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Wednesday, 16 May 2007 00:00

Planners already planning to revisit development rules

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As public comments rolled in to the Jackson County planning office on a proposed steep slope ordinance, one provision that seemed to cause the most ire was already a moot point.

 

The provision that got many up in arms was supposed to have been removed from the ordinance before it went out for comment. The provision was striking: any property with a natural slope of more than 35 percent could not be subdivided. The provision was in an early version of the ordinance, but was supposed to be taken out, according to planning board members. It accidentally remained in the version that was posted on the county’s Web site for the public to review and comment on.

According to topographic maps, nearly half the land in the county has a slope of more than 35 percent. Such a provision would basically have prevented the development of new subdivisions for much of the county.

Clark Lipkin, a surveyor, was among those who took issue with the provision.

“It will stop all subdividing the county. Why not simplify the ordinance and say no more subdivisions period? Because that is the effect of this section,” Lipkin wrote.

Many drew the same conclusion.

“From the draft, it appears that the intent is to stop all development period,” wrote Kim Coward, an attorney. “If that is your intent, then please state that and we can move on.”

The provision accidentally left in the ordinance reflects how the planning board has gone about its work. It started out with a slate of very tough, strict regulations and systematically removed or weakened those that were unworkable. This approach was chosen in lieu of starting with a slate of weak guidelines and building them up.

Another provision that was also accidentally left in the version posted for public comment banned the construction of roads over terrain with a natural slope of 35 percent or more. Even if the road was perfectly flat, it wasn’t allowed if the land it traversed was over 35 percent. Again, that’s half the county, and would have rendered a good portion of land inaccessible by road and therefore unbuildable.

That provision was also supposed to be taken out. Several who submitted comments were so surprised by what they read they questioned whether they were interpreting the ordinance correctly.

The slip-ups also reflect just how rushed the planning board has been. They have had a little more than four months to craft both a subdivision and steep slope ordinance, both of them sweeping in spirit. The ordinances must be finished and approved by county commissioners by July 8 when a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions is slated to end.

When the county embarked on the proposed development regulations in February, commissioners voted 4 to 1 to enact a five-month moratorium to stave off a flood of developers trying to launch subdivisions before the new regulations went into effect.

In comparison to Jackson’s time frame, Haywood County spent 13 months crafting only a subdivision ordinance — one that is elementary compared to what Jackson is proposing. Meanwhile, Swain County will have spent four months just crafting road standards for new developments.

The planning board is under the gun to wrap up the ordinances by this week, with one final meeting scheduled for Thursday where the board will hold an official vote on the final version of the regulations. The ordinances will then move to the county commissioners’ plate. The commissioners will have roughly six weeks to review the ordinances, hold a public hearing, make changes and get them passed.

The accelerated timeline will likely mean an ordinance that’s rough around the edges when passed, according to Mike Eagan, a consultant hired to steer the planning board in writing the ordinances.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” Eagan told planning board members last week. “It is just too complicated. It is going to have to be tweaked.”

Eagan suggested the planning staff keep a running list of things in the ordinance that are confusing, misleading or simply don’t work. The ordinance can be revisited in six months to a year to fix the problems that emerge, he said.

“I can guarantee you there are parts of this ordinance you will want to amend as you start administering it,” Eagan said. Eagan said the development industry will likely be a part of that process.

“They are going to know where it’s not working,” Eagan said.

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