Jackson County voters upended the board of commissioners Tuesday, calling an abrupt end to progressive land-development regulations that had set this county apart from all others in far Western North Carolina.
The dismantling of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is likely to resonate with other commissioners in WNC. Voters here clearly sent an unmistakable message not to move too far, too fast, when it comes to standing in the way of the region’s development juggernaut.
One of the three Democrat incumbents who lost was Chairman Brian McMahan, who actually cast the sole ‘no’ vote among commissioners against the current development regulations. He also opposed a subsequent moratorium on subdivisions, which some blamed for compounding an economic slowdown in the county.
McMahan, however, was consistent in supporting most of the regulations that were put in place: he just didn’t support all of them. His moderate position, however, didn’t prevent him from being ousted from the chairman’s post by challenger and political newcomer Jack Debnam, who ran unaffiliated with any political party.
Just 92 votes separated the two men in the unofficial tally Tuesday night.
Incumbents William Shelton and Tom Massie joined McMahan in the defeat.
“We’re historical,” said Shelton late Tuesday night, after learning he’d lost to Republican challenger Charles Elder, a former commissioner who represents a more traditional way of doing things. It is a way that Jackson County voters clearly found suited them far better than what had been taking place.
Massie, like Shelton a progressive Democrat when it came to regulating development, was defeated by Republican Doug Cody, a newcomer to Jackson County politics.
“I think it was just the perfect storm,” Shelton said, pointing to a national mood of ousting incumbents, Democrat Party apathy, right-leaning Tea-party influences and local voters upset about the stringent development regulations adopted in Jackson County.
Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners — including Shelton and Massie — enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions.
Another piece of commissioner legislation that likely stuck in voters’ craws was an attempt to wrest the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam has been torn down.
A poll of Jackson County residents this summer was a harbinger of sorts: the poll showed only 33 percent of participants had a favorable opinion of their local government, and 46 percent were unfavorable.
The poll, conducted by the WCU Public Policy Institute in partnership with The Smoky Mountain News, questioned nearly 600 voters and had an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.
Jackson County Board of Commissioners (Chairman)
Jack Debnam (R) 5,055
Brian McMahan (D) 4,963
Jackson County Board of Commissioners (District 1)
Charles Elders (R) 6,022
William Shelton (D) 4,916
Jackson County Board of Commissioners (District 2)
Doug Cody (R) 6,075
Tom Massie (D) 4,824