Ridge law questions renew development debate in Jackson

Tony Elders didn’t realize quite how much on-the-job exercise he was in for when he was hired to oversee Jackson County’s new development regulations three years ago.

He often must lace up his boots and take off cross-country, GPS unit in hand, trekking up and down mountainsides to plot the elevation change between a ridgeline and the neighboring valley. Jackson County bans building on ridgelines, but the definition of a ridgeline requires some technical reconnaissance work.

“You have to do it on a site-by-site basis,” Elders said.

When a ridge is 2,500 feet or more in elevation and at least 400 feet higher than the nearest valley floor, then it falls under the county’s ridge law.

But it isn’t always clear what counts as the neighboring valley. Does a small holler below the ridge count? And at what point does a creek flowing off the mountain become the bona fide valley floor?

Simply determining what’s a ridge is harder than it might seem, Elders said. Each major ridge has little finger ridges leading off it. Do those count, too?

Ultimately, it’s a judgment call.

“I just try to see how visible and how prominent and how environmentally problematic that house site is going to be,” Elders said. If Elders deems it a protected ridge, the roofline of the house must be at least 20 feet below the ridgeline.

The cumbersome nature of enforcing the ridge law has made it a target of discussion by the county planning board in recent weeks, in turn renewing a more general debate over whether Jackson’s development regulations are too tough.

The ridge law was only a small part of the sweeping steep slope and subdivision ordinances passed in Jackson County three years ago, but supporters are willing to fight to keep it.

“Up on the ridgeline, especially when you cut the trees, you have something that is exposed to anyone looking in the general direction of the mountains,” said Roy Osborn, a Jackson County resident who supports the regulation.

But some see the ridge law as overreaching.

“The fact that they are revisiting it is almost an admission on their part that they overdid it,” said Ron Poore, a critic of the regulations. “Obviously we don’t want something that looked like a spaceship landed on the ridgetop. But at the same time we need reasonable regulations.”

Elders countered that it is only a discussion right now.

“No one is loosening restrictions. We are just trying to find a better way,” Elders said.

While it doesn’t take much to reignite opposing sides in the debate over Jackson’s development regulations, it’s time to revisit the ordinance to assess which parts should be refined, according to Linda Cable, the county planning director.

“After you have been enforcing an ordinance for a year, you automatically go back to review and see what the difficulties are and issues that have surfaced,” Cable said. “One of the issues that has surfaced is how to identify the protected ridges.”

But Elders has also questioned whether the building ban on ridges is wise policy. Sometimes the views and environment are worse off when someone is forced to build on the side of the mountain instead of a flat spot on a ridge, according to Elders.

“The only way to get a house site on the side is to bench it into the mountain. That requires cutting a lot of trees,” Elders said.

If too many trees are cut during construction, they have to be replanted under the county’s ordinance. But it could take decades for the trees to grow tall enough to screen a house on a steep slope, Elders said. Meanwhile, a ridge with a wide, flat spot can accommodate a house with far less excavating or tree clearing, Elders said.

Elder’s either-or scenario — either build on the ridge or gouge up the mountainside — is a fallacy, according to Myrtle Schrader, a Jackson resident and supporter of the ridge law.

“That’s not the only choice,” Schrader said.

With proper building design and site selection, homes can blend with the landscape without protruding above the ridgeline or scarring the side of a mountain, Schrader said.

Poore questioned the added engineering costs.

Rollback or refinement?

The ridge law was discussed at the most recent Jackson County Planning Board meeting. The planning board explored an alternative method for defining protected ridges. Elders suggested an advanced mapping program that gauges how visible a particular ridge is. That raised an equally complicated question: visible from where?

The mere fact the subject was broached prompted criticism that the county might roll back its development regulations.

“I think the concept of letting anyone build on a ridgeline is not a good idea,” said Myrtle Schrader, a Jackson resident and supporter of strong development regulations who attended the meeting. “That’s what the ordinances were about to begin with.”

Schrader does not want to see the regulations weakened. But that is not the intention, according to Elders and Cable.

“I don’t think there is any intention in relaxing any of the regulations,” Cable said. “It is just a different way of trying to determine what those ridges are that need to be protected.”

County commissioners have been taken off-guard by the discussion, however.

“I did not know this was an issue,” said Commissioner William Shelton.

Shelton said the logistical challenge of classifying protected ridges is not a reason to change the ordinance.

“I can see where there would be some technical questions but I don’t think rewriting that portion of the ordinance is a priority at this time,” Shelton said.

Shelton said there are other mechanisms to deal with gray areas that don’t have easy answers.

“It would seem like that is why we have the review board in place, to look at individual cases that deviate from the norm,” Shelton said.

For now, it seems Elders will continue getting his exercise.

Some existing lots sit squarely on a ridge, making it impossible to site a house further down the mountain and still stay within the property lines. If such a lot predates the ordinance, an exception is granted. Otherwise the lot would essentially become worthless for the owner.

But for new lots, Elders makes a site visit before the property deed is recorded. He makes sure the lot lines extend down the mountainside enough to accommodate a house site well below the ridgeline.

Lackluster development

The ridge law is the only part of the ordinance that Elders has seen problems with. Of course, there haven’t been many developers launching new subdivisions lately. Since passage of the regulations three years ago, only two developers have mapped out new subdivisions under the guidelines.

“It was not as bad as they thought. It just requires more careful planning,” Elders said. “Both of them are better developments because of it.”

Despite the paltry number of new subdivisions in three years, Elders doesn’t think the regulations deterred growth.

“It is hard to say because the economy tanked coinciding with our ordinance,” Elders said.

But Poore disagreed. He says the regulations — and more specifically, the moratorium on new subdivisions while the regulations were being written — caused Jackson’s real estate and construction industry to collapse earlier than the rest of the region.

“They basically put a stop to construction,” said Poore, who plans to run for county commissioner chairman as an unaffiliated candidate in the fall.

The next planning board meeting is Thursday, April 8, at 6 p.m. on the second floor of the Jackson County administration building.

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