Sylva’s ETJ attempt a bad idea

To the Editor:

Paige Roberson, Sylva’s town manager, says she would be surprised if anyone opposes Sylva’s plans to extend its ETJ expanding territorial jurisdiction). That may be a perfect example of confirmation bias at work. Ms. Roberson may not see why anyone would object to her statement that “We just want it to look nice,” but the implication is that the folks who live in the proposed ETJ don’t have their own ideas about what would look nice.

ETJ is a fundamentally undemocratic law and its current use has made that even worse. When originally proposed in the 1950s for the areas around Raleigh, ETJ might have made some sense. Back then the idea was that the larger cities would eventually annex outlying areas while providing additional services like water, sewer, and police and fire protection. It seemed like a reasonable proposition that municipalities that might be on the hook for expensive infrastructure ought to have a say in development patterns.

Unfortunately that’s not how ETJ came to be used. Some smaller municipalities — Webster is an example — used ETJ to create a zoning buffer between itself and other areas of the county. When annexation or the extension of expensive infrastructure isn’t at play, then ETJ becomes a takeover and little else. The statutes granting ETJ powers require proportional representation for residents of the ETJ on planning boards and boards of adjustment. This allows some participation in the process, but the fact is that ETJ residents don’t get to vote for the boards of commissioners that ultimately have say over the terms of the zoning ordinances or are the seat of appeal on variances and adjustments.

And the sad fact is that many municipalities simply ignore the requirement for proportional representation. Webster’s ETJ, even after a recent adjustment, is as big or bigger than the town itself in both area and population yet its planning board does not reflect that.

ETJ may not be a good deal for town residents either as their taxes go to fund administration of the town’s ordinances in the ETJ and may end up funding lawsuits or court actions arising from variance or adjustment requests. ETJ residents pay no town taxes.

Sylva proposes its ETJ extension as a slam-dunk, but the statute requires that they get permission and agreement from the town of Webster. Where the ETJs of two towns overlap, the standard is to draw a line in the middle. Ms. Roberson suggests that Sylva could draw its line up to Webster’s borders. It can’t without permission, and the Webster town board would be foolish to grant such permission.

Ms. Roberson is right about one thing — the area around the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 cries out for development standards and appropriate planning. There is a much better way to accomplish that goal. I have suggested for years that the area in question would be ideal for a community based zoning district. A CBZD (central business zoning district) similar to the ones in Cashiers and along the U.S. 441 corridor and the proposed one for the Cullowhee area could be a joint effort including the county, the municipalities, and the large institutions in the area like SCC and Jackson County schools.

Cooperation and participation should be the watchwords and that can be better accomplished by a joint effort rather than by a land grab by a single municipality. The statute permits municipalities to participate in CBZDs so there aren’t any legal hurdles to a joint effort, an effort that is inclusive and gives the residents and businesses in the area a greater say in their future.

Mark Jamison


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