Wednesday, 19 April 2006 00:00

Growth is on Jackson’s agenda

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

This May 2 voters in Jackson County are faced with choosing a board of county commissioners that will enact and enforce ways to shape growth in the coming years.

One hot button issue seemingly is off the table — zoning. All of the candidates interviewed are against the controlled development measure, often billed as the nail in the coffin of any electoral platform.

“A good 90 to 85 percent of residents of the county have let it be known that they do not favor county-wide zoning,” said Joe Cowan, a candidate in District 3 and the only incumbent commissioner running for re-election in a contested race.

Instead of talking about zoning, a majority of candidates are looking to take on planning ordinance by ordinance.

“I’m still in favor of trying to pick out specific problems that we have and trying to take care of them with an ordinance and an ordinance that will be enforced,” said District 1 candidate Raymond Bunn.

The method is similar to that Macon County Planning Board is using, which in the past two years has resulted in only one ordinance regulating a broad spectrum of high impact uses such as sawmills being passed.

The method may be too slow to make up for the time that’s already passed, said Tom Massie, a candidate in District 2.

“We’re going on 20 years that we’ve been talking about land use and we’ve made no progress at all,” he said.

However, District 4 candidate Mark Jones said that the county has an advantage in that many of these types of ordinances have already been written in mountain counties similar to Jackson.

“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Jones said.

Ordinances that earned support across the candidate field included those aimed at protecting health and safety, and preserving the natural landscape.

“I think protecting our natural resources is key to everything that happens in our future,” Massie said.

Steep slope development is now a major focus of planning boards in Haywood and Macon counties where work is underway to help prevent homes from being built on sites that will not sustain the burden of increased soil erosion.

“I support a position that would allow you to build on anything you like, but the steeper the grade the higher threshold you have to meet,” Massie said. “You shouldn’t be denied use of your property, but you may have to meet higher standards.”

Working to control steep slope development is something that even the election’s biggest personal property rights proponents — District 1’s Bunn, District 2’s Ben Clawson and Bob Ginn — said they could support.

Clawson, an EMS shift supervisor in Haywood County, pointed to a recent landslide in Maggie Valley that killed a woman when her home was crushed by an onslaught of mud as probable cause enough to work toward land use ordinances that would help protect homeowners.

Incidents like the Maggie Valley landslide also are the impetus for an increased focus on creating safe and navigable roads through mountainside developments, as emergency service personnel must be able to access property, said Ginn, the District 2 candidate who also is chairman of the Jackson County Planning Board.

District 2 candidate Keith Parris, First Lt. for the Balsam-Willets-Ochre Volunteer Fire Department, said he’d experienced first hand what narrow roads mean in emergency situations.

“The biggest thing is being able to get to the people,” he said, explaining that sometimes the department will have to get smaller fire trucks or even use pickup trucks to get residents out in a fire. The issue doesn’t just relate to subdivisions, but also to individual homeowners who may have steep and narrow roads leading to their homes.

Designing roads specifically with emergency personnel in mind also was a concern for District 4 candidate Jones, and District 1 candidate William Shelton, who has made advocating for emergency personnel a key part of his election platform.

Road width and grade most likely will be part of a subdivision ordinance that the planning board has been working on for the past two and a half years. Now, it’s time for that ordinance to come to fruition, Cowan said.

“If they can’t agree on it, the commissioners have a right to pull it out of there and do whatever we need to do with it,” Cowan said, referring to planning board members.

However, creating new ordinances may not be the answer. Strengthening and enforcing the ones that already exist should be a priority, said Darrell Fox, Cowan’s District 3 challenger.

“We definitely need to strengthen our soil and erosion control ordinance,” Fox said.

Enforcement of soil and erosion laws is an issue that also carries strong support from District 2 candidate Massie, western field representative for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, District 1 candidate Shelton, and District 4 candidate Jones.

 

Staring down the barrel

County commissioners got more than they bargained for when concerned citizens brought before them a request to enact a moratorium on shooting ranges and begin work on an ordinance to regulate their operation last year.

Cashier’s private Smoke Rise Gun Club was looking to relocate and had selected property in the Tilley Creek community. Located off of N.C. 107 just past Western Carolina University, the community is a quiet, rural cluster of homes whose peacefulness would be destroyed if the gun club was allowed to locate there, said community residents.

However, commissioners appeared swayed by the gun club’s usage of the personal property rights argument, and opponents of the proposed moratorium claimed that it was the first step in banning weapons use throughout the county.

The shooting range debate culminated with what would be described in poker as a fold — commissioner Cowan’s motion to enact a shooting range moratorium died for lack of a second, a draft ordinance to regulate shooting ranges was scraped and Smoke Rise began looking for property outside the county.

To preserve the Tilley Creek property that was up for sale, residents pulled together to buy it with the intent of turning it into an historical education site. The 194-acre tract contains a historic farm once owned by the Pressley Family, which state officials have declared a prime example of early Appalachian life — complete with barns, a springhouse, outbuildings and a house with wrap around porch.

The situation brought up the issue of proactive versus reactive planning.

“I think it’s a good example of wishing a problem away,” said Shelton, explaining that the shooting range issue most likely will come up again someday. “Unfortunately, more than not, we face these issues as they arise. It’s like putting out fires.”

Trying to be more proactive, planning out for the future and anticipating the county’s needs, could help Jackson’s policies catch up with its growth rate, Shelton said. Commissioners should not pass a policy the community doesn’t want, but could take the lead in testing the waters and finding out where the public stands on an issue before it is a matter immediate concern, Shelton said.

Shelton, Massie and Fox said they most likely would have voted for a shooting range moratorium, at least in order to have more time to weigh community concerns.

“We already have a shooting range,” Fox said. “I don’t see where there’s enough people (who would use another) that one needs to be moved into a community.”

Clawson, Ginn, Parris and Moss said that they would most likely have voted in support of personal property rights and against a shooting range ordinance; however, would like to learn more about the impact on the Tilley Creek Community before deciding.

“If you own a piece of property, you can do what you want to on it,” Moss said.

Bunn said he would not have voted for any additional regulations — period.

“I would have voted against having a shooting range ordinance in Jackson County,” Bunn said. “I wish they could have gotten together and solved their differences without making it a political issue.”

Miguel Baerga, a District 2 candidate, and Jones both said that they would have to know more about the issue before deciding.

“My approach would be you first have to do research in the area, find out what laws govern it,” Baerga said. “You could go to other politicians and ask them questions about what they’ve done and have a platform and you could debate things and figure out where you need to go.”

 

From point A to point B

As Jackson County continues to grow, the traffic burden placed on the main artery of N.C. 107 nears critical levels. The highway is one of the most traveled roads in town, second only to Waynesville’s Russ Avenue.

County leaders have debated what to do — build a new highway, practice access management, increase alternative transportation methods?

Two years ago a proposed new highway, colloquially known as the Southern Loop, drew much ire from local residents who argued that it would destroy the county’s rural character. The Loop, which initial N.C. Department of Transportation plans have drawn connecting U.S. 441 with N.C. 107 by way of Webster, spawned a bevy of yellow bumper stickers still spotted on cars around town reading “Smart Roads, Not New Roads.”

Since then community members and government leaders have attempted to team up with the DOT on a state level for a Transportation Task Force. The task force has been moving slowly, as DOT regulations mandate that some sort of plan for growth be in place before transportation planning may proceed. Such plans — turned in by the county, Western Carolina University, Southwestern Community College and local municipalities — were approved this winter.

A majority of candidates didn’t have any specific recommendations about what could be done to improve Jackson County’s transportation woes.

“That is probably the toughest question for me and you can quote me on that,” Shelton said. “That’s such a hard issue when you look at the frustration behind the increased volume of traffic on 107. There are no easy solutions.”

District 4’s Moss agreed.

“Unfortunately I’m not a traffic engineer and I don’t understand a whole lot about what’s over-travel, what’s too much traffic, and how many lanes it requires,” he said. “A lot of that traffic, if you pay attention, is college traffic.”

District 2’s Massie encouraged continuing to work with DOT and working to bring all interested parties — from resident, to law enforcement to local government — to see what their recommendations are. Solving the issue will be a slow process, as it requires consensus building.

Jones, of District 4, agreed, and said that plans to rework Smoky Mountain High School’s intersection with N.C. 107 should help.

However, Clawson said that time is wasting.

“If we don’t start planning now we’re going to get behind the 8-ball. I think they really just need to get this board on the move,” he said of the Transportation Task Force.

Only District 3 candidate Cowan and District 2 candidate Parris came out in support of the construction of a new road.

Cowan said attempts to connect side streets and parking lots through access management will not last 20 years out.

“I’ve thought about this and I’ve listened to different views,” he said. “I’m personally convinced that it’s going to take some kind of major highway.”

Parris agreed.

“I’ve heard a lot on that issue and to be honest I haven’t studied enough to really know if correcting some of those road issues without building the bypass would be feasible,” Parris said. “Personally I feel we need some kind of bypass,” he said, explaining that one is needed to alleviate the traffic come to and from Western Carolina University.

However, Cowan and Parris, like each of their fellow candidates, encouraged creating more pedestrian- and biker-friendly options such as the greenway, which should run from Dillsboro to Cullowhee.

“I support those 100 percent,” Cowan said.

“As far as protecting the environment, I’m for it 100 percent,” Parris said, citing the county’s methane recovery project at the old landfill just outside Dillsboro as a great example of green development.

Creating more pedestrian- and biker-friendly resources like also will help protect the area’s natural resources and improve basic quality of life issues, Massie said.

“To me, as an aging baby boomer, it’s going to become more and more important to have greenways, and walking trails, and swimming pools and those types of things,” he said.

District 2’s Baerga also encourages the addition of more recreational opportunities, specifically a recreational center to match the one located in Cullowhee with soccer fields, exercise room, playgrounds and more. Residents on the northern end of the county aren’t always willing to make the drive to Cullowhee, where treatment may not be equal, Baerga said.

“You go to Cullowhee, people treat you one way, you go to Sylva, they treat you nicer,” he said.

Preservation of open spaces and community spaces is a key component of Massie’s platform. He encourages using conservation easements to keep lands from being privatized and developed.

Shelton shares similar views of good land stewardship.

“The more attractive our county is, the better chance we’re going to have of bringing in some non-polluting, higher end jobs,” Shelton said. “The decisions people will make come down to quality of life — beauty, schools, water. Those are the kind of issues that we are going to answer ‘yes’ to.”

 

The economy of growth

With more residents moving in, commissioner’s candidates are looking for ways to help provide jobs.

The county pulled out of participating in the Economic Development Commission in 2004 during a county-led investigation into the organization’s accounting practices. Cowan said he doesn’t expect the commission to regain its strength.

“I don’t think we can revive the old EDC,” he said.

The EDC focused on bring in manufacturing based jobs, which in general aren’t thought to be the future of the market. Instead, Cowan recommended supporting county commissioners doing what they could to support the travel and tourism industry, and small businesses.

“Because they’re really sort of the backbone of the basic economy,” he said.

Cowan’s opponent is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

“One of my main concerns is to get some manufacturing jobs in the county,” Fox said.

Candidates each supported bringing in technology to increase Internet connectivity, which in turn may attract high-tech jobs to the area.

And candidates — except Clawson and Parris — did not support giving big businesses incentives to locate in Jackson County.

“The market should bring them in here if they want to come,” Ginn said.

“I don’t think we should give them any special considerations for coming in here, I don’t think it’s fair for local business,” said District 1’s Shelton.

Clawson and Parris countered that incentives might help bring more long-term jobs to the area and expand the number of major employers.

“I think some incentives would be a good thing, but I don’t believe we really need to go overboard with getting that kind of business in,” Parris said.

Parris said that incentives most likely should be financial, but should not use tax dollars to attract companies that already would be interested in coming to the area. More of a focus should be placed on small businesses, he said.

Clawson and Parris also cautiously approached creating design standards that would help new stores blend in with the county’s rural, and individual, character.

“We don’t want everything looking the same, but on the other hand I don’t think we need to put so many restrictions and regulations on them that they decide to go somewhere else,” he said, noting big box construction such as the new Lowe’s store going in along N.C. 116.

“I think that’s going to get into the issue of zoning,” Parris said. Companies like Lowe’s that have a nationally recognized logo shouldn’t be made to conform to an individual community, he said.

District 1’s Bunn was less tentative.

“I wouldn’t really be in favor of that,” he said.

And Massie, a candidate in District 2, said that he saw design standards being a task more suited for municipalities, with any sort of incentives program taking on the shape of improving infrastructure.

District 2’s Baerga encouraged bringing in companies that offer on the job training.

“With on the job training, instead of paying them $6 or $7 a hour, train them in a specific area and start them with higher pay,” Baerga said.

The county’s economic policy could make on the job training a requirement for incoming companies.

“A proposal should be in place where these companies should have X amount of slots available to train X amount of employees,” Baerga said.

District 4’s Jones said that while jobs are a concern for the future, he sees a majority of those jobs continuing to focus around the housing market, and related service industries.

“I don’t see a downward trend of construction for 20 years, I truly don’t,” Jones said. “We will need people helping us with housekeeping, mowing and yard maintenance.”

Those types of jobs in Cashiers pay well. Second homeowners aren’t looking for the lowest rate, but the highest quality of service. Such labor may bring in around $12 an hour, Jones said.

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