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Macon County asks for public input, take three

After two unsuccessful attempts at creating a comprehensive land-use plan, Macon County’s commissioners have directed staff to take another bite of the apple.

As County Planner Derek Roland travels from community to community asking the public for input on what amounts to a visioning document that will guide the county’s growth for the next 20 years, he’s had to contend with the community’s sense of mistrust.

“Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same operation over and over again and expecting a different result. How are we to expect a different result this time?” said Larry Starr, a resident.

Roland appeared at a forum in Franklin last Thursday sponsored by the League of Women Voters as part of a public outreach effort aimed at encouraging citizens to submit their opinions in survey form to the county’s Comprehensive Plan Committee.

Accompanied by Macon County Planning Board members Susan Ervin and Larry Stenger, Roland’s visit had another purpose, too –– to convince people that their voices matter.

Ervin urged the crowd of 20 or so people gathered at the luncheon meeting to speak freely with Roland, who has the task of managing the public input program and will ultimately administer any ordinances that affect zoning.

“I realize that many of you are highly skeptical, including me in some ways, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to put aside your skepticism and ask difficult questions,” Ervin said.

But the crowd gathered in Tartan Hall also wanted Roland to know that he had inherited a credibility issue, because of the county commissioners perceived unwillingness to act on constituents’ wishes.

“Most of the people in my community don’t know who’s on the board, and furthermore, they don’t care because they know their voices won’t be heard,” said Betty Wallace, a resident of south Macon County.

Others in the crowd were plainly skeptical that the county’s leadership had changed its tune since it conducted its last comprehensive plan, which the board of commissioners ultimately did not adopt. Since that time the county has seen a number of high-profile development issues that the planning efforts were aimed at avoiding, namely the failure of the road system at Wildflower, a mountainside megadevelopment, and the construction of an asphalt plant near residential property just outside of Franklin.

“I trusted a lot of people in this county, and they put an asphalt plant in my front door,” said Joyce Starr, after the meeting in Franklin last week. “I just felt absolutely betrayed.”

Roland delivered a PowerPoint presentation, fielded questions, and listened to recriminations. Then, he asked people to buy into the new process, and by the end of the meeting he was answering substantive questions, a testament either to the fact that people who care about issues will always care about those issues or to Roland’s own willingness to take punches without firing back.

“Talking to some people, they feel in the past the county government has ignored their concerns and largely disregarded their feelings concerning planning,” Roland said. “It’s important to know that we have a commission at this point that cares about what the citizens think. This board believes the voice of Macon County needs to be included in the planning process. The past is the past and those plans didn’t work, but this is different and this one will work.”

Roland said commissioners asked him to create a public input model — so surely they intend to use it.

A finished plan is more than a year away. Five subcommittees have been created to work on various components of the plan. Meanwhile, public opinions are being collected through surveys and at community meetings to guide the subcommittee’s work.

“I’ve looked at a lot of comprehensive plans, and this is the most extensive public input process I’ve seen,” Roland said. “We’re giving people a number opportunities to provide input to the plan.”


A New Balance

Stenger, who has served on the planning board for the past six years, said he has seen a change in the mindset of residents about planning. In the past, a stark divide separated long-time natives who craved economic development and transplants favoring environmental stewardship.

“There is some commonality. The reason the heritage people are here and the reason people move here is the beauty, so we have to protect that,” Stenger said.

In part, Stenger said the change of heart in the community is a result of the harrowing facts of the situation. Macon County had 23,499 people in 1990, 33,005 in 2009, and projections show the county could have more than 46,000 people by 2029.

With a water hungry metropolis to its south in Atlanta, and Cherokee’s booming casino –– which attracted over 4 million visitors last year –– to the north, Macon County can no longer avoid the issue of how to cope with development.

“Density drives the issue, and I see that now there seems to be a willingness on the part of the planning board and county government to entertain the opinions of the people,” said Stenger.

Roland, who grew up in Macon County, agrees.

“I think people realize that future growth has implications and can have negative effects,” Roland said. “They want to be able to have input rather than having the dollar determine that for them.”

The comprehensive plan will ultimately be hammered out in five committees, each using information gathered during the public input process to inform its decisions. The committees are to address a range of issues from affordable housing, to planning and zoning, to transportation and public services.

But at last week’s meeting the crowd was most interested in determining how serious Roland and the board are about controlling development.

“One of the things that worries me about the county is the old 1950s mindset that growth is good at any cost,” said Franklin Alderman Bob Scott.

Wallace showed that farmers are just as concerned as second-homers about the nature of Macon’s growth.

“Our efforts in planning since the 1950s have been geared to commercial interests, not rural interests,” Wallace said. “I’d like the planning board to decide how many more tourists we want in Macon County? Do we want 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?”

Ervin, who acted as a mediator during the session, said the county’s population has never been as growth-obsessed as its leaders.

“I think there has overall, in the general population, been a lot less infatuation with growth than there has been among the county commissioners,” Ervin said.

Roland has already visited more than eight community groups in similar forums across the county to talk about the plan and encourage residents to fill out the surveys the committees will use as feedback. He has plans to visit at least five more in coming months.

So far, he said he has heard people express the need for a balanced approach to planning.

“I think the thing I’m seeing the most is we have to find a balance between fostering economic development and preserving the land that makes Macon County unique,” said Roland.

Figuring out the measure of the balance will be where the rubber hits the road in the planning process. Roland said he wants to see the results of the process before he draws conclusions.

“We’ll just have to see the results before we make conclusions about how the vision has changed,” said Roland.

Lawsuit alleging poor treatment in Macon jail hits dead end

A federal judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit by Maureen Lackey, a 45-year old Franklin resident who alleged discrimination by Macon County and the Sheriff’s Office.

Lackey, who suffers from epilepsy, claimed jailers denied her medicine after she was arrested for a DWI last January. Lackey had been carrying the unmarked pills in a Vitamin B bottle.

She claimed she underwent seizures at the jail and urinated on herself after not being allowed to use the bathroom. Lackey said she felt humiliated after jailers laughed at her as she experienced seizures. She claimed the experience worsened her condition and sought compensation for medical expenses.

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland called the allegations “frivolous” and said the dismissal of the suit confirms his faith in the legal system. Holland believes the allegations were an attempt by Lackey to stave off prosecution for the DWI charge.

“Ultimately her attempt to improperly influence a criminal prosecution, and also to avoid personal responsibility, failed,” Holland said.

Federal Judge Dennis Howell dismissed the case not so much on its merits, but because of several technicalities. Howell ruled the complaint should have targeted the sheriff rather than Macon County and the entire Sheriff’s Department. While Lackey later asked the clerk of court to amend the complaint to include the sheriff, the judge found no evidence that the clerk actually did so.

Lackey could not receive compensation for medical treatment anyway, because it is not likely that she will again suffer the same alleged harm in the future, the judge wrote. In order to obtain injunctive relief, a plaintiff must demonstrate a “sufficient likelihood” that the defendants will harm her again in the same manner unless restrained.

“The Sheriff cannot be compelled to provide her with medical care when she is no longer in custody,” wrote Judge Howell.

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said no disciplinary action had been taken against any of his employees.

Since Lackey’s first DWI arrest, she has been arrested for another DWI, writing bad checks, simple assault contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and misdemeanor child abuse.

“I demand professionalism from my staff and that is exactly what Ms. Lackey received in this incident, as well as her other subsequent arrests on other charges,” wrote Holland in an official statement.

Lackey could not be reached for a statement, because her cell phone had been disconnected.

Landslide maps one component of steep slope planning

The Macon County committee charged with proposing regulations for building on steep slopes is still swimming in a sea of ideas but has agreed on one point. It will incorporate landslide hazard maps into a proposed ordinance, though the maps won’t be the end-all, be-all.

“If we based it totally on that, I think we would be leaving out a lot of issues,” said Al Slagle, chairman of the committee and planning board member.

“I think everybody wants to see the risk maps used as a cross-reference,” said Susan Ervin, who serves on the committee and the planning board. “It’s very clear there’s going to be some kind of coordination.”

The high-resolution topographic maps pinpoint exactly where landslides have occurred in the past, where they are likely to occur in the future, and how far they might travel if they occur. The North Carolina Geological Survey will eventually create maps for every mountain county to better identify high-risk areas.

While the maps have been available for curious eyes at Macon County’s GIS office, as well as online, since 2006, they have not been formally integrated into the slope development process so far.

Members of the slope development strategies committee said the maps could come in handy for deciding which sites require technical study before development occurs. Other counties that have tackled similar ordinances have not had the luxury of such maps while making the major decision of which thresholds would trigger regulation.

Macon County currently has no regulations for steep slope construction. Developers and contractors can build on slopes as steep as they like without consulting with engineers or geotechnical experts.

Committee members said the ideal ordinance would not crush development on slopes with an iron fist. Rather, it would allow for safer, better-informed development.

“It’s not that those things can’t be done. It’s got to be done right,” said John Becker, a committee member and local Realtor.

Rick Wooten, senior geologist at the N.C. Geological Survey, said the landslide hazard maps could be helpful in this capacity.

“If you’re building a house, this can tell you the areas where it makes sense to take a close look at the landscape,” Wooten said.

In many cases, the path to improving safety can be as simple as moving a house 20 or 30 feet to one side.

Nevertheless, the landslide hazard maps are only one part of the equation.

“The maps are useful, but it still requires boots on the ground,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has spearheaded a campaign to require minimal slope development ordinances for all counties in Western North Carolina.

While looking at where landslides are likely to strike can be valuable, the committee is considering other criteria, like the slope’s steepness and soil composition, both of which can affect safety.

The committee analyzed similar ordinances in Haywood and Jackson counties, as well as White County in Georgia, before beginning work on one for Macon County.

One idea floating around is to create no regulations for slopes under a 30 percent grade, mandate that the county conduct an in-house study to determine the need for a geotechnical investigation for 30 to 40 percent slopes, and call for an engineer or design professional to study slopes above 40 percent. Falling into unstable territory, as determined by the landslide hazard maps, would also require a technical inspection.

Others on the committee prefer a lower threshold for triggering the regulations. The in-house county oversight would kick on slopes greater than 25 percent, and mandatory engineering would be required on slopes over 35 percent.


Making data available

Traditionally, development in Macon County occurred in more accessible, gentle lying areas. But with an increasing number of second homes, as well as innovations in engineering, there has been more and more building on steep slopes and ridges.

“That’s likely to continue, so we would like it to be done in a way that did not endanger the people building those [and] people living in proximity,” said Ervin, who added that the county should not invest in public infrastructure for “unstable” projects.

But when it comes down to it, Ervin admits the committee is evaluating development on a “pretty low percentage of private properties,” since most of the steepest slopes in Macon County lie within the Nantahala National Forest..

“The risks really are quite low,” said Reggie Holland, another committee member and president of the Macon County Home Builder’s Association. “If it happens, the danger is quite high.”

According to Wooten, many of Macon County’s debris flows occurred on the east facing slopes of the Nantahala Mountains.

In case the landslide hazard maps are not incorporated into the ordinance, they would still serve an important function by helping forecast where landslides may occur.

“They’re very useful to have,” said Joshua Pope, GIS coordinator for Macon County. “It’s like predicting weather. It’s not set in stone, but watching The Weather Channel is still useful.”

And as always, they are available to anyone who wants to take a look.

“Aside from regulations, the most important thing is that people have that information,” said Stacy Guffey, committee member and former county planner. “We have this information, we should use it.”

The reason Macon County has this resource in the first place is because it suffered the most severe damage from the 2004 hurricanes in WNC, according to Wooten.

The Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005 required the maps to eventually be created for all counties in WNC.

Each set of landslide hazard maps has taken a year to complete, with three counties finished up so far: Macon, Watauga and Buncombe.

The N.C. Geological Survey is currently working on landslide hazard maps for Jackson and Henderson counties. It will take at least a year to finish the maps for Jackson County, Wooten said.

Pending final approval and funding from Raleigh, the agency will study Haywood County after maps are completed for Henderson and Jackson counties.


The cost of regulations

After the landslide at Peeks Creek in 2004 claimed five lives, Macon County became well aware of the dangers of locating development on hazardous areas.

“We don’t want to see another Peeks Creek going on — ever,” said Becker. “Profit shouldn’t go before safety.”

Still, Becker said he would like to see an ordinance that ensures the safety of Macon County residents without imposing too many rules and regulations.

Teresa Murray, president of the Franklin Board of Realtors, said Realtors do have concerns but understand that something needs to be done.

“There’ll be some costs no doubt when it comes into play,” said Murray. “Hopefully, we can have an ordinance that benefits everyone.”

Requiring technical studies to evaluate dangers obviously would tack on to the cost of developing, but Rapp reminded real estate agents that it would be beneficial to sell property on a steep slope five or six times rather than sell it once and have it torn apart by a landslide.

Initially, Rapp hoped Realtors would be required to inform clients about properties that lie in areas prone to landslides.

“I’m willing to compromise on that as long as we require that the structures be built safely,” said Rapp. “If you’re doing it right from the beginning, then it takes the fire out of this issue.”

Rapp said he will continue to push for legislation that mandates those minimum slope development ordinances in Western North Carolina.

“It’s so fundamental. It’s so basic,” said Rapp. “It’s hard for me to fathom why people will be opposed to it, other than we’re talking about serious, big dollars that can be impacted.”

Rapp said the next big challenge is to make sure homeowner’s insurance for landslides is made widely available.


What other counties are doing

As Macon County crafts its first set of steep slope building regulations, one issue confronting planners is when the regulations should kick-in. Other counties with steep slope ordinances faced a similar debate: what is the treshhold for triggering oversight?

• Macon County has the benefit of state landslide hazard maps, which will play a role in determining that treshhold. Other counties didn’t have such maps when crafting their ordinance, and instead rely solely on the slope.

• Jackson: Steep slope ordinance applies on slopes with a grade of more than 30 percent.

• Haywood: Steep slope ordinance applies on slopes with a grade of more than 35 percent.

• Swain: No steep slope building regulations.

• Proposed state bill: A state bill that has been percolating in the legislature would require builders to consult an engineer when building on slopes that exceed a threshold of 40 percent.

Macon wades gingerly toward transportation plan

As the main coordinator of a comprehensive transportation plan for Macon County, Ryan Sherby faces a long road ahead of him.

Sherby and a local steering committee — with the help of public input — aim to determine the transportation projects that Macon County needs most.

The comprehensive transportation plan will look as far ahead as 25 years, also exploring alternative means of transportation like public transit, walking and biking.

The process is a joint effort undertaken by the towns of Franklin and Highlands, Macon County, the N.C. Department of Transportation, and Sherby’s organization, the Southwestern Rural Planning Organization. Sherby hopes to wrap up the process in 12 to 18 months.

As if the prospect of planning a quarter century in advance isn’t daunting just on its own, there’s also the task of winning the community’s trust.

At a public meeting last Thursday, Macon County residents voiced their concerns, exhibiting eagerness to engage in the comprehensive plan as well as skepticism about whether their opinions would actually be taken into consideration.

Some said the DOT turned a deaf ear to their protests against building a new road in the vicinity of Southwestern Community College and the Macon Library. The road was billed as improving access to the college and library, but in the process cuts through undeveloped land and spans the Little Tennessee River, all the while paralleling an existing road. Opponents lobbied for upgrading existing Siler Road instead of building a new one.

“I collected 500 signatures against the road,” said Sharon Taylor. “We were never given an opportunity to have any participation in the design and now it’s a 100-foot swath across the county ... without a bike lane.”

Sherby reassured the audience that things would be different this time around.

“The DOT is going through a transformation process, trying to be more accountable and engage the public more,” Sherby said. “They have not been sensitive to the public in the past, but I think they’re working toward that direction.”

Kay Coriell, president of the Friends of the Greenway, said officials from the DOT came in twice recently to ask for opinions on the bridge that will span the Little Tennessee and the greenway as part of the new road.

“It shows that they’re listening,” Coriell said, adding that whether they actually do anything after listening is anyone’s guess.

Throughout the meeting, Sherby repeatedly invited citizens to pick up his business card and give him a call or shoot him an e-mail to share their opinions about the plan. He has already collected more than 300 surveys on transportation issues from Macon County residents and will continue to accept those surveys until Oct. 1.

Macon County citizens have already filled out more than twice the total number of surveys submitted in Jackson County.

On the survey, respondents rate the importance of goals like safety, faster travel times, environmental protection, economic growth and alternative transportation. They also can indicate whether they support widening existing roads and building new ones versus improving the flow of traffic on existing roads — or both. Survey takers can also weigh in on the need for bike lanes, greenways and park-and-ride lots.

Citizens at Thursday’s meeting said they would like to see lanes widened to accommodate school buses, a commercial bus line into Asheville, more sidewalks, the creation of bike paths, and flexibility in design.

After gauging how local citizens want their transportation systems to evolve, Sherby and the steering committee will collect and analyze data. Next is formulating a vision statement, and the final step is coming up with a list of transportation projects to endorse.

Macon County’s comprehensive transportation plan will be the second in the western region of the state, following Jackson County’s lead. The Rural Transportation Planning Organization will eventually coordinate plans in Swain, Cherokee, Clay, and Graham counties as well.

Macon group finishes study of living history farm

A Macon County group is one step closer to its dream of establishing a Living History Farm, a working replica of a pioneer village where visitors can witness what life was like for the earliest settlers in the area.

An independent consultant has completed the first feasibility study for the project, and the results will be made public within the coming month, said Margaret Ramsey, chair of the Macon County Folk Heritage Association Board of Directors. The nonprofit group is the sponsor of the project.

“It’s not a binding thing, but whatever she says, we will certainly study at length,” Ramsey said of the study.

The completion of the feasibility study marks a key first step in getting the idea for the Living History Farm off the ground, a process that has already been a long one. The farm has been a major goal of the Folk Heritage Association since its formation seven years ago, but fundraising for the feasibility study only began this past spring. The group collected $22,000 from various sources, including the Macon County commissioners, the Town of Franklin and local banks.

More money will be needed to continue the process of establishing the Village, a fact the group recognizes won’t be easy in the current economy.

“We realize that these are tough economic times to try to get anything underway, so we’re not anticipating anything immediately, but we are still trying to lay a firm foundation,” said Ramsey.


Preserving heritage

The Living History Farm aims to provide a deeper understanding of today’s mountain heritage by giving visitors a glimpse of early Macon County life.

“Heritage is a living part of us,” said Ramsey. “It’s more than just reading and learning — it’s part of who we are.”

The concept of replicating a working village from a long-ago era isn’t new to Western North Carolina. The Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee transports visitors back to 1750s Cherokee life, complete with villagers who hull canoes, make pottery, and weave baskets. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Mountain Farm Museum recreates a mountain farm, but it has working exhibits only a few weekends a year. Unlike other villages, the Living History Village will be the first exhibit of its kind to honor the area’s European settlers. According to Ramsey, Macon County makes an ideal location.

“I think it’s representative of all of Western North Carolina,” Ramsey said of Macon. “It was one of the earlier settled counties, and I think there’s been a lot of interest over the years in recording and preserving history here.”

That interest is evidenced by the success of the Macon County Folk Festival, the first official event ever put on by the Folk Heritage Association. Now in its sixth year, the most recent festival welcomed more than 100 exhibitors and its largest crowd to date.

“Our short-range goal has been preserving the heritage through the festival, and it’s been extremely popular and successful,” said Ramsey.

But the group’s long-range goal, and ultimate vision, is the Living History Farm. The county has already donated a 23-acre site for the farm, located along Cartoogechaye Creek behind Southwestern Community College. Ramsey envisions bringing in a collection of historic buildings, such as a log cabin, a one-room schoolhouse, a church and a store, all of which will be restored and furnished on site. The village “won’t be a static exhibit that people just walk through and look at,” said Ramsey. Instead, volunteers in period clothing will be on site operating a grist mill, running a blacksmithing shop, raising a patch of sorghum molasses and performing everyday tasks of a long ago era. Guests will have the opportunity to take part through various activities and classes on heritage skills.

Exactly what time period will be represented is yet to be decided, though Ramsey said the village could feature buildings that represent different periods throughout Macon County’s history.

“We want to do the very best research and planning we can,” Ramsey said. “We’re going to concentrate on making ours different from anything else available. That’s the only way we’re going to get people here and make sure it’s a sustainable thing.”


A patchwork effort

One unique possibility for the village is a focus on quilting, a popular heritage craft. Ramsey is the former manager of the Maco Crafts cooperative, a now-defunct group that was once well known throughout the region. The cooperative was particularly recognized for its quilting abilities.

Ramsey has her eye on four particular creations that could play a role at the Living History Farm. One of them is the World’s Largest Quilt, which has been shown up and down the Eastern seaboard and hung in the Kennedy Center and at the Knoxville World’s Fair. The quilt was sold on the condition that it would remain in Macon County permanently and is on display at the WhistleStop Mall. Another creation, known as the Celebrate America Quilt, was won by a local woman who wants to see it displayed. The quilt features the autographs of stars like Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Randy Travis.

Ramsey is trying to track down two other creations. One is the world’s largest quilted wall hanging that hung in the Phillip Morris cigarette plant in Concord until the facility closed two years ago. The other is an original design that commemorated the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. The whereabouts of the two quilts are currently unknown.

“We’ve got the possibility of [obtaining] these four outstanding and unique quilts,” Ramsey said. “We’d hope to have a place for them and maybe use that exhibit to help attract visitors here.”


Keeping the vision

The much-awaited results of the feasibility study will assess the practical and impractical points of the plan for the Living History Farm, and address what it will take for the project to be sustainable. It’s an important first step, but there’s still much work to be done. For now, Ramsey and the Folk Heritage Association members seem determined to see their vision through.

“We’ve got lots of plans and lots of things to pull together, and lots of obstacles in the process,” said Ramsey. “But we’re still in there working.”

New economic development coordinator learns the ropes

Trevor Dalton, Macon County’s first paid economic development coordinator, is back on his home turf.

Dalton, 24, grew up in Macon County, and majored in business administration at Appalachian State. He worked in the Wilmington, N.C., area in the insurance industry and at a software firm for the past two years. He got his feet wet in the computer industry during high school working in software support for Drake and later for TekTone, a Drake subsidiary that makes intercom and call systems.

Drake, a tax software company that employs more than 325 people, is the largest single driver of Macon’s economy. Dalton’s knowledge of the field likely helped land the job.

In addition, Dalton’s father owns Dalton Construction, further scoring points since the construction industry is another major player in Macon’s economy.

Economic development consultant James McCoy, who is the chief visionary behind the county’s new economic development plan, is grooming Dalton for the job. Given McCoy’s expertise, the economic development board merely needed a coordinator who could implement the strategy McCoy was creating.

“The first day I walked in I had a 90-day plan,” Dalton said. “It said this is what you will do the first month this is what you will do the second month and this is what you will do the third month. I know exactly what I am doing tomorrow.”

Dalton doesn’t harbor vestiges of the old economic development paradigm. His counterparts in years gone by would spend their days courting big manufacturing industries to set up shop in their county, luring them with the promise of free land and tax incentives if they would roll in and provide jobs. But Dalton has internalized the new model that took his older counterparts much longer to come to terms with.

There are two major shifts in focus. One is nurturing small companies just as you would big ones.

“Manufacturing is gone. To create the jobs you have to have the small five, 10, and 15 person companies,” Dalton said.

The other is paying attention to the jobs you already have, he said.

Macon hires point man in new push for economic development

Macon County has hired a full-time economic development coordinator, finally joining the ranks of most counties who employ paid directors tasked with growing jobs and recruiting businesses.

Trevor Dalton, 24, has no economic development experience or training — but the county’s economic development board says that’s just what they were looking for. The Economic Development Commission wanted a young upstart who could be molded and instilled with Macon’s business vision, rather than someone predisposed to an off-the-shelf strategy from elsewhere.

Dalton has gotten a good introduction to the business community in Macon County in his first two months on the job. He jumped into the middle of an on-going strategic planning process that landed him in face-to-face interviews with more than 80 stakeholders in the county, from town and county leaders to major business owners.

“We wanted to go out and get their opinions on where they see Macon’s economy going,” Dalton said.

The input will help shape a new economic development strategy as opposed to the county’s more passive approach to economic development in past years.

Unfortunately, Dalton discovered during his meetings with current business leaders that some don’t feel appreciated.

“We want them to feel welcome in Macon County,” Dalton said.

Others that participated in stakeholder interviews heard the same concern.

“The entities here now are not sure they have government support,” said Macon County Commissioner Jim Davis. “I think we need to put that on the priority list to fix and have a protocol so that doesn’t have the opportunity to rear its head. The first thing we need to do is preserve what we’ve got.”

Part of the problem has been the lack of a go-to person to periodically call on existing companies, since the county relied solely on a volunteer board and had no paid staff.

“A major part of my job is going to be working with our businesses to retain the jobs we currently have in Macon County,” Dalton said.

Ed Shatley, the chairman of the EDC and retired insurance man, said a paid economic development director seemed unnecessary until recently. Macon has always enjoyed relative prosperity in the job market compared to its neighbors, with unemployment often hovering below 4 percent.

“So why did we really need one?” Shatley said of an EDC director.

But when the recession hit, Macon’s unemployment rate reached 13 percent — suddenly worse off job-wise than some of its neighbors. Shatley theorized that Macon’s economy was too dependent on development and real estate.

“It became obvious in the last recession that a high percentage of our jobs were in the construction industry,” Shatley said.

James McCoy, a consultant hired to overhaul the county’s economic development strategy, said adding a paid staff person was a critical move.

“You need someone who gets up every day and thinks about nothing but the future economic health of this community,” McCoy said. “That is something every single community deserves.”

Others involved in the county’s economic development work agree.

“Now we actually have some boots on the ground to carry out some of the ideas we think might work,” said Franklin Mayor Joe Collins.

Mark West, vice-chairman of Macon’s EDC and a former county commissioner, helped push for the hiring of a paid economic development coordinator. Without one, the county wasn’t doing justice to economic development, West said last year. The job of recruiting businesses and nurturing existing ones was not effectively being carried out by the volunteers serving on the EDC board, he said.


New strategy

As part of an overhaul to the county’s economic development strategy, the EDC board was reorganized and expanded to 12 members. County commissioners appoint board members and the board functions as a county department.

McCoy was brought on to steer the process in March 2009.

The new EDC strategy has created four committees within the board to focus on target areas: recruiting new businesses, supporting existing ones, nurturing entrepreneurs and retail development.

McCoy recently gave a presentation on the new economic development strategy to elected leaders in the county. McCoy spent most of the presentation highlighting what a great place Macon County is. McCoy talked about the county’s assets: good hospitals, good schools, good quality of life, diverse employment, sense of place, community pride and geographically well-positioned.

“We are in good shape I am proud to say,” McCoy said.

He also shared labor and demographic statistics for the county.

Macon Commissioner Brian McClellan asked McCoy if a more specific strategy would be forthcoming.

“Could we expect some concrete suggestions as to what specifically we can do to further the process?” McClellan asked. “I would be more than willing to listen if you had some concrete ideas of A, B, C for ways we can help move everything forward.”

McCoy said those suggestions would be coming down the pipe in the next few months.

In Macon County’s dream world, it would become a hub of technology development companies. While theoretically far-fetched for a largely rural Appalachian region, Macon County’s proximity to Atlanta and the presence of a major software firm already, Drake Software, makes it plausible. Drake’s main tax software enterprise and several technology and computer subsidiaries under its domain has singled-handedly positioned Macon County to tout itself as a high-tech hotbed in the mountains.

Macon mulls workforce challenges

While it doesn’t seem like much of a news flash, it has emerged as one of the top concerns in Macon County economic development circles: the workforce is aging.

“It actually is something to be concerned about. It is getting worse,” James McCoy, an economic development consultant for Macon County, told a gathering of local elected leaders last week. “We have a need for a younger, more professional workforce.”

Leaders from Franklin, Highlands, and Macon County held a joint meeting last Thursday (July 23) to hear a progress report on a new economic development strategy for the county. Over the past several months, McCoy and other economic development officials have been systematically meeting with the county’s largest employers to help chart a new path for economic development.

A recurring theme among those interviewed is concern over the aging workforce, McCoy said.

While the number of people over 65 is growing in the county, the number under the age of 44, and particularly under the age of 29, is shrinking.

“The big thing we heard was the age of our community and the age of our workforce,” said Ed Shatley, chairman of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “If we don’t correct this we will become a community of retirees who require many more services than a younger workforce.”

While most of the officials gathered for last week’s meeting at the Mill Creek Country Club were themselves retirees over 60, a new sports bar in downtown Franklin called Mulligan’s was hopping with a young crowd listening to a live band and generally enjoying life in Macon County.

Camped out at a table in the middle of the bar were four young men — a teacher, a banker, a plumber, and an electrical contractor — enjoying a guy’s night out. All of them were 33 years old but had moved to Franklin in their early 20s.

“We grew up in a big city in a not so nice area,” said Ryan Haley, the teacher in the bunch. “Franklin is a nice place to live and raise a family and hang out and not worry about whether your neighbor is a drug dealer.”

Today, they are all married with kids. That wasn’t the case when they moved here as single guys after college, but they all had a life goal of eventually marrying and sought out a good place to start a family.

“We didn’t want to raise our kids in the city,” said Seth Greenley, the electrical contractor.

The four generally enjoy the outdoors, another thing Macon County has going for it. Of course, there are things they miss.

“The movies and restaurants,” said Greenley.

In a perfect world, Greenley envisions sitting at an outdoor café with his wife while people stroll up and down the sidewalks of town.

“Now, it seems the whole county shuts down at 6 p.m.,” Greenley said.

That’s one area of focus McCoy had mentioned as well.

“A vibrant downtown is one of the most important things to attracting young people,” McCoy said. “Downtowns are immeasurably important to quality of life. Communities where downtowns have done really well have consistently seen young people want to stick around.”

Another top amenity in attracting a younger workforce has thankfully been checked off the list recently: approving the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks in bars and restaurants in Franklin.

Until the vote passed just three years ago, simply buying a beer during a night on the town was not possible.

“That was an important move,” said Jim Bo Ledford, the owner of a plumbing business. “You had to go buy a six-pack of beer and sit around at home. It’s fun to get out and socialize.”

All four guys lament that county voters didn’t approve a $9.4 million recreation bond two years ago. If the county wants more young people to move here, that would have helped. It called for ballfields, an indoor pool, and myriad recreation facilities that younger people, especially those with kids, would find appealing. Yet Macon County’s aging voters didn’t approve the bond.

While salaries in Macon County are lower than the state average — something that troubles the economic development experts — Josh Brant, a banker at Wachovia, said it wasn’t a deal breaker.

“With our generation, it’s not how much money you make. It’s quality of life,” said Brant. “You can have a good quality of life here. The thing lacking is jobs.”

While economic development leaders wrangle with ways to attract a younger workforce, Brant and his friends contend that you need to create jobs first and the workforce will follow. Their generation is more mobile, willing to move where there’s a job in their field if it’s a decent place to live.

A plight often lamented in economic development circles is the out-migration of mountain kids for college who never return home because there aren’t good jobs. When asked which should be recruited first — young workers or jobs for those workers — Shatley responded: “Which is first, the chicken or the egg?”

‘Skeleton’ of a plan

Derek Roland’s presentation about the effort to create a comprehensive planning document for Macon County suggested that a progressive document might come out of the planning process. But it was evident from the ensuing question-and-answer session [see main article] that it would form a basis for difficult discussions to come.

“The process is in its beginning stages,” Roland said. “The board came up with a plan skeleton, with ideas for what they thought should be in it.”

Roland said the planning board intends to work extensively with citizens of Macon County, holding meetings in communities.

“Land use is the central issue,” he acknowledged. “The key is knowing where we are now, knowing how much growth we can sustain, what the current infrastructure is and future needs will be.”

From 1990 to 2009 the county’s population grew 44 percent, Roland said, adding that that hot rate represents a trend to consider, though the growth rate has fallen off and projections take that into account.

“For 2009 to 2029 growth is projected to be 30 percent — 46,191 people, or 89.61 people per square mile,” he said. “That’s considerably below the state average of 120 people per square mile, but it’s still much more that in 1991.”

Given those projections, Macon residents need to determine the future of their community, Roland said. At the moment, though, building permits — a leading indicator of growth — are off 35 percent from a year ago, he said.

“That presents a perfect opportunity to plan,” Roland said. “Growth’s not coming in faster than we can blink an eye. We have time to sit back and put something in place. So we have a chance now to determine growth rather than growth determining what it’s going to look like for us.”

You can’t stop ... growth

Growth, while inevitable and desirable, is also what presents the challenges that good planning seeks to address, Roland said.

“The comprehensive plan seeks to identify land currently suitable and feasible for growth, with the least impact on taxpayers,” he said. “The questions are: ‘When will growth begin to strain the county? At what point will it put strain on infrastructure, public facilities, on agriculture, on land we want to preserve, and on public services?’”

Roland said the board wanted to identify the things that set Macon County apart from the rest of the world — its recreational opportunities, its scenic beauty, its streams, trails, farms.

“We want to identify what we want to preserve,” he said, adding that current generations shouldn’t have to talk to their children and grandchildren about the beauty that used to be here. They should be able to point to it, and reminisce about the good times they had there.

At the same time, the county needs to develop economically and create jobs for those future residents.

Our children should be able to work here and prosper without having to go to Charlotte to get a job,” Roland said.

Macon to create broad plan — again

At a forum on Macon County’s move to begin working on a comprehensive plan to address future growth, the presenter focused on the what, the how and the why.

Following the talk, by new county Planner Derek Roland, audience members focused on “why bother”?

The forum was organized by the League of Women Voters and held at the Franklin Presbyterian Church on July 9.

It’s not as if the audience was hostile to a plan. Far from it. They just didn’t want to be led down the primrose path and then left in the lurch again.

“I like your enthusiasm; I wouldn’t discourage that,” attendee Milo Baren told Roland. “But I’ve seen presentations like this four, eight, 12 years ago. I saw the ideas shelved by commissioners, and I can name the commissioners. I have the feeling that the commission has great influence over your planning board. Aren’t you apprehensive that you’re going to go down the line people have gone before, your ideas will go to the commission — don’t you think they might be shelved again?”

“All this plan is doing is creating a vision for community,” Roland said. “As for other plans created in the past, I’m thinking the community did not help make those plans?”

That comment drew a chorus of rebuttal, if not rebuke. Community input was a major component of the former planning initiatives, but still those were shelved by commissioners.

Following his prepared presentation, Roland — county planner just since March — touted the process for the new plan. He said the planning board would be visiting different communities, soliciting ideas and data, asking for feedback, incorporating multiple perspectives.

“What are the plans beside community meetings?” asked Nancy Scott, who said she’d worked on the former 2020 plan.

Roland responded with an attempt to link those planned local meetings with the idea of guiding development geographically.

“It’s not denoting the kinds of development we want in places, it’s knowing that with population growth, that will bring development,” Roland said. “So, what areas of your community can best sustain that growth when it comes?”

Thinking in those terms is beneficial to taxpayers, he said.

“Suppose you have industry or commercial business coming into an area. The best place to put it is where infrastructure is in place to support it or where infrastructure can be extended with the least expense possible,” Roland said. “For example, what’s the road support ingress-egress? Does road need to be widened a little?”

“We want to plan to make it the least burdensome on ourselves as possible when it does come. It’s a vision,” said Roland.


A dirty little word

But what Scott wanted to know was what it meant to say on one hand that the plan would not be directing certain kinds of development to certain areas, while on the other talking about directing it toward existing infrastructure.

“Are you planning any zoning laws?” she asked

“No. As of right now, we’re not planning any,” Roland said. “I don’t know the why of that, but that’s not on our agenda right now. We haven’t discussed it.”

“Zoning” was evidently a hot-button word, but not because the attendees were hostile to the concept.

“If you’re planning for growth, you have to control it in some way, to make sure it fits into the community,” said Scott.

“Why in the world wouldn’t zoning be right at the top?” asked Baren.

“I hope advocates will make their case,” Roland said. “If commissioners see it’s the best fit for the county, they’ll adopt it.”

Other examples elsewhere

One attendee cited the community of Davidson for the “masterful job of planning in their community. Put a fancy title on it instead of zoning, but we have to stop being afraid of that word.”

“We have looked at some comprehensive plans around us, such as Hendersonville and Jackson County,” Roland said.

Susan Ervin moderated the forum and is a planning board member. She said the board is aware of other planning efforts in the area and intends to leverage them.

“I knew someone who worked on Davidson plan, we’ll keep those folks in mind,” Ervin said. “They used a kind of tool, ‘urban growth boundary.’ It is not zoning, but it may be using zoning powers.”

Ervin said the idea is to “draw a circle around a community,” and that’s how far the locality will build infrastructure — sewer, water, cable. Businesses then locate within that circle.

“It represents a savings to taxpayers,” Ervin said. “It’s not direct zoning, but it directs growth to where investment has been made preparing for it.”


Winds of change

Stacy Guffey, former Macon County planner, said he felt the time may be ripe for some serious planning now.

“Something new happened Tuesday night in the history of Macon County — the entire board of commissioners showed up at a public hearing in different county to show they care about water in Macon (see story on page 11),” Guffey said. “That sent a strong message to Georgia that North Carolina cares about its future. Having worked with board of commissioners for going on 10 years, this action by the board is unprecedented. It really represents a spirit of cooperation, looking at ways to move forward.”

Guffey said there are a lot of people now in the county who are supportive of such forward-looking planning efforts. Still, he said, not everyone is on board.

“When the rubber meets the road, comes a time you’ve got a plan, you have a hard discussion what regulations you need to come up with,” Guffey said. “There is still a segment able to turn out a big crowd and intimidate people. Folks like those here haven’t been able to do that. There needs to be citizens responsible in the end to show up and show we support the planners and what they do.”

Guffey said the county needs to have an honest discussion about property rights and competing values, “not yelling and screaming at each other.” He also pointed out one person’s property rights can infringe on someone else’s.

He referred to comments made by an attendee who was anti-regulation until a junkyard was built in her neighborhood.

“What does it mean for property rights when you’ve invested in land you own and someone comes in next door with something that impacts you,” Guffey said. “Doesn’t that affect your property rights? Or do they have absolute right to do what they want with their property?”

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