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Wednesday, 14 June 2017 13:46

Jackson’s comprehensive plan nears approval

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After two years of meetings, research and public input, the Jackson County Comprehensive Land Use Plan must go through one more round of public comment before commissioners can give it final approval. A public hearing is scheduled for 5:50 p.m. Monday, June 19, at the Jackson County Justice Center.

“Anything that gets done gets done because people are committed to accomplishing that or figuring out how that can be implemented,” said Michael Poston, the county’s planning director. “It’s the driving force behind the plan. If everyone decides these aren’t good ideas or we’re not going to do this, it doesn’t really matter what’s written on paper if we don’t have people there to buy into the process.”

The plan came together with the help and input of a 31-person steering committee, the exact membership of which shifted over the two-year planning process as people left old positions and took on new ones. The group — which was simultaneously tasked with developing a comprehensive transportation plan in collaboration with the N.C. Department of Transportation — began by defining the plan’s vision, hearing from various subject matter experts and then breaking it down into various topic areas, appointing subcommittees to look at each. 

The steering committee then reconvened to finalize a draft, conducted a series of public meetings last fall, incorporated the resulting comments, and came up with a new version of the draft plan to present to the Jackson County Planning Board, which approved a recommendation for commissioners to adopt it. 

The result is a plan that addresses goals and objectives for everything from recreation to infrastructure to education intended to carry the county through 2040. Various objectives are categorized as short-term, mid-term or long-term, giving county leaders a guideline as to how to prioritize implementation. That’s not to say the plan will be a foolproof blueprint for the next 23 years, however. 

“It’s not static that for the next 23 years we’ll go down the list and start making checkmarks,” Poston said. “The realization is that we can’t predict everything that’s going to happen. We might be faced with challenges and opportunities we didn’t expect.”

Updates every five to seven years will likely be necessary. 

As to what is actually in the plan, the answer is a lot. In addition to detailed analyses of demographics and current conditions in the county, objectives range from preventing substance abuse by establishing supervised youth centers in the county to mapping wildlife corridors in order to better protect habitat to getting an annual mud run started.

But regardless of which topic you read through, three themes keep recurring: the county needs better internet access, more workforce housing and more transportation options. 

“It wouldn’t go away,” said Mike Byers, vice chancellor of administration and finance at Western Carolina University, and a member of the plan’s steering committee. “It didn’t matter which topic we tried to discuss. Those topics would find their way back into it.”

All three are of direct concern to WCU, for instance. As the university — and, therefore, the Cullowhee area — continues to grow, transportation solutions that allow students to get around without overloading the small mountain roads more than they already have become ever more pressing. To that end, the plan calls for an expanded county greenway, especially in areas that would connect student housing to campus, for investment in sidewalks and bike-friendly infrastructure, and for collaboration between WCU and county transit so routes are interconnected. 

Housing and internet needs converge when it comes to university faculty and staff. It’s hard to find a quality home for less than $250,000 in Jackson County, Byers said, leading many university employees to buy out of county and resign themselves to a daily commute. Lack of internet access only compounds the problem. 

“Many of the people who would work at Western, they don’t do all their work on campus where internet access is high-speed and readily available,” Byers said. “A faculty member wants to be able to do research and conduct business from home at times, and there aren’t that many good options.”

Rich Price, the county’s economic development director and a member of the steering committee, also saw those three issues come into play when planning for future economic development. 

“As larger employers continue to be concentrated in more urban areas or areas with particular assets that we don’t have here in the mountains, and certainly topographical challenges that we have here in the mountains, small business entrepreneurship will be the staple of our workforce and job creation,” Price said. 

New workers need housing, and new businesses need internet. Potential solutions for housing include creating a housing task force, working with private developers to determine what the barriers are to building housing, and exploring programs to help keep existing homes habitable. On the internet side, potential solutions include creating a utilities consortium, looking for funding from grants or private businesses and creating internet hotspots in public buildings.  

The economy is also likely to grow through tourism. Visitation has been on the rise, and since his hire to the newly created tourism director position in 2016, Nick Breedlove has been working to push it even farther. Previous comprehensive plans haven’t mentioned tourism as a large sector of Jackson County’s economy, but this one gives it its due — in 2015, tourism resulted in a $175.9 million economic impact to Jackson County. 

“I think providing support to the hospitality industry through training and recruitment is vital to the sustainability of our local tourism market,” Breedlove said. “Hospitality workers are often the first to interact with tourists, and it is key to support those positions and their employers so that tourists have a positive first impression.”

For Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau, some of the plan’s most notable features are the goals it sets for improving the county’s management of its resources. The plan calls for development of an inventory of the county’s and school system’s assets, complete with their age, condition and estimated life expectancy. The idea is to use that information to develop a long-range plan for when certain items might need to be replaced, which would in turn result in fewer surprise budget needs. 

Also a member of the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority Board, Mau is acutely aware that water and sewer infrastructure is a big driver of development, with the cost and availability of connections having a substantial impact on where and if development occurs. The plan calls for coordination between TWSA and various other utility entities in order to better plan new water/sewer infrastructure for areas where development is likely to occur and to co-locate utilities where possible. 

While the plan includes plenty of specific actions to address the issues and goals it identifies, it also grapples with plenty of issues that are not unique to Jackson County. In particular, the three big ones — housing, internet and transportation — are challenges in counties throughout WNC. 

However, Price is optimistic that the methods outlined in the plan, combined with the people who committed to working for solutions and the county’s resource-richness when it comes to education, health care and tourism will combine to help Jackson County move the needle over the next couple decades. 

“It creates these specific objectives that the community can get behind and rally around and support. I think it creates a pathway,” he said. “We don’t have to use a shotgun-scatter approach for economic development here in Jackson County when you’ve been able to identify particular segments of the economy that you feel that you have the resources and the capabilities to improve upon.”

 

 

Be heard

A public hearing on the proposed Jackson County Comprehensive Land Use Plan will be held at 5:50 p.m. Monday, June 19, in room A201 of the Jackson County Justice and Administration Center in Sylva. 

The plan will guide development in the county through 2040 and was developed over a two-year period by a 31-member steering committee representing diverse entities and interests. After the public hearing, commissioners will vote on whether to adopt the plan. 

Public comments must be three minutes or less, and written comments can be sent to commissioners using the contact information at www.jacksonnc.org/county-commisioners.html. The proposed plan is online at www.planning.jacksonnc.org/ pdfs/Jackson-County-Comp-Plan-Final-Draft.pdf.

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