Macon fly-over shows what’s at stake

There’s no way to prevent landslides in the mountains, but there is a way to make their impact on humans more predictable.

That’s the message that N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten and the staff of the North Carolina Geological Survey have impressed on the counties in which they have compiled landslide hazard maps. But while the landslide maps offer a vast amount of useful information for county planning offices and elected leaders, they don’t come with any regulatory directives.

That’s why two nonprofits, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association and South Wings, organized a fly-over of Macon County’s most significant landslides last week.

“You forget there are people who live below who can be killed,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of LTWA. “It’s easy to get caught up in the language of the law rather than what’s really at stake — which is public safety.”

Close on the heels of a headline-grabbing landslide in Maggie Valley, the timing for the trip couldn’t have been better.

Macon County is currently at a crucial point in the process of developing a steep slope ordinance that would set firm guidelines for where and how developers can build on mountainsides.

Macon Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland –– a grating contractor and a developer by trade –– is worried that the fallout from landslides will result in a blanket state-level solution if counties don’t find their own answers.

“Everybody talks about property rights but when your mountain falls on me, that’s a problem,” Penland said. “If we don’t handle this issue then the state will, and I’d prefer we do it ourselves.”

Penland said he was disappointed that none of the county commissioners participated in the fly-over and he worries they won’t support a strong enough ordinance.

“I just hope that Macon County has wise enough commissioners to realize that they represent 35,000 people and not make the mistake Haywood County made,” Penland said. “The staff needs a little support. They’ve been great. It’s time to take the leash off and let the dogs hunt.”

A steep slope committee has spent the past year drafting proposed regulations and will submit its recommendations to the planning board on Thursday, Feb. 18. The ordinance requires developers and graders to hire a certified engineer when building on slopes that exceed a certain threshold. Determining that threshold has been a matter of debate for the committee, however.

Under the final recommendation, the full weight of the ordinance will apply on slopes exceeding a 40 percent grade, according to the committee’s chair, Al Slagle. But the ordinance also creates a middle ground on slopes between 30 and 40 percent. In those cases, the county would have discretion to make a developer comply with various aspects of the ordinance. The landslide hazard maps will weigh heavily in the decision by county planners on how to treat developers falling in that middle range.

Jackson and Haywood counties already have steep slope guidelines. Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance applies on any slope above 30 percent grade and Haywood’s on slopes above 35 percent. Swain County has no steep slope ordinance.

One of the issues that has arisen with respect to the Maggie Valley and Wildflower slides is the financial burden placed on counties when slides originate on private property with a bankrupt owner.

Because homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover landslides, there is a real financial threat to downhill property owners. Only strong policy guidelines can offer protection in those instances, by imposing security bonds or penalties. That’s a part of the discussion Sanders wanted the stakeholders to understand by actually seeing the proximity of homes to the path of recent slides.

“People think we’re trying to over-regulate or step into people’s lives, but it’s really about protection,” Sanders said. “Those people will likely end up in financial ruin and there needs to be something in place to protect them.”

Childcare openings fall far short of demand in Macon

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale knew the county had a problem when two young working mothers contacted him directly following the closure of a daycare and unable to find openings elsewhere.

“They were saying ‘We don’t have anywhere to send our children, so what are we supposed to do?’” Beale said.

Beale chartered a committee in February of 2009 to explore the causes of Macon County’s suspected childcare shortage and last week the group released its findings.

The verdict? Macon County doesn’t have enough affordable, quality childcare, particularly for those under 2 years old.

Chuck Sutton –– executive director of Macon Program for Progress, a federally funded nonprofit that provides childcare for 315 children –– chaired the committee. Sutton said he and the other people with experience in childcare had a strong feeling about what they would find when they began the study.

“I think there were several of us that had the feeling there was an existing problem but we couldn’t put numbers to it,” Sutton said.

In rural areas, the low population density makes it difficult for daycare providers to turn a profit because the costs of hiring licensed personnel and paying for insurance are too high. Meanwhile, for working parents paying $125 a week per child for daycare, throw in a mortgage and car payment and they can barely afford groceries.

“You can’t really drive the price down because that’s what it costs to care for a child properly,” Sutton said. “So the providers and the parents are working against each other.”

The study, using 2008 population statistics, showed there were 1,147 children under 2 years old in Macon County. Working from the assumption that half were cared for by a stay-at-home parent or other family member, the study pegged demand in the county at 574 slots for infants and toddlers.

But the current capacity is well short — only 210 spaces, the majority of which are reserved only for low-income families. That means over 300 families are stuck on waiting lists or are sending their children to unlicensed providers.

The county enlisted the resources of a long list of state and regional agencies in the study –– including Department of Health and Human Services and the Southwestern Child Development Commission –– and amassed a thick volume of findings that pointed to the reality that good childcare is an important part of early development.

Macon Program for Progress, Sutton’s organization, supplies the bulk of the slots for children under the age of 2, but the federally funded programs are only available to families that meet federal poverty guidelines.

The result is that the families in the middle suffer.

“Our programs are income-based and what we find is the families who are just above those income guidelines are the ones who are most at a disadvantage in this system,” Sutton said.

Now Sutton and the other members of the committee are hoping the county can find a creative solution to fix what is essentially a broken childcare economy.

Sutton hopes they can follow the lead of Jackson County, where Harris Regional Medical Center has worked in conjunction with private businesses to provide a daycare facility.

“We want to see some business or industry-based employers take up the call and say they’re going to invest,” Sutton said.

Public-private partnerships are another model, like a childcare facility at Haywood Community College that serves as a teaching institution for students in early childhood development. Also in Haywood, the school system partnered with a childcare center where teachers are given first priority.

Beale said the county would be willing to work on providing a space for a private daycare provider and would continue to work with the state to see if there was any money available to drive a solution to the problem.

“We’ve done the report. We have the need. Now what?” Beale said.

All three incumbents to run again in Macon


The Macon County board has four commissioners and one chairman. This year, the seats of two commissioners and the chairman are up for re-election. A party primary in May will narrow the field to one Democrat and one Republican for each of the three seats. Each commissioner represents a geographic district in the county, but the county chairman is elected at large.

With three seats on the Macon County board up for grabs this year, all three of the incumbents have said they will run again. Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale, Franklin-based Commissioner Bob Simpson, and Highlands-based Brian McClellan will seek re-election.

Beale said he wants to finish work the current board has started.

“I’ve been a part of implementing a lot of things from the mental health task force to the completion of the new school, and there’s still some things I want to see through,” Beale said.

Beale said the economic development commission is working well in Macon County and taxes have remained among the lowest in the state. He is concerned about the impact of declining retail sales tax revenue on the county. Beale said has taken pride in the capital projects completed during his last term –– including the new early college building at Southwestern Community College, a series of school upgrades and the modification of the old library into a center for the elderly.

Commissioner Bob Simpson has also said he will seek re-election to a third term on the board.

“In this economy we’re going to have to have experience on the board to keep taxes low,” Simpson said.

Commissioner Brian McClellan was reached briefly just prior to press deadline and confirmed he intends to run again.

Macon comprehensive plan stutters as work begins

Comprehensive planning is supposed to be, well, comprehensive. But as Macon County leaders are finding out, it’s not that easy to get the public’s opinion on how its government should work for the next 20 years.

After a three-month effort aimed at obtaining input on the county’s comprehensive plan, Derek Roland, Macon’s planning director, has only received 303 completed surveys in a county of some 35,000 permanent residents and thousands more second-home owners.

Meanwhile, the subcommittees charged with identifying the issues and action plans that would give shape to the final planning document have been plagued by poor attendance and a lack of a clarity concerning their mission.

“We were notified at our last meeting that there was some disconnect as to what the final outcomes should be,” Roland told a gathering of the subcommittees last week. “I’m hoping we can clear that up before you all leave here tonight.”

The slow start is a testament to the difficulty of the task at hand. The goal of the comprehensive plan is to create a guide for policy decisions concerning the county’s growth. It is addressing 10 different categories ranging from recreation, to land use, to education, to healthcare.

The project was commissioned in January 2009, but hand-picked subcommittees didn’t meet for the first time until October, when they began the process of coming up with recommendations in their specific areas. Since then, the sub-committees have struggled to wrap their heads around the project.

Last week, the planning board convened with the subcommittee chairs to regroup and signal a new beginning to the comprehensive planning process.

Chris Hanners, chair of the public services and economic development committee, was frustrated by the poor attendance of his committee members.

“It’s hard to make progress from month to month when you spend half the meeting getting people up to speed on what happened the last time,” Hanners said.

Hanners also said he wasn’t sure what the committee’s final product should look like.

Roland has taken the comprehensive planning process seriously. He has traveled to meetings in Sealy, Cowee, Upper Cartoogechaye, Pine Grove, Otto and Nantahala to explain why this process matters, why it will be different from the county’s two previous failed attempts.

The focus on public input has been his most compelling argument. But after all the meetings, less than 1 percent of the county’s residents have responded to the survey, which is available on-line and at various county and municipal offices.

Roland has already begun crunching the numbers the surveys have yielded and they are interesting, but, ultimately, of little use.

For instance, 72 percent of county residents believe protecting rural character is very important and only 51 percent think the same of recreation facilities.

As planning board member Carl Gillespie, a fifth generation native of Macon County, suggested, the numbers aren’t a clear representation of the public will.

“We need to bear in mind we’re sampling an extremely small percentage of people and we don’t even know what kind of cross-section we’re getting,” Gillespie said.

County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers urged the subcommittee members not to get discouraged.

“The dialogue, the discussion, the identification of problems is worthwhile on its own sake,” Kuppers said. “To this county, this effort means something.”

Planning Board Chair Lewis Penland also took the long view.

“It will always be a work in progress. To be a success it will have to be,” Penland said.

Penland urged the subcommittee members not to get discouraged before their work began in earnest.

“This is new to all of us, and I don’t want people to get discouraged,” Penland said. “The hardest part with a committee like this is to get engaged.”

Penland hailed the planning board’s success in creating a subdivision ordinance for the county as a sign that the comprehensive plan will work.

“The neatest part of all this is that growing up it seemed like there were a few people making decisions in this county and now the tide has changed and the people have the input,” Penland said.

Penland said the surveys were only one layer of the public input process.

“All we can do is deal with what we get,” Penland said. “I don’t know any other way. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ‘em drink.”

But it was Roland who addressed the practical side of the planning process.

Using the Henderson County plan –– which has won awards in Raleigh –– as a model, Roland methodically and concisely but energetically outlined the process, including a timeline and a set of concrete outcomes for the subcommittees.

For example, one of Henderson County’s recommendations is to “reduce farmland loss,” and the action strategy was “to consider the costs and practicality of establishing a farmland protection fund for Henderson County.”

The subcommittee chairs left with a clear understanding of what they were being asked to produce and the planning board announced they would extend the public input deadline until March 1 in the hopes of making a last hard push to get the survey numbers up.

“The presentation Derek gave left us with a clear direction, and as of now, I really feel good about the process,” Hanners said.

The subcommittees have the responsibility of settling on a final timeline for their recommendations by the planning board’s May 18 meeting.

Golf club to restore Upper Cullasaja

The Upper Cullasaja Watershed Association and the Cullasaja Club are pursuing state funding to restore the headwaters of the Cullasaja River. The partners have applied to the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund for money that would allow them to clean up 4,300 lineal feet of impaired stream located on the Cullasaja Club’s golf course in Highlands.

The project would restore native habitat and streambed structures as well as mitigate the impact on water temperature and runoff effluents caused by the golf course.

Highlands Mayor David Wilkes said the project could be the start of a broader movement aimed at restoring the Upper Cullasaja headwaters between Lake Ravenell and Lake Sequoia.

“One of the problems with the river that’s run through these communities that have golf courses is we’ve altered the stream habitats,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes said the project would work to re-route the stream in a way that would insulate it from the temperature fluctuations caused by water released directly from ponds on the golf course.

“Their intent is just to clean up that section of the river but you would hope that as the work is finished there that the next property owner down the line would recognize the value of the effort,” Wilkes said.

The entire project would cost an estimated $755,710 and would require the permission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

On Monday night the Macon County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution in support of the effort and the Highlands town board is expected to adopt a similar resolution at its meeting later this month.

Macon residents still waiting on McCoy Bridge plan

A year ago, state officials promised a group of Macon County residents that they would get a cost estimate for what it would take to rehabilitate the McCoy Bridge, a single lane truss bridge that dates from the 1930s.

That cost assessment hasn’t happened yet and now the North Carolina Department of Transportation says the project has dropped in priority because of the state’s budget crisis.

Residents want to save the McCoy Bridge because of its unique character and aesthetic value. The NCDOT, meanwhile, has argued that the bridge is not historic and needs to be replaced with a two-lane bridge with greater weight-bearing capacity. The bridge is seen by some as a symbol of the community’s rural character, something that could be comprised if a bigger bridge replaced it.

In response to opposition from residents to the NCDOT’s plan to replace the bridge, the agency promised it would provide a cost assessment for the bridge’s rehabilitation within the year, and a year is now up. Steve Abbot, communications director for the NCDOT, said that assessment hasn’t been completed and could not provide a concrete timetable for its completion.

The bottom line from the NCDOT’s perspective is that the state’s budget crisis and the I-40 rockslide have made the bridge a low priority.

“The project has been delayed due to the State’s financial crisis and other projects that are funded have been given higher priority for our resources,” Abbot said. “Until we work through the current issues, we will not be setting the project schedule.”

According to the DOT, the most current cost estimate for replacing the 290-foot bridge and its roadway approaches is $2.424 million, a figure that does not include any right-of-way acquisition or utility relocation cost.

Doug Woodward, a resident who has championed the McCoy Bridge cause, argues the bridge should be saved and that there is no good reason to put in new two-lane bridge on an access route that only carries about 300 vehicles per day.

School buses and emergency vehicles don’t use the bridge because the NCDOT has downgraded its weight-bearing capacity to three tons, roughly the weight of an SUV.

Pam Williams, the NCDOT’s engineer for the project, said the disagreement between her department and the residents boils down to a policy issue.

“DOT has a policy of not putting in one-lane bridges and they wanted us to look at the possibility of doing that,” Williams said.

Williams said the bridge has been up for historical designation three times and not been included on the register. Without a historic designation the bridge is not likely to be maintained in the state road system. As of 2009 there were only 36 truss bridges left on NCDOT-maintained roads.

“They do consider it an historic and iconic bridge and I understand that, but it is a truss bridge and truss bridges are considered fracture critical. In North Carolina we don’t build truss bridges anymore,” Williams said.

Abbot said that in the case of bridges with strong sentimental value, the NCDOT often uses its bridge relocation and reuse program to move the bridge to a place where it can be maintained and utilized by private or public entities for non-highway uses.

McCoy Bridge came into the NCDOT system in 1960 but it is believed to have been built in the late 1920s or early 1930s, according to Woodward. It is an example of a Pratt Through Truss Bridge, a common technology for early steel span bridges.

Woodward understands that the NCDOT doesn’t want a single span truss bridge in its system, but he pointed out that many states have found ways to preserve and utilize truss bridges. Iowa has over 1,400 truss bridges in operation, Woodward said.

To Woodward, the issue comes down to logic. The bridge is beautiful and it serves a small community with little potential for traffic increases. Why get rid of a nice bridge with historic value when a new bridge isn’t needed?

“If it can’t be rehabilitated adequately there are other ways to bring it up to a load-bearing standard that is not limiting school buses or emergency vehicles,” Woodward said. “The DOT would put a $4.6 million bridge in that location with 80 percent federal funding which would essentially be a concrete slab.”

Road failures cast uncertainty on Wildflower’s future

In 2005, two investment partners from Atlanta broke ground on a massive project on the slopes of Cowee Mountain in north Macon County with hopes of creating a new paradigm for mountainside development in Western North Carolina.

However, four years later, the road system is plagued by landslides, many of the lots are in foreclosure and only two homes have actually been built on the 2,500-acre development.

When a mid-November rain storm dumped three inches in Macon County, Thompson Road, a key road through the development, gave way, triggering a landslide, burying a home site below under a half-acre of debris. More significantly, the slide raises questions about the stability of the remaining 30 miles of roads in the development. After the slide, Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe contacted the North Carolina Geological Survey to ascertain if the road collapse posed a threat to property owners down slope from the Wildflower development.

“After we noticed there was a slide there, we notified property owners in the valley just so they could know what was going on above them,” Cabe said. “We wanted them to hear it from us instead of reading it in the newspaper.”

The study conducted by North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Senior Geologist Rick Wooten concluded that the area affected by the slide was still unstable.

“The lowermost portion of the deposit spilled over a steep road cut for a driveway above Thompson Road. Large trees, many with root balls still attached, were pushed over, snapped off, and partially buried by debris flow material in the toe area,” the report read. “Unstable embankment material remains below the eastward and westward extensions of the main scarp. This unstable material will probably continue to move.”


Geologist vs. developer

The report and a subsequent mapping effort undertaken by state geologists and Macon County’s GIS mapping team also showed that the road system in Wildflower was compromised to some degree in more than 20 separate locations.

Wooten’s team recommended that landowners below Wildflower be notified of the risk of future slides and suggested that other roads in Wildflower would likely continue to move.

“The other failure areas along the Wildflower development road network have the potential for continued movement, especially associated with heavy rainfall events,” the report said.

After four years in business, the 250-lot development boasts only two finished homes and with a number of its home sites already in foreclosure, the last thing it needs is a major issue with its road system.

Brian Garner, general manager of Wildflower, said the failure of Thompson Road was an isolated incident that resulted from the emergence of a wet spring.

Garner said Wildflower would hire a geo-technical engineer to evaluate the situation as well as take additional measures to prevent erosion in the future. He said the road failure occurred on a portion of the property that had yet to be developed, so it didn’t pose a risk to the investments of property owners in Wildflower.

When asked whether he thought the roads in the rest of the development were sound, Garner pointed to the fact that the county’s erosion control department had signed off on them.

“I asked the county that and the county said they were originally put in according to the guidelines,” Garner said.


Development without regulation

When Atlanta-based developer Robert Ullmann unveiled his vision for Wildflower through his company Ultima Carolina LLC four years ago, he promised a full-service, upscale residential community.

“There’s a reason people are drawn to these mountains,” said Ullman in Wildflower’s press materials. “The wrong kind of development can destroy that; the right kind can help to preserve it. This is not just about higher elevations. It’s also about higher standards.”

Right from the start, though, the development faced opposition from local residents who felt it would strain the county’s resources and ruin Cowee Mountain. Ullman appeared alongside Stacy Guffey, the county’s planning director at the time, in a public meeting to make his case.

“You are not going to avoid development, and you are not going to completely prohibit development,” Ullman told the crowd. “If you think Macon County won’t change, I can assure you it will.”

Ullman said the best people could hope for was to pass some land-use regulations to prevent irresponsible developers from ruining the mountains.

“He did make the point at that meeting that the county was wide open,” Guffey said. “And that if we had had rules, he would have abided by them.”

While that conversation seems prescient now, the fact remains that when Wildflower went through its initial permitting process the county didn’t have subdivision or steep slope ordinances. Cowee Mountain is a steep area covered with colluvial soil that is essentially low-density rock and soil debris, and prone to instability.

In order to build a road system, Wildflower had to comply with the county’s erosion control ordinance, and the county signed off on a series of erosion control plans for various parts of the road system. The erosion ordinance was narrowly tailored to keep muddy runoff out of creeks but didn’t deal with underlying road construction methods.

Guffey claims stability problems with the road system were already evident at the time, but the county lacked regulations to do anything about it.

“The truth is that when I worked for the county, a lot of us knew there would be problems with those roads,” Guffey said. “It’s really one of the reasons we felt such urgency to create a subdivision ordinance.”

Macon County now has a subdivision ordinance that includes road standards and a surety bond to guarantee that developers meet those standards, allowing the county to bill a developer if it has to go in and repair shoddy work. A committee is also currently in the process of drafting a steep slope ordinance that would create standards for soil compaction, cut and fill slopes, and road grades.

Guffey, who works as a consultant now, addressed the slope development committee on the implications Wildflower’s road failure has on the county at a meeting last week. His message was clear.

“It’s a private property but when you see it overlaid on a potential landslide map... if the potential is there it’s there,” Guffey said. “There’s not just one slide, there’s a number of them. What will they do to the streams that run down through there onto other peoples’ properties?”


Damage control

Macon County’s environmental services supervisor Matt Mason has the responsibility of enforcing the county’s erosion control ordinance. Mason succeeded Josh Ward, who had the position when Wildflower first applied for building permits.

Mason said the county signed off on Wildflower’s land disturbance permits in phases, each of which required erosion control plans for roads and home sites in the development.

According to Mason the county still has access to close to $80,000 that Ultima set aside in a surety bond to guarantee Wildflower’s erosion control measures. The county has informed Ullman that he’s responsible for correcting the damage caused when a road collapse triggered a landslide.

“I’ve actually talked to the owner and we’re requiring him to hire an engineer to submit a report on how to stabilize the road and he’s willing to do that,” Mason said. “If not then it could be a problem.”

Mason said the county still has the authority to enforce the erosion control ordinance because the project is still open, but he said Wildflower is not currently in violation of the ordinance.

“They’re not in violation. We’ve not fined them. We sent out a letter informing them it needs to be corrected,” Mason said.

Mason said he has spent the last year trying to re-draft the county’s soil and erosion ordinance to include soil compacting standards, but the revised ordinance is still in the review process. For now, he said, the county’s position with Wildflower is limited to enforcing the ordinance that was in place when the development filed its paperwork.

“If we had had a subdivision ordinance or a steep slope ordinance in place, we could have done it differently,” Mason said. “We want to have safe and smart development, and the bottom line is that costs a bit of money.”

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Wildlower’s road issues is that some of the compromised roadways are actually driveways serving home sites that have already been sold. The owners are now responsible for the maintenance of those driveways, without which the home sites are worth next to nothing.

At a county meeting in November, county commissioners asked planning director Jack Morgan whether Wildflower had filed for bankruptcy, raising concerns about the project’s financial viability going forward.

Brian Garner, the project’s general manager, said he could not elaborate on Wildflower’s financial situation.

“As far as I know we’re still doing what we need to do,” Garner said. “We’re still on the ground running.”

Robert Ullman, the developer, did not respond to requests for comment.

Guffey said the county has cause to worry if Wildflower goes under.

“One of the fears is if it’s in foreclosure, who pays for that damage?” Guffey said.

Macon wrestles with impact of subdivision ordinance

Although Macon County passed its first subdivision ordinance more than a year ago, Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Beale wonders whether enough was done to protect developers with projects already underway.

Developments that pre-dated the new rules may be hamstrung when attempting to sell lots today, if those lots are subject to the ordinance, Beale said.

“If they have a buyer for a piece of property in this day and age, we don’t want the subdivision ordinance to be overly cumbersome,” said Beale, who shared his concerns a commissioners meeting last month.

Beale inquired about what type of “grandfathering” could be put in place for existing subdivisions with lots that weren’t officially recorded but perhaps existed on the developer’s personal master plan.

The county’s zoning administrator, Jack Morgan, said the county gave ample warning to developers when the ordinance was adopted. Developers were given 90 days to decide whether to register their properties on the county’s plat books.

“That 90-day period was to give people who had subdivisions the opportunity to record their properties that hadn’t been platted yet,” said Morgan.

At that time, developers had to decide whether or not to plat their properties, with the consequence that they would then have to pay taxes on individual parcels. By leaving them un-platted, they knew they would have to eventually comply with the new ordinance.

Beale’s concern is that the county will continue to run into developers who don’t realize their properties are subject to the ordinance if they haven’t been platted, even if they fall within existing subdivisions.

Beale said he’s not interested in undermining the intent of the ordinance but he believes the county needs to make a concerted effort to educate the public.

“The discussion is –– with the older subdivisions how does the ordinance play a role and what does it say you have to do?” said Beale. “A lot of it is misunderstanding and it’s not easy to read. An ordinance is a law and we want to make sure it’s understandable.”

Macon’s subdivision ordinance was developed under the direction of the Planning Board as a way to protect lot buyers and create standards for subdivision development.

The ordinance has a few main components, but primarily governs how steep and narrow roads can be. It also requires developers to create a homeowners’ association and enter a bond agreement with the county should they abandon the project with unfinished or unstable roads.

“It’s not a heavy-handed ordinance at all. There are some out there that would break your back,” said Morgan. “Macon County’s intent –– we didn’t have any regulation at all and that’s when we had the great Macon County land grab. We needed some structure in place.”

The ordinance was approved in June 2008 but didn’t take effect until September to allow for a 90-day waiting period.

In a county with over 600 subdivisions, some of which are over 30-years-old, getting the word out to all of the interested parties has not been simple.

Because Macon’s ordinance wasn’t designed to be restrictive, Susan Ervin, a planning board member, doesn’t think the county should look for ways around enforcing it.

“I feel like the ordinance should apply in every case that it possibly can,” said Ervin. “These were not designed to be onerous requirements. They were a way of structuring good development. It’s not something we should be looking for ways to get around.”

Realtor John Becker of Exit Smoky Mountain Realty essentially agreed with Ervin’s assessment.

“My opinion is if guys have stuff in the ground then it should be exempt but if the stuff isn’t platted yet then it has to come up to snuff,” Becker said. “Most of the stuff they’re trying to put together is safety-oriented and making sure the consumers are protected.”

Ervin said the ordinance has a provision for a developer to be exempt if they can show they spent a substantial amount of money and resources on a subdivision project before the new rules took effect.

Beale has directed Zoning Administrator Jack Morgan to come up with a public education program for the ordinance to be presented at a public hearing in January on some minor housekeeping revisions to the ordinance.

“We realized that the realtors and the surveyors and such — the people who use it everyday –– we’ve not yet determined the best way to get out there and explain to people exactly what the subdivision ordinance says,” Beale said.

With real estate market still in flux, Macon postpones property reappraisal

Macon County has joined a growing trend in deciding to postpone its property revaluation process for two years.

The county was due for revaluation next year, but based on the testimony of its tax administrator, Richard Lightner, the board of commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the reval until 2013.

“We have to give the market more time to stabilize so we can determine where the market actually is,” Lightner said.

In 1998 the county adopted a four-year revaluation cycle to keep up with rapidly moving property values during a period when real estate values were rising 10 to 15 percent each year.

Lightner argued that sluggish real estate sales since 2007 didn’t provide an adequate benchmark to undertake an accurate property assessment right now.

“Based on the numbers and the trends in the market right now, I would suggest we not do a re-assessment until 2013,” Lightner said. “The market’s just not right now. There’s a lot of stuff listed, but sales are slow.”

Macon County Manager Jack Horton agreed with Lightner’s assessment of the situation.

“I think there’s not enough sales between last year and this year in order to build a schedule of values,” Horton said.

Lightner believes a revaluation this year would result in skewed assessed values that could increase the number of tax appeals and unfairly burden residential property taxpayers.

Lightner said the county went through contentious revaluations in 1975 and 1983, when property values jumped dramatically, and he suggested reassessing values this year could lead to a heated review season for a different reason.

Essentially, he said, a revaluation now would reflect downward movement in the commercial market and stable values in the residential market, which would shift the property tax burden further onto residential taxpayers, a less than ideal outcome at a time when the county’s property taxpayers are already stretched to their limits.

Lightner explained that property values around the county are only slightly higher on average than the county’s assessed values.

He added that the 2009 sales ratio, which measures the relation between the county’s appraised value and the selling price, is still at over 97 percent, within the statistical error margin.

When the ratio drops below 90 percent, utility companies are eligible for tax breaks that can cost the county big money, but Lightner said with the market slow, there is nothing to worry about on that front.

The county has carried out its revaluation process in-house since 1998 in a move to cut costs. Haywood voted earlier this year to postpone its revaluation process, also citing similar reasons. Swain, meanwhile, had undertaken a countywide reappraisal but voted not to enact it during the recession, deciding to wait another four years instead.

Macon tax hike in store to pay for new elementary school

Macon County’s schools will get a long-awaited upgrade, but its taxpayers are going to have to pay extra for it.

County commissioners voted last Tuesday to raise the property tax rate by one-and-a-half cents to build a $15 million elementary school. The new tax rate will go into effect next year. The move will also fund several smaller school construction projects contained in a 10-year capital plan.

County Manager Jack Horton said the plan was a conservative way to accomplish much-needed school improvements.

“These are what I would call essential and necessary construction projects following the long-term school renovation plan,” Horton said. “There aren’t any frills here. This is as conservative as we could come up with.”

The construction of North Macon School will consolidate the two existing elementary schools of Cowee and Iotla, in addition to accommodating around 70 students now attending East Franklin Elementary.

As a result of the consolidation, Cowee’s grade school will go out of service and the current building at Iotla will be razed so the new school can be built in its place.

In November 2007, the public narrowly voted down a $42 million bond issue for school construction. Plans called for building two new schools — one for grades K-4 and one for grades five and six — and doing away with three smaller schools of Cullasaja, Iotla and Cowee.

The bond measure failed by a near miss, but the school board and county commissioners decided to move forward with the construction anyway. A fifth-and sixth-grade school and the expansion at East Franklin were completed, but the new North Macon elementary was temporarily put on hold due to budget shortfalls related to the recession.

The commissioners’ decision to fund the construction of the North Macon School through an increase in property taxes also included plans to allocate $1.8 million for the Nantahala K-12 school, to be obtained through a low-interest loan program made available through the stimulus package. The county will also move $1.3 million from school reserve to fund repairs and renovations at Franklin High School.

Commissioners acknowledged that raising taxes during a recession was risky. But with construction costs at an all-time low and the availability of attractive interest rates through federal stimulus loans, the county’s remaining school facilities needs could be accomplished at an affordable price tag.

“The need has been there, and construction costs are at an all-time low,” Horton said. “The stimulus money and the low-interest loans make it attractive to do these projects now.”

Gambling on the economy

Commissioner Jim Davis, who represented the county board alongside Chairman Ronnie Beale on the school liaison committee, said the vote to raise taxes was a calculated risk.

“It is a gamble. We’re gambling that the economy is not going to get worse, and we don’t know that,” Davis said. “Macon County is in an extremely good position to weather the storm, and I don’t want to jeopardize that. There’s a reason why we have a good fund balance and that’s because our commissioners have historically been careful about how they spend the county’s money.”

School Superintendent Dan Brigman said the funding plan approved by the board will make the district safer and provide a better learning environment. With the construction of the North Macon School, children across the district won’t be limited in their choices of school because of capacity issues.

“It’s basically going to set up a situation where there is a school choice option with capacity not being a barrier,” Brigman said.

In addition, Brigman said the district would save $250,000 per year in operating costs by consolidating the schools, as well as making it free of mobile classrooms for the first time in years.

Brigman said the board’s vote last week was the culmination of years of effort by the school liaison committee that he regards as a triumph of cooperation between the school board and the county. The school liaison committee incorporated two members from the school board, two from the county board, and financial and executive officers from the district and the county.

“There has been a partnership existing between the two boards that is like nothing I’ve experienced in the six counties and two states I’ve served as an educator,” said Brigman.

But while the vote was unanimous in the end, a lively debate arose over whether the board was going far enough to improve the county’s school facilities.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers argued passionately that an additional half cent tax increase could allow the county to renovate the gym and install artificial turf on the football field at Franklin High as well.

Brigman said the 52-year-old gym is too small to accommodate community events and the natural turf field couldn’t take the traffic of year-round use for student and community activities.

“I think we’re gambling that we’re at the bottom of the curve. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about a cent and a half,” Kuppers said. “The only reason I’m bringing this up is I want the seed to be planted that for a half a cent more we should finish the job.”

Beale replied that while the high school might need the renovations, they weren’t part of the liaison committee’s discussion.

“We have met for four years to figure out a plan that would work and never has anyone mentioned a gym,” said Beale. “I’m not saying it’s not needed. I’m not saying that at all.”

Davis said he was already uncomfortable raising taxes when taxpayers were hurting, and he didn’t believe the athletic facilities should be prioritized the same way as instructional facilities.

“My comfort zone is stretched to go ahead and build this school now to raised taxes 1.5 cents,” Davis said. “We’re trying to make up for a lack of planning in the past.”

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