Macon challenges building moratorium in Highlands ETJ

Macon County officials have contested the legality of a moratorium Highlands enacted on commercial building within the town’s extra-territorial jurisdictions this November.

The moratorium, set to expire March 15, attempts to quell commercial building within the ETJ, an area outside town limits that falls subject to town land-use regulations but not town taxes.

The area designated as an ETJ is approximately a mile radius around town limits, with the exception of national forest land and two country clubs, the Cullasaja Club and Highland Falls. The country clubs are exempt from the ETJ because their self-imposed development regulations are stronger than those of the town’s, said Mayor Don Mullen.

Town leaders are using the moratorium to work with residents to reach a compromise on what kinds of regulations to enact in the ETJ.

“We need to go at it very slowly,” Mullen said.

The town’s move to create an ETJ was unpopular with many of the proposed area’s residents, providing for a heated public hearing in December.

“The public hearing was a very contentious hearing. It was not a very happy occasion,” Mullen said.

However, the county’s challenge to the moratorium is not based on popularity. According to a memorandum sent out by county attorney Rick Moorefield, general statute gives municipalities authority to “adopt temporary moratoria on any city development approval required by law.” Moorefield wrote that building permits issued by the county do not fall subject to the “city development approval” description.

Also, Moorefield wrote that general statute requires that the ordinance enacting the moratorium must “expressly include at the time of adoption” a list of specific findings and statements.

“Most of these specific findings and statements are not present in the ordinance,” Moorefiled wrote.

As a result, Moorefield concluded that it is “questionable” as to whether the moratorium prevents the county from issuing construction permits to property owners in the area. Moorefield recommended that the county not deny permits on the basis of the moratorium, but notify permit applicants within the ETJ area that they may face legal action from the town of Highlands.

— By Sarah Kucharski

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