Macon County is weighing whether to relax its existing rules that ban fill dirt in the flood plain.
The county’s planning board is split on the issue and struggling to find mutual ground to stand on.
Tom Anderson barely batted an eyelash when he plunked down $300,000 in cash for a tiny lot along the Nantahala eight years ago in the Mystic River development.
The Jackson County Planning Board voted last Thursday to eliminate a pivotal component of the county’s steep slope building rules.
The planning board wants to do away with a controversial limits on how many homes can be built on steep slopes. It is one of the most stringent parts of Jackson’s steep slope rules, and the most stringent of its kind in the region.
A large residential development proposed near Western Carolina University could boost Cullowhee’s revitalization movement and cater to the region’s professional crowd seeking an outdoor lifestyle, but its proximity to the Tuckasegee River has also attracted criticism from area environmentalists.
Jackson County’s planning board is knee-deep in a page-by-page rewrite of the county’s steep slope rules — a controversial process that seems destined to rekindle past disputes over protecting the mountainsides versus stymieing development.
A sweeping slate of mountain building regulations passed by Jackson County commissioners nearly six years ago were both commended and condemned as some of the most restrictive in the state. They took aim at unsafe building practices on steep slopes, but also reined in over-zealous development some feared would mar the mountainsides.
By Becky Johnson & Andrew Kasper • Staff Writers
For two years now, Jackson County’s planning board has systematically combed over and rewritten some of its development rules once hailed as the most protective — yet restrictive — in the state.
Aimed at reining in the previously unbridled and laissez-fare construction industry, the regulations put on the books six years ago ushered in a new era of oversight and standards.
A grand and engaging vision for Western Carolina University’s Millennial campus as a place where academics, research, private industry and college life intersect has stalled almost since its inception seven years ago, but there might finally be signs of movement.
The $46 million Health and Human Sciences building slated to open in the fall has sparked interest from private developers who are exploring the idea of building a medical complex that would house doctor’s offices or health clinics. Indeed, that was the hoped-for affect of new health care teaching facility — to become the epicenter of a health care consortium where students and professors study and teach alongside private health care providers, medical device companies and specialized clinics.
WCU Chancellor David Belcher said that as the economy improves he believes development plans for the campus will move forward.
“By virtue of this facility I think that we are setting ourselves up as a hub for rural public health,” the chancellor said. “And what I want is medical services for our region.”
However, the economic climate to date has suppressed such growth, he said, because in turn “it’s a matter of them being able to court people willing to lease the space.”
Seven years ago, using $2.87 million in state bond money, WCU bought 344 acres of land across N.C. 107 from the main campus. The idea was to build the Millennial Campus, a showcase of how academics, research, private business and housing could be combined to enhance education. But so far, the campus is home to just the $46 million, 160,000-square-foot Health and Human Sciences building, set to open for classes this fall.
It will bring under one roof 11 programs from the College of Health and Human Sciences ranging from physical therapy to nursing, serving about 1,200 students, including 300 graduate students.
A new College of Education and Allied Professions building was next on the list but has been sidelined because of funding shortfalls in the state budget.
“We’ll need to re-examine and affirm that building or not — it has been four or five years since the decision was made,” Belcher said.
The chancellor said that he is certain that as the economy rebounds there inevitably will be growth taking place in the Cullowhee area. He said the university, for its part, would be forced to deal internally with such planning issues as transportation, sidewalks and the development of infrastructure that includes water, sewer and roads.
“And will there be residential halls there? Dining halls? It takes a lot of advance planning,” Belcher said of the future Millennial Campus.
Cullowhee poised for growth
Millennial Campus isn’t the only area likely to see growth in Cullowhee. The commercial districts around campus could attract new businesses to located following the recent passage of countywide alcohol sales.
Even without those two elements Cullowhee is already the fastest-growing township in Jackson County. The community grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census.
The prospect of unbridled growth has some in the Cullowhee community calling for the county to start some sort of land-use planning process. Meetings are being held in Cullowhee under the auspices of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE), a community group dedicated to revitalizing and beautifying Cullowhee.
“My hope is that the people of the Cullowhee community will come together and develop a plan for the future of Cullowhee that takes advantage of the natural resources and attributes of the area,” said Mary Jean Herzog, the chair of CuRvE.
Herzog sent a letter to county commissioners asking they consider instituting planning efforts and that they make the revitalization of old Cullowhee a priority.
“As Cullowhee continues to grow, CuRvE is concerned about the lack of planning that has a negative impact on ‘Old Cullowhee,’” Herzog wrote in the letter. “If you walk along Old Cullowhee Road, you can see how this uncontrolled development looks. There are attractive, new houses on the river and on the opposite side of Old Cullowhee Road that add to the beauty of the area … But there are significant sections of disrepair and deterioration that drag down these efforts to beautify and revitalize.”
CuRvE has not heard back from county leaders, but Jackson County Planner Gerald Green is now working with members of that group and other Cullowhee residents at commissioners’ request. The group’s members are studying community-based zoning as a possibility for the area, though it would require gathering the signatures of one-third of the property owners who would be in the planning district. The signatures are a county requirement before commissioners will consider instituting community-based zoning.
Per state law, the designated zoning area would have to be at least 640 acres and be made up of at least 10 separate tracts of land.
Robin Lang, a business owner in Cullowhee and member of CuRvE, said she believes “now is the time to act” when it comes to planning Cullowhee’s future..
“I think the alcohol referendum is waking a lot of people up,” Lang said. “You have to manage growth or it’s going to be a mess. We’ve got to be smart and savvy about it.”
Lang is an advocate for a planning board or council, similar in scope to one now operating in Cashiers, to oversee Cullowhee.
Cashiers in 2003 was divided into two districts, a “village central” and a general commercial zone. In addition, Jackson County commissioners created a five-member Cashiers Area Community Planning Council to review amendments to the zoning plan and to make recommendations to the county planning board. The council also votes on requests for conditional uses and variances in Cashiers.
Like the CuRvE members, Belcher, too, believes growth in the Cullowhee community will present challenges in coming days.
“I don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. “Our collective challenge is how we as a region and as a community deal with economic development.”
As an aggressive spring thunderstorm brewed over Waynesville this March, causing power outages around town, Erika Stansbury received a frantic call from her elderly in-laws who had lost power at their gated apartment complex.
“Grandma’s on oxygen, and she gets very anxious,” Stansbury said. Her mother-in-law gets nervous her oxygen supply will run out if the power stays off too long.
Stansbury and her husband drove across town to pick up the grandparents and let them stay at their home, which still had power. But, when they reached the gated apartment complex on South Main Street, the gate wouldn’t open. No code, no amount of force or no magic words would pry the electric-powered hinges from their closed position.
The problem is not just this single gated community.
Dozens of gated communities pepper the mountainsides of Western North Carolina. Getting through those gates in an emergency has presented a host of problems for the medics, volunteer firemen and law enforcement officers charged with protecting public safety in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.
“It’s a problem. There is no doubt about it,” said Randy Dillard, chief of the Cashiers-Glenville Volunteer Fire Department. “About everywhere we go, we have to deal with one.”
To help mitigate the problem, Haywood and Macon counties have passed standards within the past two years requiring new developments to install gates with fail-safes that allow emergency service officials to gain entry without an access code.
“It’s a life-safety issue,” said Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey, who formerly served as the county’s emergency service director.
However, older communities, like the one Stansbury’s in-laws live in, were built prior to the rule. As with most gated communities, the Stansburys could go around the gate and get inside on foot, but that would mean walking the elderly couple back out through the storm to the van, which they ruled out.
“We could get to grandma, but we had no way to get her to us,” Stansbury said.
So, Stansbury called the emergency maintenance number for the apartments. The man who answered was more than an hour away and did not seem too excited to help, she said. The other maintenance employee was on vacation.
“There wasn’t anyone on-site,” she said.
When her first option failed, Stansbury called the Haywood County Sheriff’s non-emergency number.
A sheriff’s deputy drove to the scene but admitted that he did not know how to open the gate without going to extreme measures such as taking the gate off its hinges or ripping it open — something that emergency services would consider if the blocked path meant the difference between life and death.
Luckily, power was restored as the Stansbury’s discussed the problem with the deputy.
“The power came on. But, we had no way of knowing (that it would),” Stansbury said.
The following day, Stansbury took her concerns to the county fire marshal who said he would call and strongly suggest that the owner of the apartment complex exchange the current gate for a newer model, which includes several fail-safes. But, the fire marshal cannot force the owner to replace it, and to the best of her knowledge, Stansbury said the gate has yet to be changed.
“It upset me. That’s for sure,” Stansbury said.
Ideally, the county’s dispatch office maintains a list of gate codes and can give fire, police or emergency medical services officials the accurate code.
“Dispatch, 99 percent of the time, has the gate code,” said Jimmy Teem, the Macon County Fire Marshal. “We have not had any really big issues with that yet.”
Haywood County’s 911 center likewise keeps a record of all the gate codes in the county. Most communities periodically change their gate codes for security reasons, so county dispatch has the hassle of constantly updating its system with the latest codes for dozens of gated subdivisions. But it seems to work.
“Most are good about calling and letting us know (about code changes),” said Chanda Morgan, 911 supervisor for Haywood County. “We’ve not had any problems getting in.”
Indeed, many communities — if they are diligent about reporting gate code changes to dispatch — never see a hitch.
“To my knowledge, they never had a problem getting in,” said George Escaravage, a resident of The Sanctuary in Waynesville.
Their gates are also equipped with modern fail-safes: they open automatically in a power outage and have a special audio-trigger mechanism that recognizes the sirens of emergency service vehicles.
Other places aren’t so lucky. Cashiers has one of the highest concentrations of gated communities in the area, and emergency services rarely goes a day without getting a call from within a gated community.
“We probably have more gated communities than anywhere in Western North Carolina,” said Cashiers Fire Chief Randy Dillard. “There is no telling how many gates we have.”
Like other counties, Jackson County tries to keep an accurate list of gate codes but relies on homeowners’ associations to provide them.
“Most people are very, very willing to work with us,” Dillard said.
The Cashiers-Glenville volunteer firefighters usually keep a list of codes stored in their personal phones as well. They are sometimes driving to a fire in their own vehicles rather than first going to the fire station and riding in the fire truck.
Many of the volunteers also work in the construction industry, and luckily already know the codes because they are building a house in a particular gated community.
Still, they occasionally encounter a gate they don’t have the code for, and dispatchers have to track down a resident of the community to get a code.
“They change the code, and we don’t know the code,” said Todd Dillard, director of Jackson County’s Emergency Management Office.
In rare cases, the emergency service officers must take the gate off its hinges.
“Usually, we can pull the pins on them,” Randy Dillard said.
Randy Dillard said he did not remember a time when the fire department has to destroy a gate to gain access — such as busting through it with a truck. And, usually, there is time to find out the correct code.
“It’s hard to justify tearing down a $10,000 gate if its not life threatening,” Randy Dillard said.
Unlike Haywood and Macon, Jackson County does not have any standards on its books requiring gates to be equipped with fail-safes, to the chagrin of some.
“Unfortunately, we do not have an ordinance,” said Todd Dillard.
Todd Dillard said that Cashiers is “where we have most of our problems.”
“There have been some delays. Luckily, there has been no loss of life,” Todd Dillard said.
Neighboring Highlands — which also has a high concentration of gated communities and lies across the county line in Macon — has not had as many problems. Highlands is an actual town, with a paid police department, and officers keep an updated list of codes provided by homeowner’s associations.
“All of our gated communities, we have gone and talked to the people in charge of those gates,” said Capt. R.L. Forester of Highlands Police. “So far, we have not had an issues where we could not get into any gated community.”
The police also patrol many of Highlands’ gated communities on a regular basis so they already know the codes. However, if there were a major gate malfunction during a crisis, the police would waste little time.
“We would crash the gate and go in,” Forester said.
Swain County does not have any sort of ordinance or standards either that require gated communities to install fail-safes, but it rarely has troubles.
“When we know there is gates, we ask the homeowners’ association to give us an updated gate code,” said David Breedlove, director of Swain County’s Emergency Services.
The codes are linked in the emergency service’s database of addresses and phone numbers so that it pops up when a resident in a gated community calls. Dispatch then relays the gate code to the right emergency officials as they are en route. Homeowners’ associations are good about keeping dispatch abreast of any changes to their access codes, Breedlove said.
Indeed, that’s the best way to avoid problems: informing their county dispatch of any changes to the code to ensure that when a fire truck or ambulance rolls up to the gate, there won’t be any obstacles standing between them and those who need help.
“If they would keep the 911 center updated … that would be the biggest thing. That would be the words that I would say put in bold,” said Todd Dillard.
A back-up fail-safe many gates now have is an audio activation that recognizes a specific siren call of ambulances and fire trucks to prompt some gates to open. Some of the newer models even allow emergency vehicles without sirens to use their dispatch radios to unlock a gate.
“The radio-controlled are the best way to go because they get all the first responders,” said Randy Dillard, whose fellow volunteer firefighters will arrive on a scene in their personal vehicle.
Other gates have a Knox-Box that sits near the entry. Emergency officials have a key to the box, which holds a master key to the community.
But, if these measures fail or a gate doesn’t have them, emergency management employees assured people that they won’t let a little thing like a gate stand in their way during an urgent situation.
“If they can’t get in the gate and they’ve got a call, they are bound to get in there,” said Teem, the Macon County Fire Marshal. “They will assess the situation (and) they would take the appropriate action — cut a lock, pull it down or whatever.”
Mike Forbis worked for the state fire department for 10 years before recently becoming the fire marshal in Jackson County but would respond to fire alarms in the county during that time. He would sometimes ran into locked gates.
“That is just par for the course for emergency services,” Forbis said.
Several years ago, firefighters had to sit outside the gate of a community where a brushfire was burning until dispatch could find a resident to let them in.
“We had been called to a fire, and when we got there, the front gate was locked,” Forbis said. “And, none of the codes worked.”
It was late fall or wintertime, Forbis recalled, and many of the second-home owners who lived in the subdivision had already left for the season. The dispatcher had to call half a dozen houses before someone answered and opened the gate.
“You had to keep dialing numbers to get somebody to answer,” Forbis said.
A review of rules in Jackson County that guide development along the roughly five-mile stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation is steaming along but possible changes can’t come fast enough for some business owners and residents.
A petition with just fewer than 200 names protesting the current land-use ordinance landed in county commissioners’ laps this month.
David Brooks, a general contractor in the area and one of those who believes the regulations are stifling potential work opportunities, gathered the names contained in the petition. Brooks said this week that doing so was easy — he just drove along the corridor, told people what he was doing and had just one individual opt not to sign her name.
“I started at one end and came to the other,” Brooks said. “The people want it lifted.”
The petition calls on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners “to immediately repeal” the U.S. 441 corridor ordinance adopted in August 2009.
That’s unlikely to happen, however, County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
A task force was appointed last fall to review the development guidelines. It will recommend any changes to planning board, which in turn will recommend changes to county commissioners. The task force has not finished with its review, let alone kicked suggestions up to the planning board yet.
“We are at the very beginning of the review process,” Wooten said.
The development regulations were intended to prevent unsightly or out-of-character sprawl. The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. It instead lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure any development that does occur will be attractive. It also limits billboards and overly large signs, which was a source of contention when it passed.
But property owners believe their options are being limited.
“We believe that the ordinance was adopted with little input from the affected property owners, and that the ordinance causes undue hardship on property owners with the district,” the petition states. “The appearance standards, landscaping rules, and five-acre minimum lot sizes place a burden on property owners and serves to reduce property values for the citizens in this part of Jackson County.”
The Gateway land-use plan was a landmark event when passed five years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by a county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot zoning.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, who served on the board when the ordinance passed, defended the rules recently as having been developed by people who lived in that community. The Whittier/Gateway community in a series of hearings developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway.
But, Brooks said in response, “a lot of people think the decision was made before they ever had those public meetings.”
County Planner Gerald Green last fall initiated a planning board based review of the rules. A task force of people who live and work in the corridor are involved in the examination. Green said he believes the group will have recommendations ready for the planning board this spring. Revised regulations likely will make their way for commissioner consideration in the summer.
“We’re moving forward,” Green said, adding that he does not believe goals of protecting the corridor’s character and allowing development are exclusive ones.
Currently, some older motels, a consignment shop, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor. A couple of art galleries and craft shops are at the nicer end of the spectrum. Businesses catering to tourists are few and far between, but many see the corridor, which has water and sewer, as primed for growth.
Green explained in a previous interview that he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better instead of allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip. Sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.
Monday, Green said the U.S. 441 subcommittee has indeed identified some potential “nodes.”
Also being reviewed were:
• The section of the rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. Green also was concerned that the ordinance failed to stipulate that developers couldn’t just “flip” their new businesses around, with the parking lot facing the highway anyway.
• The possibility of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor. Green has said that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.
“It was designed for flat lands, not the mountains,” Brooks said of the ordinance.
In May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441.
“Growth will come, sooner or later, and I do think we need some regulations,” Brooks said, adding that he believes the ones now in place, however, are too restrictive.
Not long ago Kristina and Bruce Oliver invited a local couple they’d met in nearby Franklin to come play cards with them at their newly constructed house in Diamond Falls Estates.
The phone rang about the time the visitors were expected to arrive at the subdivision, a 285-acre development in the Cartoogechaye area of Macon County bordered on three sides by the Nantahala National Forest.
The local couple apologized and said they’d misunderstood the Olivers’ directions. They had driven somewhere else by mistake. They were lost in a construction zone and weren’t sure where they were or which way to go next. Not to worry, Kristina assured them after getting a description of what the couple saw from their vehicle’s windows. Just keep going, Kristina said, that house on the hill a short distance ahead was indeed the Olivers’ new home.
Drive into Diamond Falls Estate, just out of sight of the entrance gate and the ubiquitous-to-every-mountain-development clubhouse, past the perfectly manicured expanse of lawns, and you might understand why that visiting couple was confused. The subdivision does indeed in places resemble a construction zone, even now some two years after buyers started handing over dollars for lots in what the developer touted as “North Carolina’s latest green community.”
“The primary issue is the roads. We were all told that they would be paved,” Oliver said. She and her husband paid $61,000 for their lot and built a two-story house that was completed last fall.
“We’ve put a good chunk of our retirement savings into this,” said Oliver, a former financial controller and vice president of finances for a specialty store chain.
On this rainy day the roads in Diamond Falls Estates were rough quagmires of gravel, red subsoil mud and pools of water. Without four-wheel drive, they would be impassible. The Olivers, who live fulltime in Birmingham, Ala., purchased a full-sized Nissan four-wheel drive pickup truck because, they said, of the poor condition of the subdivision’s roads.
Michelle Masta and L.C. Jones of Franklin represent Diamond Falls Estates’ developer, Shirley Buafo. A message left with Buofo’s secretary at her workplace Monday in Macon, Ga., went unreturned as of press time.
To hear Masta tell it, Oliver is a bad apple spoiling an entire barrel of subdivision fun. Masta flat out accused Oliver of “telling lies” about the true situation in the subdivision. Masta said that there aren’t any issues with the roads in Diamond Falls Estates. At least, she said, on the part of the developer of Diamond Falls Estates. The real estate company that might have made promises buyers relied on? Well, that’s a different matter.
“I don’t appreciate Kristina Oliver making accusations that aren’t true,” Masta said. “We are doing everything we can out there. If a real estate agent told them something that was not true, we have no control over that – they need to go after the real estate company or report it to the N.C. Real Estate Commission.”
Masta said, not entirely accurately, that Oliver is the only one of 65 lot owners in Diamond Falls who “has a problem.” In fact, other homeowners besides Oliver are also concerned about the roads.
“We were sold a bill of goods,” lot owner Mark Moore of Atlanta said bluntly in a telephone interview.
But, Masta is correct in noting that not every lot owner is unhappy about the subdivision’s progress. Catherine Shea of Florida, who with her husband owns two lots in Diamond Falls Estates and is building on one of them next to Oliver, said she has found Masta and Jones responsive to issues and complaints.
“I’m not concerned yet; I’m really not,” Shea said.
Not that she’s A-OK with the condition of roads in the subdivision, either, however.
“The real culprit in planting a seed of negativity in Diamond Falls was the real estate company,” Shea said. “They out and out lied.”
That would be the group that marketed Diamond Falls on Oct. 4, 2010, when many of the lot owners first saw the Macon County subdivision.
“We’re not the bad guys,” Masta said of the development side of Diamond Falls Estates.
The chirpy advertising slogans that worked to attract buyers in 2010 sound so inviting: “indulge in an oasis away from the everyday;” “pure natural beauty preserved for the fortunate few.”
And there’s this paragraph in the online sales literature: “Have peace of mind knowing that protective, yet simple, building covenants will help maintain the overall beauty, theme and value at Diamond Falls Estates.”
Oliver finds it difficult to overlook the audacity of that sort of sales pitch. But, you are mistaken if you believe she’s angry. Oliver isn’t a woman who wastes much time on anger: a member of Mensa International, the high IQ society, she’s marshalling her facts and figures and laying out a strategy for moving forward. She and husband Bruce are members together in the society, a fact that was mentioned incidentally when the discussion turned to Western North Carolina’s own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, who blew up an abortion clinic in Birmingham. The Olivers, it turned out, were in Mensa with nurse Emily Lyons, who was disfigured in the explosion.
Moore said those involved have likely just crossed paths with one very intelligent woman who will work without respite to hold them accountable. Moore said he and some others in the development rely on Oliver to keep them abreast on what, for now, they claim is a lack of development in the development.
Some of the roads in the subdivision are an undeniable mess. But it could have been worse, Oliver told commissioners during a public hearing last week on planning issues (see accompanying article). That’s because the county’s subdivision ordinance will require the development company to pave the roads in at least a portion of Diamond Falls Estates, she said.
Development in Diamond Falls Estates was divided into two phases. The second phase, which included Oliver’s lot and house, was bonded, ensuring that the road will eventually be paved. This thanks to the subdivision ordinance, which was passed, enacted and amended by the time she and her husband bought a lot there last year.
A void in planning regulations is hampering development in Macon County, Oliver said. Not, as developers and anti-planning forces claim, the other way around.
“And there are a million regulations that are imposed by the developer on home owners,” Oliver said. “They just don’t want any imposed on them.”
Dan Kelley, another lot owner in Diamond Falls Estates, made a similar argument in an email sent to planning board member Al Slagle that was provided to Macon County commissioners.
“I know of four other houses (in addition to his) that would currently be under construction if not for the lack of development in Diamond Falls,” Kelley wrote. “My position on this and others within Diamond Falls is the quickest way to stifle business is for the word to get out that promises are not being honored.”
That said, Kelley wrote a follow up the next day via an email. Masta provided Kelley’s follow up to The Smoky Mountain News. That second email noted: “I do expect promises to be kept but at the same time I believe that L.C. (Jones) has acted in good faith to comply with owners’ needs.”
Kelley noted that he believes “the main issue” involves the original real estate company “promising roads completion and then when people go to Diamond Falls and see that no roads have been asphalted that leads to suspicion and people drawing conclusions.”
For his part, however, Moore is refusing to build until there is clarity about whether the roads will or will not be paved in Diamond Falls Estates.
“I’ve always wanted to have a house back up in the mountains,” the Atlanta resident said by phone late last week. “This looked perfect, and I loved the lot.”
Moore planned on building a 2,700-square-foot house, initially to serve as a second home and ultimately to become a retirement destination. Moore has the architect’s design already in hand. He estimated that it would probably cost him a total of $700,000 to build, which isn’t chump change to local builders and contractors struggling to survive in a dour economy.
“But I’m just not going to spend that kind of money until the roads are done,” Moore said. “It’s crazy — those are four-wheel dirt tracks.”