Jackson County Planning Board reconsiders rewrites

A proposal to loosen steep slope development rules in Jackson County is headed back to the drawing board.

A large and vocal crowd opposing the rollback of mountainside protections in Jackson County packed a public hearing earlier this month. Given the outcry, the Jackson County Planning Board decided to reconsider some of its initial recommendations.


But how to go about it, and whether to take a break before diving back into the tedious and drawn-out revision process, was the subject of pointed discussion at a planning board meeting last week.

“I would like to make a motion that we table this for 120 days,” said Joe Ward, a planning board member who doesn’t agree with the rewrite in its entirety. 

“No way. Short answer, no way,” replied Clark Lipkin, a planning board member who likes the rewrite as it is. “I was hoping we could iron out the problems.”

Ben Bergen, a planning board member who supports the revisions, feared the time and energy put into them so far would be “thrown away” if they tabled the ordinance and had to start completely over.

“We need to keep talking about it and working on it,” Bergen said.

Planning board member Sarah Graham, who opposes the revisions, questioned whether continuing to go over it would produce a different outcome.

“Are you going to agree to change some things?” Graham asked. “Otherwise I think we are at a point where we have ideological differences.”

“If you are saying you think the board will just rubberstamp what we had two months ago, you should give us a chance,” replied Lipkin, who personally supports the revisions but is willing to make some concessions.

The debate often returned to a 500-pound gorilla at the table: at least three brand new members would be joining the planning board in April. Term limits are forcing three of the current members off, with replacements to be named by county commissioners. 

“I believe taking a breather and getting the board established is a wise thought,” Graham said.

“Since I have been on the board it seems like there is always some kind of continual shifting of one person on and one person off. That’s the way it has always been and always will be,” Lipkin replied.

Ultimately, the idea of tabling the ordinance for four months was defeated.

But once the board decided to proceed, it had to figure out how, exactly, to proceed.

Planning Board Member Dickie Woodard suggested picking the “top three” most contentious items to review. 

• Whether to allow building on ridgetops.

• Whether to limit the number of homes per acre on steep slopes, a.k.a. density.

• Whether aesthetics or viewshed considerations should come into play.

Bergen was ready to get started right away and launch into the “top three” list that night rather than wait for the next meeting.

“If we talk about ridgetop tonight, is anybody going to change their mind?” Graham asked.

The current ordinance bans ridgetop building, but the planning board proposed doing away with that ban. Lipkin, the most vocal advocate of ridgetop building, came armed with a few compromises in that department — although none of his compromises would actually preserve the ban on ridgetop building. 

But some of the planning board members weren’t satisfied with the “top three” list. Some planning board member had questions about water recharge, engineering standards, landslide risks and sustainable development recommendations.

“Golly, we could be starting totally over again. We got to keep moving,” Bergen said. “Can we just agree on what the top three issues are?”

“There are probably six to eight issues that need to be discussed in the revision,” Graham replied.

“So you are going to relive it?” Woodard asked, envisioning a replay of the entire process.

Graham said she would be willing to relive it if it resulted in a better ordinance.


Firing back

A rewrite of Jackson County’s steep slope development rules has been in the works for 14 months. The line-by-line revisions eliminate or weaken mountainside protections. Whether they were too restrictive in the first place and needed loosening, or whether they should remain intact, is the question of the hour.

While the majority of planning board members want to loosen the current rules, four of the 10 planning board members said they disagreed with revisions being proposed, in whole or in part.

Planning board members took turns saying their piece at a meeting last week. Several responded defensively to the stiff criticism they had received at the public hearing two weeks prior.

“I was disappointed with a lot of the comments, especially the ones insulting the integrity of the board. It was offensive,” said Lipkin. “It makes me want to listen a lot less, and that’s a shame for you and for me.”

Woodard agreed the comments pigeonholed the planning board.

“If it is a good guy-bad guy mentality, I am not going to be a part of that. I would like to see some gray in there,” said Woodard.

Planning Board Member David Brooks said he was offended by the personal accusations leveled at planning board members during the hearing, particularly those that questioned the scruples and motives of planning board members who work in the real estate and building industry.

“For somebody to put us down like you guys did, that is a bunch of bull crap,” Brooks said. “Do you want a dentist or something trying to figure the slope of a mountain? I figure you would want people who have been out there all their lives doing this. I don’t see how that is a stacked deck.”

Brooks said those who spoke at the hearing should have won an Oscar.

“Because that was one good stage act, all you guys coming in here and doing that. Cause I know it was pre-planned,” Brooks said.

But Graham said organized involvement from the public should be commended.

“I like a good, peaceful dialogue and active community members. It is important for us in this type of work to hear from the public,” Graham said.

Zac Koenig, a planning board member who is a builder, said the planning board was “blind-sided” by the vehement outcry. Monthly emails were sent to nearly 200 members of the community with an interest in the steep slope revisions, keeping the public apprised of the rewrite as it went. There was plenty of opportunity to weigh in along the way, Koenig said.

“You waited until we worked through everything and then had all the public comment come in,” Koenig said. “It would have been better if we would have had a heads-up before we worked on this.”


Next steps

County commissioners have the final say over the steep slope rewrite. Commissioners were keen on the planning board taking one more crack at the revisions before handing them off for a vote.

“Based on the comments that were received last month, they feel the ordinance is not ready,” said County Planner Gerald Green, referencing discussions he had with commissioners.

With an election year looming, and three of the five commissioner seats on the ballot in November, the timing is politically inconvenient. The rewrite will likely land on the commissioners’ desk sometime this summer — smack in the middle of the politically charged election climate. Commissioners will also have to hold a public hearing on the revisions before they vote on them.

Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam, who is up for election, said he will not second-guess whatever the planning board comes up with. They will have spent nearly a year-and-a-half on it by the time they are done, which makes them the experts on the finer points of the steep slope rules, Debnam said.

But, Debnam is glad the planning board will take a final look at the steep slope ordinance and identify some areas to compromise on before passing them up to the commissioners.

The controversial mountainside development rules were put in place seven years ago amid intense and heated debate.

Critics decried them as too restrictive, fearing they would harm the building and real estate industry, and thus the county’s economy as a whole.

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