It could mark the first move in an effort to dismantle a set of strict land regulations in Jackson County that are widely considered some of the most progressive in all of Western North Carolina.
Or perhaps the renewed focus on this county’s subdivision ordinance is, as proponents assert, simply thoughtful streamlining intended to make the process of building developments in Jackson County more efficient.
A public hearing is scheduled Dec. 5 at 1:50 p.m. on a series of changes proposed to the Jackson County subdivision ordinance.
In 2007, much to the dismay of many area developers, Jackson County under a completely Democratic board of commissioners passed sweeping steep slope and subdivision ordinances.
Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting the environment and the quality of life they said was threatened by irresponsible mountainside construction.
The new regulations were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. This marked the end of a laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County that had paved the way for dozens of gated communities over the past decade, angering many in the real estate and building industry. Jackson County’s homebuilders’ lobby pledged to oust the four Democratic commissioners who voted in favor of the regulations.
Last year, voters indeed replaced three Democrats, including one — Chairman Brian McMahan — who had voted against the ordinance.
One year later, under this new board of commissioners, the subdivision ordinance is under review. County Planner Gerald Green, who was hired shortly before the election, asserted the changes are simply “performance enhancements,” and “not a major overhaul.”
“What we are trying to do is benefit the natural environment, the property owner and the developer,” Green said.
Not everyone is persuaded, however. During an October public hearing on the proposed changes held by the planning board, Gerlinde Lindy, a Cullowhee resident, cautioned strongly against “relaxation” of the subdivision standards.
“It would be well to proceed very carefully, particularly when providing options for circumventing the ordinance’s requirements,” Lindy told the planning board. “Any destruction of property, compromise of the county’s water resources, irreversible damage to the environment, or even loss of life that result from weakened standards will be the direct moral, if not legal, responsibility of those who crafted the revisions or allowed the exceptions.”
Lindy also expressed reservations about wording changes to the subdivision’s open-space requirements.
Jackson County’s planning board this month voted unanimously on the proposed changes to the county’s subdivision ordinance. The vote followed two public input sessions, the public hearing and the solicitation of comments about the proposed changes from 70 Jackson County residents participating in a Listserv on the topic, Green said.
That said, it’s also important to note that the composition of the planning board has changed since the subdivision ordinance passed originally — planning board members appointed by the former commissioners are being replaced by new commission picks. At least five of the 11 members are new to the planning board, according to county records.
Planning Board Chairman Zachary Koenig defended the process undertaken by the advisory group and the changes they propose.
“I’d say that it’s to make the ordinance more efficient,” he said Monday. “I think it is a good balance, and makes (the ordinance) more workable, more user friendly.”
Koenig lives and works in the Cashiers community as a general contractor and builder. Koenig emphasized that yes, he’s a builder, but said that he seeks balance in mountain development: “I’m not someone who wants to clear cut everything.”
Meeting Monday night, county commissioners mostly left discussion of the proposed subdivision ordinance changes to Green. But at one juncture, Commissioner Joe Cowan, a Democrat who helped vote in the original subdivision ordinance, asked bluntly: “Is there an instance, in any of these recommendations, that is more stringent than what was already on the books?”
“Yes,” Green said, his reply including the following, what he termed “more stringent” changes: The maximum grade of roads would be reduced from 22 percent to 20 percent, and at least a 5-foot wide bench would be required at the toe of all fill slopes greater than 10 feet in vertical height. Plus, there’s a requirement that qualified professionals oversee all road designs, not just those on property that exceeds certain slope thresholds.
Looking at the proposed changes, one is immediately struck by the removal of pages and pages of the previous ordinance. Not to worry, Green said: That’s simply streamlining and updating, because the current ordinance includes word-for-word copying of N.C. Department of Transportation road standards.
“Rather than trying to keep up with standards, we’re just referencing those standards,” the planner said. That does not mean people won’t have to meet those standards.”
What are the key changes?
Now: Must be 18-feet wide with 2-foot shoulders on either side.
Proposed: Smaller roads would be allowed, down to 14-feet wide, depending on the size of the development. To accommodate two passing vehicles, turnouts are required, with placement of the turnouts based on road curvature and grade. Additionally, either a registered engineer or N.C.-licensed land surveyor must design subdivision roads.
Now: Developers can build subdivisions in three-year phases but “development agreements” approved by commissioners last for 20 years.
Proposed: The ordinance would allow for 10-year phasing of subdivisions and reduce “development agreements” to 10 years, too.
Now: Developers seeking a variance while building a subdivision are required to go through both the planning board and the board of adjustment.
Proposed: The board of adjustment would be eliminated from that process.
There is no change proposed to the number of houses that can be built per acre in new subdivisions. This was one of the most debated points when the original ordinance was passed.