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Wednesday, 21 March 2007 00:00

Planners nearly done with subdivision ordinance: Steep slope draft expected to take longer

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The moratorium on new subdivisions in Jackson County might be over before the five-month time period originally estimated if the planning board charged with drafting development regulations keeps up its current pace.

 

The moratorium will be lifted once the county approves development regulations, namely a subdivision ordinance and steep slope ordinance. Draft regulations are being written by the county’s planning board. They are meeting weekly for two hours at a stretch to get their work done.

The planning board tackled a subdivision ordinance first. They are nearly done and plan to submit the final draft to county commissioners by mid-April.

From there, commissioners will review it and likely do some tweaking of their own. They will hold a public hearing for input before making any final approvals.

The real meat — and likely the most controversy — will lie in the steep slope ordinance. The planning board is just beginning to tackle that part. Based on the discussion at a recent planning board meeting, numerous provisions of the steep slope ordinance will be fodder for contention among planning board members.

Zach Koenig, a planning board member who works in the construction industry, systematically argued for loosening provisions in the subdivision ordinance to make it easier on developers. The subdivision is nothing compared to the steep slope ordinance in terms of restrictions, so Koenig’s objections will likely ramp up as the planning board moves forward.

Koenig was rarely challenged by the other members on the planning board, successfully weakening the language in the draft subdivision ordinance in several areas. The most striking example was a discussion over whether a certain percentage of open space should be required in developments. The draft initially called for 30 percent of a subdivision to be open space.

“I’m concerned about that requirement for every subdivision,” Koenig said. “It could drive up the lot prices and make it unaffordable for the average person.” For a developer to meet his profit target, he will have to charge more for lots to make up for the open space that he can’t sell to anyone, Koenig said.

Mike Eagan, a consultant hired to help the planning board draft the ordinances, questioned that theory. It might not lead to more expensive lots; however, the lots would just be smaller, with a portion of each dedicated to the open space requirement. Koenig said if he was a buyer, he would rather have a bigger lot than open space.

Koenig said there will still be plenty of open space in most developments. Houses will have to be set back 30 feet from creeks or wetlands, and there’s a lot size requirements on steeper slopes. Koenig said there will be lots of open space around the houses.

“It may be private natural space, but it’s still natural space,” Koenig said.

Richard Frady, a planning board member from Cullowhee, agreed.

“If someone gets in a good area and can develop 100 percent of it, I don’t want to put that extra burden on it,” Frady said.

Only one planning board member challenged Frady and Koenig.

“If it is really dense housing with 100 homes on 50 acres, they deserve some sort of community space,” said Kim Cowan.

Eagan suggested a compromise: a threshold for when the open space requirement would kick in. Koenig liked that idea. He suggested the open space requirement only apply to subdivisions of more than 100 homes, and the percentage of open space should be lowered from 30 percent to 5 percent. No one else on the planning board objected so the new wording passed.

Koenig said he wants to go over the draft a few more times.

“Every time I read it I feel like I see one more thing,” Koenig said.

Koenig is a recent addition to the planning board, selected by Commissioner Chairman Briay McMahan in a move to increase the planning board from seven to 11 members.

Things could really ramp up as the planning board moves on to the steep slope ordinance. It was clear there’s a lot about that ordinance that Koenig doesn’t like, including the threshold for when the steep slope ordinance would kick in. The current draft proposes that anyone building on slopes greater than 30 percent fall under the steep slope regulations.

The planning board is using a steep slope ordinance passed by White County in North Georgia as a starting place. Koenig wanted to use a steep slope ordinance recently passed in Haywood County as a starting place instead.

Eagan said the Haywood County ordinance is a much weaker starting point.

“The Haywood County ordinance doesn’t address viewshed protection, for example,” Eagan said. “No offense to Haywood County, but I think this is a much better ordinance in terms of comprehensively addressing steep slope development.”

Planning board member Dan Pittilo backed Eagan. Instead of starting on the looser end of the spectrum, they should start with something stricter and work the other way.

“We have to think about what is coming for folks in the future, not just what I get right now,” Pittillo said. “I’d like to think 50 years in the future, not next year.”

Since the Jackson County commissioners have the final say on the planning board regulations, they can always restore or tighten any language they think is too loose. It would be an unprecedented move, however, based on the history of other counties where development ordinances have been passed. Usually the draft gets weaker in the hands of the commissioners.

In Haywood County, commissioners passed a weaker version of both a subdivision ordinance and a steep slope ordinance than the ones suggested by the county planning board. Developers, homebuilders and Realtors turned out at public hearings and pressured commissioners to weaken the ordinances. If the crowds that turned out in opposition to the moratorium are any indication, Jackson County commissioners could once again face the angry masses when the ordinances are rolled out.

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