Denial of a permit to build a 388-bed student housing complex in Cullowhee will land Jackson County in court after Atlanta-based Mallory & Evans Development filed a motion asking for a judge to overturn the decision.
A large-scale retail development featuring Lakeland, Florida-based grocer Publix as an anchor tenant moved forward without opposition after unanimous consent from Waynesville Aldermen June 13.
High in the Plott Balsams, there’s a swath of property riddled with panoramic views, sparking waterfalls and high-elevation solitude that was once destined for development. But more than a decade after purchasing it, America’s Homeplace has yet to build a single structure — and now the homebuilding company is offering the 912 acres at a reduced rate for long-term conservation.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property, kind of a one-of-a-kind piece,” said Stacy Buchanan, regional president for the company and a Jackson County native. “There’s not many pieces this large left in the Southern Appalachians.”
Jackson County Commissioners were upset to discover last week that no one’s been enforcing the county’s mountain and hillside development ordinance for more than two years.
In two separate incidents, graders in Haywood County bulldozed over wetlands, violating state and federal regulations that protect the environmentally-sensitive areas.
Randy Best was a rare bird in the development heyday of the 2000s. Where others just saw dollar signs, Best actually saw land.
“I would spend a month walking a piece of property after we bought it. I walked every inch and when I was done, I knew where every house site was going to be, where every septic was going to be, how the roads would lay,” said Best, a Haywood County native.
In a region still reeling from damaged land and dented lives in the wake of the real estate boom and bust, signs of salvation are few and far between. But here’s one for the history books.
Twice in the past year, Haywood County has used a little-known clause of financial legalese to hold developers’ feet to the fire after they walked away mid-stream. It’s a minuscule but unprecedented victory in a rocky world of marred up mountains and abandoned developments.
“No one so far has explained why we need this thing,” said Paul Higdon, a contractor who oversees sewer, water and septic projects. “Other than it’s just another level of bureaucracy that private landowners have to go through.”
But Lewis Penland, the planning board’s chair, has billed the ordinance as a way to protect lives and property from slope failures.
“We’ve got to have development,” said Penland. “All I ask is that when you build something above me, it doesn’t fall down on me.”
Penland, who works as a developer and grading contractor, also backs steep slope rules as a way to level the playing field between the contractors with scruples versus the ones who cut corners and can offer cheaper rates as a result.
“The way the system is set up now, you’re punishing the people who are doing it right,” Penland said.
Higdon is no stranger to regulation, having worked as Macon County’s environmental supervisor for 10 years. But he believes the county’s erosion control and subdivision ordinances already put enough restrictions on developers even though they don’t deal directly with mountainside construction.
“My concern is in a down economy –– a construction-based economy –– it will inhibit it that much more,” Higdon said.
Higdon also fears that landslide hazard maps, developed by the North Carolina Geological Survey, will become material facts that must be disclosed during land transactions, forcing Realtors to inform potential buyers if a house or lot lies in a landslide hazard area.
Higdon thinks the maps may open the door to more litigation on the one hand or lower property values on the other.
What role the newly created landslide hazard maps should play in steep slope regulations has proved controversial. The maps were created in the wake of the Peek’s Creek landslide that killed five people in Macon County in 2005.
“We’ve got to educate people on the maps,” Penland said.
But advocates of the slope rules aren’t stopping there.
The planning board has launched an education campaign in which its members will travel to communities around the county to educate people about the proposed regulations.
Some citizens have already joined the discussion. Last month, 12 people came to a planning board meeting to voice their reservations.
Bill Vernon, a retired developer who created the Featherstone subdivision in 2002, is another critic of the proposed elements of the ordinance. He thinks the engineering fees the ordinance requires in certain cases would prohibit development.
“The big issue I see is what will it will do to construction,” Vernon said.
He disputes the planning board’s estimates that engineering fees could range from $500 to $8,000 for projects that occur on slopes of a 30 percent grade or more, estimating instead that costs could climb to $20,000 on a house.
“If you’re going to add $8,000 to the cost of a building in this economic environment, I’m against it,” Vernon said. “I’m against it if it’s $20.”
Steep slope committee member Reggie Holland is president of the Macon County Homebuilders Association. Holland doesn’t think the steep slope ordinance will hurt his trade.
“I really don’t think this is going to be so significant an expense that it would cause people not to buy here,” Holland said, adding most buyers would want their home to comply with the cut and fill and soil compaction requirements.
For Holland, who changed his mind about the regulations during a year of slope committee meetings, the ordinance speaks for itself.
“When I was first on this committee, I felt similarly to Paul and Bill, thinking we didn’t need another government program to intervene in the work we’re doing,” Holland said. “The more I investigated it and thought about some jobs in the past where there were failures, I really thought there needed to be some standards.”
Penland said the development of the actual ordinance will take some time and he doubted if the commissioners would take the issue up before the November election. Between now and then, he hopes to turn doubters into supporters through a series of community meetings.
Holland doesn’t think the sell job will be a tough one.
“I think most people who are against the ordinance –– not all of them –– are people who haven’t really read it,” Holland said.
The Macon County Planning Board will hold its next meeting at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 15, at the Pine Grove Community Center.
In April, the Macon County Board of Commissioners charged the planning board with the job of drafting an ordinance that would regulate development on steep slopes. The directive came after the planning board’s steep slope committee had spent the better part of a year creating a set of guiding principles for the ordinance.
Below are the key elements of the committee’s recommendations.
For any development on slopes over 30 percent grade:
On slopes greater than 40 percent, developer must hire an engineer or design professional to create a slope plan. An engineer is also required on slopes greater than 30 percent if they lie in high or moderate landslide hazard areas.
For development on slopes between 30 and 40 percent grade, an engineer is not required, but a site plan, showing the areas to be graded, cut and fill heights, and a drainage plan, is required.
The ordinance applies only to the portion of a tract that exceeds the slope threshold, not the entire tract.
As developers grapple with financial woes forcing them to sell off holdings or succumb to foreclosure, environmental groups in Jackson County want to rein in vested rights previously doled out for those tracts.
A whopping 238 subdivisions were exempt from Jackson County’s new development regulations two years ago. The so-called vested rights were intended to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers merely in the planning stages. The question now is what happens to the vested rights held by developers who sell out to someone else.
“We do not know what these new owners will do — whether they will continue to pursue the original development plans and, thus, make use of the vested rights; or whether they will decide to do something else entirely with the land,” Julie Mayfield, director of WNC Alliance, told Jackson County commissioners last month.
The county was too liberal in granting developers a free pass, according to several community groups that have repeatedly protested the methodology. A coalition of citizens appeared before the county commissioners last month to air their lingering concerns.
The citizens claim the county acted too hastily and failed to figure out which developers indeed qualified. The county now has a golden opportunity to take back some of those vested rights as the original developers go under, Mayfield said.
Mayfield recognized Jackson County as “a regional leader in managing growth.” She praised rules that limit the number of trees that can be cut down on a mountainside lot, curb housing density on steep slopes and mandate open space within subdivisions — naming just a few of the more salient measures that sets Jackson County’s ordinance apart.
“We now ask you to sustain that courage, be firm in the face of the changes in land ownership occurring in our county, look for every occasion to ensure future development occurs in compliance with the county’s 2007 ordinances and does not needlessly destroy our important natural resources,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield read aloud from a letter signed by several community groups: the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River, United Neighbors of Tuckasegee, Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Canary Coalition and Tuckasegee Community Alliance, a local chapter of WNC Alliance.
Commissioner Tom Massie told those in attendance that he understood the concern and had himself sought advice on the issue from the county’s special attorney on development matters.
County Manager Ken Westmoreland suggested bringing in an expert on the issue to give a talk for the public, possibly from the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It is a pretty complex subject,” Westmoreland said. “It may well be for clarity and impartiality we should bring in an outside consultant to provide a complete discussion on that subject.”
State statute requires local governments to make allowances for vested rights. Vested rights eventually expire if not utilized, but the exact time frame Jackson County must honor is not clear.
A local developer has purchased a key parcel alongside Super Wal-Mart in Waynesville, potentially kick-starting long-awaited commercial redevelopment along the South Main Street corridor.
The coming of Super Wal-Mart was heralded as an instant recipe for growth around it. But by the time Wal-Mart opened its doors a year ago, the recession was in full swing. Not only has a South Main boom failed to materialize, but Home Depot killed plans to open a store there.
But Brian Noland, a Waynesville developer and Realtor, is drafting plans for a retail strip sporting six storefronts along South Main Street with hopes of attracting national franchises.
“I put myself in their shoes, and if I am looking to go somewhere, that is definitely a hot spot,” Noland said, citing traffic volume from Wal-Mart and the easy access off the U.S. 23-74 bypass.
Noland closed on the two-acre parcel this month for $600,000. The total project will cost several million dollars, he said. Noland hopes to have the building completed and occupied by early summer.
Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development Director, said he is glad to see movement in the area. While Waynesville has the consumer demand to support many of the national franchises Noland is likely courting, scouts often look solely at population data, Clasby said.
“But we know there are more people than that because of tourists and the second-home market. They just don’t necessarily show up,” Clasby said. “It will take some salesmanship to convince [retailers] from a demographic standpoint that ‘You need to be here.’”
Noland has a national franchise broker working to line up leases. Noland said he was “a very small fish in a big sea,” but believes if he builds it, they will come.
Meanwhile, a second so-called “outparcel” in the Super Wal-Mart complex has also sold. A 1.8-acre tract behind Hardees sold for $550,000. The developer of the site, Donald Holland, has submitted site plans to the town for a car wash and oil change business and an additional commercial building for an unidentified tenant. The site is located along the Waynesville Commons entrance drive off South Main Street.
While Noland has not yet locked in leases, he already has the project underway with the building design. The attractive architecture will sport stacked stone and stucco with varying rooflines and pronounced eaves. It’s a good thing, since a run-of-the-mill, monotonous, low-slung strip mall wouldn’t pass muster with the town’s design standards. Noland has yet to submit his plans to the town for approval, but believes the town will like the look.
The development of the Super Wal-Mart outparcels were considered key to the appearance of South Main. Town leaders hoped attractive developments fronting South Main would visually shield the sprawling Wal-Mart parking lot set further back on the site.
Noland is a Realtor with Remax Creekside Realty. He is currently developing a 46-unit affordable townhouse development in the Clyde area. His first foray into development was in the mini-storage unit business 14 years ago. He has also built and operated three car wash and lube locations in Haywood County.
“I love developing. I really do,” Noland said. “Hopefully, the whole shopping center itself will be a one-stop shop.”
Noland has had the property under contract for 10 months. He purchased it from Cedarwood Development, a national firm that developed the complex known as Waynesville Commons and leases the site to Super Wal-Mart.
Several property owners along the corridor have had their property on the market since the coming of Super Wal-Mart, even booting out current tenants in anticipation of hot demand by national chains seeking proximity to the retail giant. So far, these property owners have failed to find takers.
Best Buy and a Verizon Wireless store are the only two major retailers that have set up shop around Wal-Mart so far.
The 12-acre site immediately beside Wal-Mart that was once slated for a Home Depot does not appear to have a taker yet. Home Depot, which had already purchased the site and even designed a building before backing out, still owns the site and is actively marketing it.
“The economy has obviously had an impact on that,” Clasby said. “It’s not an easy market, there is no question about it.”