GOP shift spells trouble for planning advocatesWritten by Quintin Ellison
Commissioners’ appointment of a man to the Macon County Planning Board who has openly opposed that very concept has sparked outrage and an outpouring of support for the board’s beleaguered members.
The showdown for now is in Macon County, a conservative mountain community with a history of attracting newcomers whose ideologies are on the political fringes. But the questions raised are identical to those also being hotly debated in other mountain counties: Is land planning important? Will this region set meaningful restrictions on development? If so, when?
“Folks, we’re looking at two choices,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board and a professional golf course developer, told a standing-room only crowd last week.
More than 100 people turned out for a special called meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
“The vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few,” Penland said. “Or, a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.”
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The stage was set for this debate on the future of land development in Macon County after three county commissioners voted Jimmy Goodman, a member of the Tea Party and a founder of the party chapter Freedom Works, onto the planning board late last month after the November election.
Republicans Jim Davis, Brian McClellan and Democrat Bob Simpson joined forces against Democrats Beale and Bobby Kuppers. Beale and Kuppers were not informed beforehand the game was afoot. Nor was the planning board consulted.
“What happened … has not been business as usual in this county,” said Beale, who openly acknowledged he was deeply wounded by what happened.
“This is Macon County, North Carolina, and we don’t treat people this way,” Kuppers said, and then added, “the process stunk.”
With the majority vote, Goodman replaced Al Slagle, a widely regarded native son and scion of a many-generation mountain family in Macon County. Slagle was up for routine reappointment.
Slagle was chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee, a group tasked with studying mountainside development in the wake of natural and manmade landslides in the county. The worst occurred in 2004, when five people in Macon County died in the Peeks Creek community. Their homes were in the path of a natural debris flow. This tragedy helped convince commissioners to ask the planning board (which formed the steep-slope subcommittee) to consider where and how houses are built in Macon County.
This decision — to simply study steep-slope development — triggered widespread opposition, fueled by a slowing economy in which builders and developers couldn’t find work.
Helping lead this anti-planning movement was Goodman, a former member of the planning board. Who, Commissioner Beale revealed, had not been reappointed because other planning board members asked that he not be. Because, they said, Goodman deliberately obstructed their work and ability to function as a board.
Explaining the vote
The decision three years ago not to place Goodman back on the planning board was wrong, Simpson said.
“I was part of it, and I’ve regretted it ever since,” Simpson said during the special called meeting, adding that Goodman’s views on planning are representative of a large segment of Macon County’s population, “and they cannot be ignored.”
“I righted a wrong and I’ll stand by that,” Simpson said.
Republicans Davis and McClellan did express regrets over how the Goodman matter was handled. But there were no regrets in evidence over their appointment of an anti-planning advocate to the planning board — they said the planning board and steep-slope subcommittee, which includes real estate agents, developers and more traditional planning advocates — lacks diversity.
“I am not against planning,” McClellan said. “I am for planning. I am for diversity of thought.”
Davis echoed those sentiments. He, McClellan and Simpson each personally apologized to Slagle, rationalizing aloud that they had not really voted against him per se, but rather for the aforementioned diversity of thought. Slagle, who was offered the opportunity to speak in front of commissioners, declined.
The future of planning in Macon
Simpson was voted off the board of commissioners during the last election.
Davis is moving on to the state senate, with moderate Republican Kevin Corbin scheduled to take his place starting in January. Only McClellan, of the three who voted for Goodman, will remain on the county’s board of commissioners with Beale and Kuppers.
Republican Ron Haven, who has expressed strong reservations about placing controls on growth and flat-out opposed regulating steep-slope development, rounds out the board.
The new commission board has agreed to consider expanding the planning board so that Slagle can be placed back on it (see accompanying article). But Goodman — who has remained silent during this fight over his appointment — remains on the planning board, too.
Despite Republican commissioners’ apologies for how things were handled and assurances they support planning and the planning board as a whole, there is a real possibility many of the current members might yet resign their posts.
“Yes, we are still a board,” member Susan Ervin wrote in an email. “Some of us initially wanted to quit, but have been prevailed upon to hang in there. We will see how this settles out; it could still go completely down the tubes, depending on what happens with additional appointments if they enlarge the board.”
Cast of characters
• Al Slagle — Former chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. Not reappointed to planning board.
• Jimmy Goodman — Appointed to planning board in Al Slagle’s place. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate against Macon commissioner and fellow Republican Jim Davis. Founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called “Freedom Works.”
• Lewis Penland — Chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. Owns a company that specializes in building golf courses.
• Ronnie Beale — Democrat. Former chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, reelected to a four-year term. An owner and operator of a construction company, and a strong proponent of land planning.
• Bobby Kuppers — Democrat. Two years are remaining on his four-year commission term. Is now the vice chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
• Jim Davis — Republican. Ousted state Sen. John Snow and won election to the General Assembly. His two-year term as a county commissioner will be filled by Kevin Corbin, a moderate Republican and a long-time member of the Macon County School Board.
• Brian McClellan — Republican. Reelected to another four-year term. New chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
• Ron Haven — Republican. Newly elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Opposed studying the possible regulation of steep-slope development.
• Bob Simpson — Democrat. Lost a bid for reelection to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.