At a forum on Macon County’s move to begin working on a comprehensive plan to address future growth, the presenter focused on the what, the how and the why.
Following the talk, by new county Planner Derek Roland, audience members focused on “why bother”?
The forum was organized by the League of Women Voters and held at the Franklin Presbyterian Church on July 9.
It’s not as if the audience was hostile to a plan. Far from it. They just didn’t want to be led down the primrose path and then left in the lurch again.
“I like your enthusiasm; I wouldn’t discourage that,” attendee Milo Baren told Roland. “But I’ve seen presentations like this four, eight, 12 years ago. I saw the ideas shelved by commissioners, and I can name the commissioners. I have the feeling that the commission has great influence over your planning board. Aren’t you apprehensive that you’re going to go down the line people have gone before, your ideas will go to the commission — don’t you think they might be shelved again?”
“All this plan is doing is creating a vision for community,” Roland said. “As for other plans created in the past, I’m thinking the community did not help make those plans?”
That comment drew a chorus of rebuttal, if not rebuke. Community input was a major component of the former planning initiatives, but still those were shelved by commissioners.
Following his prepared presentation, Roland — county planner just since March — touted the process for the new plan. He said the planning board would be visiting different communities, soliciting ideas and data, asking for feedback, incorporating multiple perspectives.
“What are the plans beside community meetings?” asked Nancy Scott, who said she’d worked on the former 2020 plan.
Roland responded with an attempt to link those planned local meetings with the idea of guiding development geographically.
“It’s not denoting the kinds of development we want in places, it’s knowing that with population growth, that will bring development,” Roland said. “So, what areas of your community can best sustain that growth when it comes?”
Thinking in those terms is beneficial to taxpayers, he said.
“Suppose you have industry or commercial business coming into an area. The best place to put it is where infrastructure is in place to support it or where infrastructure can be extended with the least expense possible,” Roland said. “For example, what’s the road support ingress-egress? Does road need to be widened a little?”
“We want to plan to make it the least burdensome on ourselves as possible when it does come. It’s a vision,” said Roland.
A dirty little word
But what Scott wanted to know was what it meant to say on one hand that the plan would not be directing certain kinds of development to certain areas, while on the other talking about directing it toward existing infrastructure.
“Are you planning any zoning laws?” she asked
“No. As of right now, we’re not planning any,” Roland said. “I don’t know the why of that, but that’s not on our agenda right now. We haven’t discussed it.”
“Zoning” was evidently a hot-button word, but not because the attendees were hostile to the concept.
“If you’re planning for growth, you have to control it in some way, to make sure it fits into the community,” said Scott.
“Why in the world wouldn’t zoning be right at the top?” asked Baren.
“I hope advocates will make their case,” Roland said. “If commissioners see it’s the best fit for the county, they’ll adopt it.”
Other examples elsewhere
One attendee cited the community of Davidson for the “masterful job of planning in their community. Put a fancy title on it instead of zoning, but we have to stop being afraid of that word.”
“We have looked at some comprehensive plans around us, such as Hendersonville and Jackson County,” Roland said.
Susan Ervin moderated the forum and is a planning board member. She said the board is aware of other planning efforts in the area and intends to leverage them.
“I knew someone who worked on Davidson plan, we’ll keep those folks in mind,” Ervin said. “They used a kind of tool, ‘urban growth boundary.’ It is not zoning, but it may be using zoning powers.”
Ervin said the idea is to “draw a circle around a community,” and that’s how far the locality will build infrastructure — sewer, water, cable. Businesses then locate within that circle.
“It represents a savings to taxpayers,” Ervin said. “It’s not direct zoning, but it directs growth to where investment has been made preparing for it.”
Winds of change
Stacy Guffey, former Macon County planner, said he felt the time may be ripe for some serious planning now.
“Something new happened Tuesday night in the history of Macon County — the entire board of commissioners showed up at a public hearing in different county to show they care about water in Macon (see story on page 11),” Guffey said. “That sent a strong message to Georgia that North Carolina cares about its future. Having worked with board of commissioners for going on 10 years, this action by the board is unprecedented. It really represents a spirit of cooperation, looking at ways to move forward.”
Guffey said there are a lot of people now in the county who are supportive of such forward-looking planning efforts. Still, he said, not everyone is on board.
“When the rubber meets the road, comes a time you’ve got a plan, you have a hard discussion what regulations you need to come up with,” Guffey said. “There is still a segment able to turn out a big crowd and intimidate people. Folks like those here haven’t been able to do that. There needs to be citizens responsible in the end to show up and show we support the planners and what they do.”
Guffey said the county needs to have an honest discussion about property rights and competing values, “not yelling and screaming at each other.” He also pointed out one person’s property rights can infringe on someone else’s.
He referred to comments made by an attendee who was anti-regulation until a junkyard was built in her neighborhood.
“What does it mean for property rights when you’ve invested in land you own and someone comes in next door with something that impacts you,” Guffey said. “Doesn’t that affect your property rights? Or do they have absolute right to do what they want with their property?”