Jackson public delivers message loud and clear: uphold steep slope rules

fr ordinanceA standing-room only crowd turned out for a public hearing on steep slope rules in Jackson County last week and implored county leaders to uphold existing protections against mountainside development.

For more than two hours, the audience railed against proposed revisions that would weaken building regulations on steep slopes. Not a single person spoke in favor of the proposed revisions.

More than 40 speakers took the microphone at the hearing. Some delivered Power Points and recited carefully crafted speeches. Some ad-libbed poignant spiritual messages. Others made arguments rooted in science. One even sang an original Appalachian ballad lamenting the mountains being torn down by bulldozers.

Many in the crowd wore homemade “I (heart) the mountains” buttons on their collars and several held up signs reading “Save Our Mountains.” 

SEE ALSO: What was said

The impassioned speeches were frequently marked by applause despite warnings from the hearing moderator that applause would be docked from the speakers’ allotted time.

A speaker occasionally bumped up against the three-minute limit, but someone from the audience would pipe up from the floor, volunteering to yield their own time so the speaker on deck could finish.

Comments fell into a few general categories:

• Mountain views are an economic asset and should not be despoiled.

• A handful of developers would be enriched at the expense of the greater good.

• The county’s sense of place and quality of life for those already living here would be sacrificed.

• The environment would be compromised.

• Landslides and slope failure would increase.

• Protecting the mountains is the moral and ethical thing to do for future generations 

• The proposed changes are arbitrary, and not based on science and research.

Several speakers tackled scientific aspects of the ordinance, including a 10-minute presentation, laden with numbers, graphs and study citations, by Ken Brown of the Tuckaseigee community.

The luxurious time allotment was afforded to Brown since he represented a coalition, namely the self-anointed Jackson Conservation Voters. He discussed the unknown variables of landslide risk and groundwater carrying capacity, both of which are the subject of ongoing studies, but the jury is still out.

“Why should we weaken current rules before we have sufficient data?” asked Brown, a theme echoed by other speakers who urged caution.

“Until the results are in, don’t put the cart before the horse,” said Roger Clapp with the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River.

The county’s existing steep slope rules put in place in 2007 were among the most restrictive anywhere in the mountains at the time.

The new watered-down version would allow for denser development on mountainsides, more clearing and excavation, bigger building footprints and less consideration for viewscapes. The proposed revision would also lift a ban on ridge top construction. And the threshold for when the new ordinance kicks in would mean more of the mountainsides are exempt from the rules.

Nonetheless, the steep slope ordinance would still provide significantly more protections than most mountain counties.

The Jackson County Planning Board has spent 14 months reviewing the ordinance line-by-line and making changes. The planning board pledged to take public comments into consideration before adopting a final version.

“The public comments made here tonight will be taken into consideration for the ordinance to be further revised,” Green said.

But one audience member questioned whether planning board members would indeed rethink their position based on what they heard from the public.

If and when the planning board settles on the proposed revisions, they will then be sent up the line to the Jackson County commissioners, who have the final say on how — or whether — to alter the steep slope ordinance.

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