Jackson steep slope rewrite on hold until after election

fr steepslopeA controversial proposal to roll back Jackson County’s steep slope rules has become politically charged in the countdown to county commissioner elections this fall — prompting the sitting commissioners to delay their discussion of it until after November.

“People are trying to make it too political,” said Jackson Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam. “It is hard to make good decisions when you are dealing with politics. I just don’t think this is the year that it needs to get that emotional.”

Debnam fears that political posturing would overshadow the real issue, namely how strict or loose the steep slope rules should be. It has become too polarized, Debnam said, with those on either side more focused on making political hay out of the issue than working together toward the best interest of the county.

“You need to keep it to where you can agree on modifications, and I don’t think we can agree on anything at this time,” said Debnam, an independent. Debnam is one of three sitting commissioners facing a challenger on the ballot this fall. All three have previously painted the steep slope rules as too strict and supported revisions to them, although they never said explicitly how much they should be loosened.

A delay of the rewrite by commissioners comes after an impressive and organized crowd spoke against the proposed changes at a public hearing in February. The groundswell of opposition — and absence of a single speaker in favor of the changes — ultimately derailed the revisions.

“You could say the process is working,” said Avram Friedman, a Jackson County environmentalist who opposes the revisions. “People have real power. When they get organized and show up, it works. It influences government policy. That is the purpose of public comment and the democratic process.”

Friedman questioned whether the commissioners are delaying the steep slope discussion due to “political expediency,” however.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said the decision to delay the rewrite was more about protecting the sanctity of the process itself.

“I didn’t think there was any way we could have an open and honest discussion,” said Wooten. “I thought there was no way we could keep this thing from turning into a political forum, and that’s what it was turning into.”

The issue had not only become politically charged, but also emotionally charged, Wooten said.

“When we make an emotional decision, I think it is not a wise decision,” Wooten said.


Mixed reaction

County Planner Gerald Green broke the news to the planning board at their meeting earlier this month that the commissioners wanted to delay a decision on the rewrite. It was met with mixed reactions.

“I definitely think it is a good choice. I think we can make decisions that are more well thought out,” said Ed Weatherby, a planning board member who doesn’t agree with many of the rollbacks being proposed. 

But the news came as a disappointment to many on the planning board, which spent nearly 18 months working over the steep slope ordinance line-by-line.

“Certainly the planning board has worked on this a long time, and some of them are taking it personally,” said Wooten.

The planning board intended the public hearing in February to be the last step before passing their recommended rewrite along to county commissioners, who have the final say.

“It is not surprising that the commissioners don’t want to deal with this right now,” said Clark Lipkin, chairman of the planning board, who was initially disappointed that the rewrite is more or less being tabled just as they finally reached the finish line.

Lipkin said they will continue massaging their rewrite, but with an open-ended timeline.

“I still expect to be able to find compromises on a lot of these issues, and to come up with an ordinance the planning board can pass. Revisions from this board will eventually come,” Lipkin said. But it won’t be before the election.

Lipkin had pledged at the outset of the process that despite the planning board’s own opinions, they would not be deaf to public comment.

But the extent of public outrage presented a quandary. The public comments that came in were diametrically opposed to the planning board’s revisions. 

The rewrite floated by the planning board was shot down in flames for gutting the spirit of the steep slope ordinance in the first place: to stop runaway, garish mountainside development and instead ensure sustainable, environmentally sound and aesthetically sensitive building.

Speaker after speaker at the public hearing in February denounced the rewrite and called for the current steep slope standards to stay on the books.

The shell shocked planning board regrouped at its meeting in March. A few wanted to table the revisions for a cooling-off period. But the majority wanted to press on.

The board decided to revisit the most hot-button issues and tweak them to make them more palatable to opponents.

Whether the planning board would back down enough to appease the public remained to be seen, but they planned to make some sort of concessions, and to keep at it while they had momentum.

They wagered it could be done in two or three more meetings, and then they would ship their recommended rewrite on to the county commissioners by late summer.

For commissioners running for election, that timing couldn’t be worse. It would fall in their laps just three months before the election.


Impeccable timing

Although it’s been relegated to the backburner until after the election, it’s bound to be an election issue anyway, or at least a factor, since voters will no doubt be interested in where the candidates stand.

Three commissioners are up for election — Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — and all three have said the steep slope ordinance is currently too strict. Loosening the steep slope ordinance was one of their publicly-stated intentions when first running for office four years ago.

The three aren’t necessarily in lock-step on what parts to loosen or how much to loosen them by. That’s something they’ve never specifically delineated.

Even without the political pressure of an election season, commissioners may have preferred a more tempered rewrite of the steep slope ordinance.

“There are too many outstanding issues that they feel need to be addressed,” Green said, summarizing his understanding of commissioners’ position.

Delaying the steep slope revision until after the election comes with an inherent risk, however, at least to those who want the rules loosened.

There’s a chance that the makeup of the commissioners could change in the election. And depending on how it shifts, there may no longer be the votes to revise the ordinance substantially.

Debnam said the commissioners’ willingness to postpone the discussion until after the election should be indicative.

“If we were going to gut it or do away with it, why didn’t we do it the third meeting?” Debnam said.

Debnam, Elders and Cody say they never specifically instructed the planning board to loosen the steep slope ordinance, let alone how to loosen it. They didn’t want to be accused of meddling, they said.

Now, however, after 18 months of work on the rewrite, the planning board is being sent back to the drawing board for having gone too far.


Next step

The planning board hasn’t officially decided what to do on its end. While the commissioners have sent a clear message that the steep slope rewrite won’t get an airing anytime in the near future, the planning board could press on anyway.

Indeed, the planning board could double down on hammering out compromise language on the hot-button issues, and ship it along to commissioners anyway, as the planning board had initially decided last month.

“Some members of the planning board wanted to go ahead and finish it since we are this close, and then sit on it — not deliver it to the commissioners, or deliver it to them with the understanding they are not going to vote on it anytime before the election,” Lipkin said.

That would indeed be an option, even though it’s not the one the commissioners would prefer.

“It is certainly their right as a planning board to move ahead and complete the work. But it is probably not going to get put on the commissioners’ agenda,” Wooten said.

Given that reality, Lipkin has concluded there would be no point forging ahead on their end.

“We were basically told that anything we did as far as the ordinance goes would be tabled until after the elections, so there was no reason to even bring it before the commissioners,” said Ed Weatherby, a planning board member from Cashiers who is retired from BASF manufacturing.

The planning board has not formally decided whether to table it, plow through to the finish or peck away at it a little each month, but Lipkin said he won’t give it a top spot on the planning board agenda. 

“I do not expect any action at all on any part of it for the next few months, or possibly longer,” said Lipkin, who sets the meeting agenda as chairman.

Lipkin said he will keep listing the steep slope rewrite on the agenda, but will put it last, allowing for a little discussion each month, or if nothing else, keeping it in plain sight and on the radar.

If time is no longer of the essence to wrap up the rewrite and get it to the commissioners, the extra reflection period could prove useful, Green said.

“There needs to be time to consider the public comments we received and reach a consensus and agreement on how to deal with those comments and whether revisions are needed,” Green said.

Besides, the 11-member planning board has three brand-new members who just came this month. They weren’t part of the 18-month rewrite process and are jumping in at a challenging time. They have to digest what the rewrite says, its rationale and catch themselves up on the debate.

“We will keep reviewing it and get the new members up to speed on the good and bad,” Weatherby said.

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