: New Macon commission chair selected

 

What happened

The stage was set for this debate on the future of land development in Macon County after three county commissioners voted Jimmy Goodman, a member of the Tea Party and a founder of the party chapter Freedom Works, onto the planning board late last month after the November election.

Republicans Jim Davis, Brian McClellan and Democrat Bob Simpson joined forces against Democrats Beale and Bobby Kuppers. Beale and Kuppers were not informed beforehand the game was afoot. Nor was the planning board consulted.

“What happened … has not been business as usual in this county,” said Beale, who openly acknowledged he was deeply wounded by what happened.

“This is Macon County, North Carolina, and we don’t treat people this way,” Kuppers said, and then added, “the process stunk.”

With the majority vote, Goodman replaced Al Slagle, a widely regarded native son and scion of a many-generation mountain family in Macon County. Slagle was up for routine reappointment.

Slagle was chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee, a group tasked with studying mountainside development in the wake of natural and manmade landslides in the county. The worst occurred in 2004, when five people in Macon County died in the Peeks Creek community. Their homes were in the path of a natural debris flow. This tragedy helped convince commissioners to ask the planning board (which formed the steep-slope subcommittee) to consider where and how houses are built in Macon County.

This decision — to simply study steep-slope development — triggered widespread opposition, fueled by a slowing economy in which builders and developers couldn’t find work.

Helping lead this anti-planning movement was Goodman, a former member of the planning board. Who, Commissioner Beale revealed, had not been reappointed because other planning board members asked that he not be. Because, they said, Goodman deliberately obstructed their work and ability to function as a board.

 

Explaining the vote

The decision three years ago not to place Goodman back on the planning board was wrong, Simpson said.

“I was part of it, and I’ve regretted it ever since,” Simpson said during the special called meeting, adding that Goodman’s views on planning are representative of a large segment of Macon County’s population, “and they cannot be ignored.”

“I righted a wrong and I’ll stand by that,” Simpson said.

Republicans Davis and McClellan did express regrets over how the Goodman matter was handled. But there were no regrets in evidence over their appointment of an anti-planning advocate to the planning board — they said the planning board and steep-slope subcommittee, which includes real estate agents, developers and more traditional planning advocates — lacks diversity.

“I am not against planning,” McClellan said. “I am for planning. I am for diversity of thought.”

Davis echoed those sentiments. He, McClellan and Simpson each personally apologized to Slagle, rationalizing aloud that they had not really voted against him per se, but rather for the aforementioned diversity of thought. Slagle, who was offered the opportunity to speak in front of commissioners, declined.

 

The future of planning in Macon

Simpson was voted off the board of commissioners during the last election.

Davis is moving on to the state senate, with moderate Republican Kevin Corbin scheduled to take his place starting in January. Only McClellan, of the three who voted for Goodman, will remain on the county’s board of commissioners with Beale and Kuppers.

Republican Ron Haven, who has expressed strong reservations about placing controls on growth and flat-out opposed regulating steep-slope development, rounds out the board.

The new commission board has agreed to consider expanding the planning board so that Slagle can be placed back on it (see accompanying article). But Goodman — who has remained silent during this fight over his appointment — remains on the planning board, too.

Despite Republican commissioners’ apologies for how things were handled and assurances they support planning and the planning board as a whole, there is a real possibility many of the current members might yet resign their posts.

“Yes, we are still a board,” member Susan Ervin wrote in an email. “Some of us initially wanted to quit, but have been prevailed upon to hang in there. We will see how this settles out; it could still go completely down the tubes, depending on what happens with additional appointments if they enlarge the board.”

 

 

Cast of characters

• Al Slagle — Former chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. Not reappointed to planning board.

• Jimmy Goodman — Appointed to planning board in Al Slagle’s place. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate against Macon commissioner and fellow Republican Jim Davis. Founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called “Freedom Works.”

• Lewis Penland — Chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. Owns a company that specializes in building golf courses.

• Ronnie Beale — Democrat. Former chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, reelected to a four-year term. An owner and operator of a construction company, and a strong proponent of land planning.

• Bobby Kuppers — Democrat. Two years are remaining on his four-year commission term. Is now the vice chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Jim Davis — Republican. Ousted state Sen. John Snow and won election to the General Assembly. His two-year term as a county commissioner will be filled by Kevin Corbin, a moderate Republican and a long-time member of the Macon County School Board.

• Brian McClellan — Republican. Reelected to another four-year term. New chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Ron Haven — Republican. Newly elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Opposed studying the possible regulation of steep-slope development.

• Bob Simpson — Democrat. Lost a bid for reelection to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

Stay little or get regulated; small farmers get some protection

Small farmers fighting against being lumped with large agribusinesses in a federal food-safety act have received a measure of possible protection.

At the behest of small farmers, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan D-N.C., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pushed through a provision to exempt small farms from new reporting requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Last month, commissioners in Jackson and Haywood counties joined their counterparts in Macon County in requesting the protection. The distinction between big and small will be those farmers making less than $500,000 in gross income and who sell directly to consumers.

This includes sales made at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture drop-sites, roadside stands and other similar direct-market venues.

“Everyone agrees we must overhaul our food-safety system,” Hagan said, “as millions of people have become sick from foodborne illnesses. But unfortunately, this bill threatens the ability of small producers … to stay in business.”

Hagan noted more than 3,700 farmers in North Carolina sell directly to consumers, generating $29 million in economic activity through sales at 200 farmers markets and more than 100 community-supported agriculture organizations.

Around and around they might go — Macon County eyed for roundabouts

It’s a dizzying prospect, but a group looking at future traffic patterns and demands in Macon County is considering including as many as four roundabouts in a recommendation to county and town leaders.

Additionally, Macon County’s second roundabout is being built as part of the Siler Road project, now under way. There is a min-roundabout (perhaps a practice one?) already built near the county library. This means Macon County residents and visitors could have as many as six circular routes to navigate when all is said and done.

The $6.8 million Siler Road project will provide additional access to the Macon County campus of Southwestern Community College and to the county library.

The Macon County Transportation Steering Committee has suggested using roundabouts at U.S. 441 Business and Maple Street, and at three intersections: Wayah and Porter streets, Wells Grove and Clarks Chapel roads and Depot and Wayah streets.

The roundabouts are simply possibilities and are open to debate and discussion, said Ryan Sherby, the rural planning organization coordinator for Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties.

The transportation steering committee is trying to decide what best to do about traffic in “areas of concern” in Macon County that were identified by the state Department of Transportation. Members will make a final recommendation to county commissioners and elected leaders in Franklin and Highlands.

Sherby said the roundabouts and other preliminary recommendations will be reviewed — and he hopes something approved — during a meeting toward the end of the month. A workshop for the public will be held in January, he said.

“There are times when a roundabout might be an appropriate intersection treatment as opposed to a signalized intersection, when considering capacity and safety,” Sherby said. “Although, on a cost comparison, lots of factors come into play such as utility relocations and potential additional right-of-way costs.”

Macon County Manager Jack Horton previously worked in Haywood County as county manager. There are now two roundabouts in Haywood, but when Horton was serving as manager the very prospect of what one resident dubbed “dummy circles” being built sparked a minor brouhaha.

Today, as Horton recently noted, very few complaints about the roundabouts are heard in Haywood County. And, they seem to perform exactly as proponents promised, safely and efficiently moving traffic through two busy intersections.

Macon County Transit Director Kim Angel raised concerns to her fellow steering committee members about the elderly population in Macon County — and this county is, in terms of median age, one of the “oldest” in North Carolina — being able to successfully round-the-roundabouts.

In a follow-up conversation this week, she reiterated those concerns, saying she was most troubled by the possibility of a roundabout near the county’s senior center, where Franklin High School is also located.

As the transportation committee works on figuring traffic needs through 2035, one potential hotspot is being worked into plans: Traffic changes from the new Wal-Mart Super Center planned for the intersection of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads.

Luckily, “(the project) surfaced during the process,” Sherby said, adding that transportation department officials have shared their traffic plans concerning the new Wal-Mart with the committee.

Beale might not fit the bill following election; Macon board swings right

Ronnie Beale is an amiable chap, and for the past few years he’s injected a bit of humor into what is often the tediously dull process of overseeing county government.

“If you want to stay and see the rest of the sausage made, you are welcome,” Beale told two veterans Monday night after the two men completed a presentation before the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

Chuckling at Beale’s small witticism, the men took advantage of the opening and left, escaping the remainder of the meeting.

Beale, a Democrat, is currently chairman of the board. Macon County, along with most of the counties in Western North Carolina (though not Jackson County, where voters decide), allows commissioners to elect their own chairman. Following a dustup on Election Day, it’s debatable whether Beale will retain the top leadership post.

It took only one loss, and the makeup of the board swung right. From Democrat 3-2, to Republican 3-2: Bob Simpson is out, Ron Haven is in, and Beale — though he retained his position as commissioner — is likely gone, too, as chairman.

Thy will be done, Beale told fellow commissioners and the few folks on hand Monday night to watch a lame-duck commission meeting. The voters have spoken and we’ll abide by their wishes, he said.

To that end, new commissioners will be sworn in Dec. 6. There will be an 8 a.m. meeting held by current commissioners, which in addition to Simpson includes Jim Davis, who is headed to Raleigh after besting Sen. John Snow in N.C. Senate District 50. The county’s Republican party will select his replacement to the commission board. Two years remain to Davis’ commission term.

Current commissioners will take care of some housekeeping details in the morning. They will recess, and a second meeting will be held that evening, at 6 p.m.  That is when the newly constituted board will gather to select a chairman and vice chairman.

Carden play, ARTSaturday planned at Rickman Store

The Rickman Store in the Cullasaja community of Macon County will host two upcoming arts events.

Sylva writer Gary Carden’s play “Bright Forever” will be performed at 7 p.m. on Nov. 19. Carden will attend the show to share and chat with the audience before an after the play. Tickets are $15 and they can be purchase at the Franklin Chamber of Commerce or by calling 828.369.5595.

The annual ARTSaturday with the Suminksy Family will take place on Nov. 20. This is the third year that the Friends of the Rickman Store and the Macon County Arts Council will start the holiday celebrations with music, art and entertainment. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the public is invited.

Newcomer will be on Macon County Board of Commissioners

One new face — Republican Ron Haven — will be on the Macon County Board of Commissioners if unofficial voting results from Tuesday night hold.

Incumbent Bob Simpson, a Democrat, lost his seat as 53 percent of Macon County voters — an impressive number for a midterm election — turned out to vote. This right-leaning county did re-elect Democrat Ronnie Beale, the commission board’s current chairman.

Haven and Beale represent the top two vote-getters in District 2, the Franklin area.

Voters also returned Republican incumbent commissioner Brian McClellan of Highlands to the board to represent District 1. McClellan regained his seat by besting Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner.

Haven, a business owner, has called for a county department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. He campaigned vigorously against steep-slope controls, flatly stating at a recent candidates’ forum that he wanted the county’s planning board to even stop study on the issue.

Macon County is the site of the September 2004 Peeks Creek landslide. This was a natural, not manmade, disaster that claimed five lives, and has since shaped the nature of debate here about what should be done about development on mountainsides.

Beale, who defended the work being done by the planning board, campaigned on a record of school-building projects and the work done to set the table for future economic development.

McClellan also has emphasized job creation, and supports offering incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County.

 

Macon County Board of Commissioners (District 2, vote for 2)

Ron Haven (R)    5,719

Ronnie Beale (D)    5,539

Charlie Leatherman (R)    5,362

Bob Simpson (D)    4,259

Vic Drummond (U)    2,316

 

Macon County Board of Commissioners (District 1)
Brian McClellan (R)    7,323
Allan (Ricky) Bryson (D)    5,099

Holland keeps his hand on the helm in Macon County

Macon County Sheriff Robert “Robby” Holland, a Republican, has won another term in office — his third — by beating back challenger George Lynch, a Democrat.

Holland and Lynch ran relatively mud-free campaigns that focused on their respective strengths as veteran law enforcement officers. Holland, 43, worked his way up the ladder at the sheriff’s department. He started in 1991 as a part-time detention officer, serving under another popular, seemingly unbeatable Republican sheriff, Homer Holbrooks.

Holland won Macon County with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Lynch, 62, is no stranger to Macon County voters, and represented a serious, if unsuccessful, challenger for Holland. Lynch had 14 years of experience as a law enforcement officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Holland, during his campaign, emphasized the multiple programs he’s instituted to combat the use of illegal drugs, and the crimes associated with their use. Holland also has placed a strong emphasis on involving the community in law enforcement efforts.

 

Macon County Sheriff

Robert (Robby) Holland (R)    7,802

George Lynch (D)    5,162

Budget issues top Macon commission race

On this, the seven candidates for the Macon County Board of Commissioners agree: the problems of a dour economy, and the subsequent need to watch every dollar spent and encourage any economic growth possible, is the No. 1 responsibility facing the next set of commissioners.

The number two issue? That, most likely at least in the minds of voters, would be the steep-slope debate. The question on the table is whether Macon County — site of the 2004 Peeks Creek landslide tragedy, albeit this was a natural disaster and not a manmade one — should regulate building on steep mountainsides.

Three seats on the five-member board are open, with the top vote-getters in District I and District 2 winning the seats – one in District I, which represents Highlands, and two in District 2, the overall Franklin area. The other two board seats come open in two years.

Macon County is an increasingly conservative-voting county. The old “outsiders”-can’t-win-truism of most counties isn’t true anymore here, either. Current Commissioner Jim Davis, a Republican now vying for a state Senate position, broke that rule by being elected way back in 1996 to the commission board.

In District I, Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner, is trying to regain his previous seat on the commission from incumbent Republican Brian McClellan. During a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by The Macon County League of Women Voters, Bryson spoke of his experience (unfortunately for him, that doesn’t delineate him from McClellan) and the fact that when he was commissioner, funds had been routinely set back to offset bad times such as these. He also cited strong support for economic development, schools, and spoke against unfunded mandates passed down by the state.

Bryson did not mention one point in his favor that conservative Macon County might hold against McClellan: a driving while under the influence charge the incumbent commissioner picked up last year. McClellan didn’t mention it, either.

Instead, McClellan talked of the need to offer incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County. The more jobs, the more breaks from the county, that’s the general idea.

“We need to do that in order to be competitive,” McClellan said.

He also advocated zero-based budgeting, or making each county department start from ground zero when building and justifying an annual budget.

There also wasn’t much fierce talk in the battle for District 2. Ronnie Beale, a Democrat presently serving as chairman, like McClellan, spoke of the new economic development guidelines passed 18 months ago to allow for incentives. He said Macon County is finally getting the tools needed to help attract new jobs.

He spoke of stopping a “brain drain” in Macon County, in which the brightest young minds leave for jobs elsewhere. And he touted the new Iotla Valley Elementary School building. A construction contract was recently awarded to an Asheville company.

Democrat and incumbent Commissioner Bob Simpson spoke similarly, but added that during his tenure, the board of commissioners had helped oversee a new space for Southwestern Community College to operate in Macon County.

Simpson staked out a safe political agenda by expressing his support for children, the elderly, and fire, police and emergency services when it comes to budgeting priorities.

Charlie Leatherman, a Republican former commissioner trying to regain a seat on the board, used several of his four minutes available to emphasize his support for education. Leatherman, it should be pointed out, is an educator — he works for Macon County Schools and serves on the SCC Board of Trustees.

“We don’t have jobs for these kids who are graduating,” Leatherman said. “We don’t have jobs for those people who have lost their jobs.”

Ron Haven, a Republican, said he wants to apply what he’s learned as a business owner to Macon County government. He pointed to the need for a department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. Haven also flatly came out against study of a steep-slope ordinance, saying this simply isn’t the time to worry about such things, given the dire economic issues.

Vic Drummond, an unaffiliated candidate, is unapologetically right leaning. He, like Haven, wants to see work stop on a steep-slope ordinance. (He made the small gaffe of saying that no houses in Macon County had been lost to landslides, leading several onlookers to whisper audibly to one another, ‘Hasn’t he heard of Peeks Creek?’)

Other candidates cited a desire to see what the planning board offers up in the way of steep-slope controls before condemning study of the ordinance out of hand.

Drummond criticized taxes being raised during a recession, and made a bid for revaluation of property in the county to take place next year instead of 2013 (it has been postponed from 2011).

Macon sheriffs race features two experienced officers

Two veteran officers, Sheriff Robert Holland and George Lynch, are vying to fill Macon County’s top law-enforcement post.

The campaigns of both men have been remarkable. More for what isn’t happening rather than what has taken place. Both Holland, the incumbent, and Lynch, a former U.S. Forest Service law-enforcement officer, said they are intent on running clean, mudslinging-free campaigns.

And, to date, they have.

Holland, 43, a Republican, is in his second four-year term as sheriff. He joined the Macon County Sheriff’s Department in 1991. And made a steady climb to sheriff: animal-control officer, part-time detention officer, part-time deputy, fulltime deputy, investigator in the juvenile office, supervisor of that office, investigations unit.

Holland, not surprisingly, is running a campaign based on his experience.

“I’ve got eight years as sheriff,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of programs going that have been a success.”

Holland said since being elected sheriff, he has placed a major emphasis on combating illegal drugs and the crimes associated with them.

“I’ve really encouraged community involvement,” he said. “People in the community know their neighbor better than we do.”

The Democrat party’s candidate, Lynch, 62, like Holland, has emphasized his experience in law enforcement. He has a military background that includes one year as a military policeman for the National Guard. Fourteen years were spent as a federal officer for the Forest Service, where Lynch investigated, prepared and shepherded through trial more than 200 cases.

Lynch hinted at two areas where his administration would differ from Holland’s. One is more visible patrols in remote areas.

Lynch said he believes the primary duty of a patrol officer is the “protection of life and property,” not traffic control, though he would still want deputies to put the brakes on reckless drivers and drunken drivers.

“Officers need to be seen day and night from the city limits to the most remote areas of the county,” he said, “checking on the security of private property, businesses, churches, schools, homes, nonresidential houses and developments.”

Because of the geographic distance of Highlands and Nantahala from Franklin, Lynch said he wants fulltime deputies assigned to both communities.

He said he does not like “sensational drug busts” in which “buyers and dealers are allowed to continue to buy, sell and ruin lives until one can charge large numbers at once for publicity purposes.”

Lynch said he would strongly consider entering drug taskforce agreements with other agencies rather than use the go-it-alone approach “now in place.”

Proposal to pave, widen Needmore Road met with skepticism

A state proposal to widen and pave a gravel road that runs alongside the Little Tennessee River and near the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Tract is being greeted with caution by conservationists.

“It is a very important stretch of river,” said Stacey Guffey, chairman of the board overseeing the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “As a group, I’d say we’re not opposed to improvements that would help river quality. But, if something is going to be done, we want to see it have as little impact as possible.”

A portion of Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane gravel road that parallels N.C. 28 in Macon and Swain counties but on the opposite side of the river. The state Department of Transportation is proposing to pave and widen 3.3 miles of Needmore Road from one lane to two lanes. The new road would have a minimum width of 18 feet. Additionally, work would take place on the shoulders of the roadway.

“I think Needmore Road needs to see some improvement, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy,” said Cheryl Taylor, a resident of the Needmore community and leader of the group Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation.

Taylor said she and members of her group are concerned about the scope of the transportation department’s proposal.

“(The Needmore Tract) is a place to go to enjoy the area and outdoor recreation,” she said, adding that those qualities need to be protected.

The project is estimated to cost $6.5 million and would target the section from Byrd Road in Macon County to existing pavement in Swain County. Work on three of the four sections making up the project would get under way in 2012. The final — and most difficult section from an engineering standpoint — is slated for 2015.

“This alternative will improve the entire facility to conform to NCDOT Division 14 Secondary Road Standards,” states a meeting notice issued by the transportation department. “The proposed alignment calls for widening the roadway away from the Little Tennessee River.”

Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Macon and Swain, said the paving proposal dates back to about 1997. Justification for the road upgrade is based on the number of houses served and traffic counts. Though there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road, Setzer said the traffic counts are high “as compared to other gravel roads.”

The purpose of the project is as follows:

• To improve the quality of travel for local residents who currently use the road.

• Reduce sedimentation from Needmore Road into the Little Tennessee River.

• Avoid or minimize adverse impacts to the existing high-quality natural resources.

The transportation department has worked on environmental assessments of the project, Setzer said, and has plans to deal with the Anakeesta-type rock found in the area. These rocks contain high levels of iron-sulfide and can create acidic runoff.

About 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was saved from development and turned into a state game land overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Commission six years ago. Needmore Road, in places, borders the protected tract.

Nantahala Power and Light bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of damming up the Little Tennessee River for hydroelectric generation. The power company never built the dam. Instead, the bottomland was leased to farmers. Local residents used the remainder for hiking, camping and hunting.

Duke Power in 1999 took over Nantahala Power and Light and decided to sell the land for development. Public outcry led to a massive, five-year campaign to save the tract. Local residents, conservationists and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee worked together to raise $19 million in state grants and private donations to pay Duke. The Needmore Tract was then placed under state protection as the Needmore Game Land.  

Aklea Althoff, who operates an office in Franklin for the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, echoed calls for restraint when it comes to tinkering with Needmore Road.

“We know that some improvements need to be made because of the sedimentation problem from the gravel road,” she said. “But it needs to be as minimal as possible because of this pristine ecosystem.”

 

Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance environmental group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.

Learn More:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starts at 7 p.m., September 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

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