In mountain towns and counties across the region, many local leaders took steps for the first time to demand a more responsible and reasonable approach to development.
It has taken a couple of years for the political will to catch up with public perception. The majority voice was staunchly against regulation just a scant decade ago. But within the past few years, that has changed. Mountainside development had grown to the point that people no longer liked what they saw.
Local politicians were still gun shy about laying down rules that would provide a modicum of protection from those developers who weren’t doing the right thing on their own. Until 2007 that is.
The Smoky Mountain News covered issues of development more than any other issue this year — and more than any other newspaper in WNC. Here is a round-up of how development issues played out in our communities.
Jackson County led the charge with a six-month moratorium on new subdivisions. The county was in the midst of writing what would eventually become the toughest set of development regulations in the state. County leaders feared a flood of developers would try to launch subdivisions before the new rules went into effect.
Meanwhile, Jackson County planners were busy writing a model ordinance. To name a few of the requirements — it regulated the density of homes on steep slopes, ensured tracts of open space within large developments, prevented excessive razing of trees for views, and limited the area on a lot that can be disturbed.
While developers and those in the real estate industry criticized the regulations as stifling, the public at large seemed to welcome the check on the free-for-all climate of development. The only true measure will be whether the commissioners get voted out in 2008.
Also in Jackson County, commissioners are pursuing a growth plan for the U.S 441 corridor at the entrance to Cherokee. This spot land-use plan of sorts will prevent the corridor from turning into an unsightly commercial strip. Commissioners were inspired to take such proactive steps in the face of sewer lines coming to the area, which could open up the corridor to intensive commerical development.
Haywood County implemented a slope development ordinance that lays out engineering standards for steep slope construction. Haywood became the first county in the region to employ a county engineer charged with overseeing contractors developing steep slopes. Haywood County already had a subdivision ordinance.
Swain County commissioners made their first foray into planning. They appointed the county’s first-ever planning board and set them to work writing the county’s first ever development regulations. The regulations would require developers to register their subdivision plans with the county — something not currently required. The regulations would also govern the slope and width of mountainside roads for safety.
Talk about public sentiment for planning. The county got 36 applications from people wanting to be on the planning board. The ordinance suffered a temporary setback this month when the development and real estate industry turned out in large numbers at a public hearing on the new road regulations, prompting commissioners to postpone their passage.
Macon County commissioners enacted a moratorium on development in the floodplain. A developer was planning a high-density RV park on the banks of Cartoogechaye Creek, and the county wanted to hold him off while it developed regulations for floodplain development, a process still underway.
Macon County commissioners also passed an ordinance governing high-rises. It was inspired by the threat of a high-rise condo development outside Highlands that angered residents.
The Macon County planning board spent the year writing a development ordinance governing subdivisions that will come before the county commissioners for approval next year.
Towns get in on the act
Towns have been busy tackling development issues of their own. For towns, the top issue isn’t mountainside development. Instead, it is finding a way to preserve their quaint and charming character in the face of growing commercial development. Typically, that means writing regulations that require things like trees in parking lots and avoiding the cookie-cutter appearance of chain stores.
Here’s what our towns are doing:
• The town of Franklin passed a brand new land-use plan. It lay outs out different development standards for different districts of town, forcing growth to blend with the existing district. The cornerstone of the ordinance requires large-scale commercial developments to seek a special permit, allowing town leaders the opportunity to impose whatever guidelines they feel are necessary to make the development compatible with the community.
• The town of Bryson City is writing its first-ever land-use plan. We don’t know much about this yet, but it’s bound to be better than nothing, which is what the town has now.
• The town of Maggie Valley is writing a new land-use plan. It trades in the old paradigm of organizing growth simply based on whether it is commercial or residential, and instead focuses on creating distinct districts, from a gateway district to a downtown district to mixed-used districts where commercial interfaces with residential.
• The town of Sylva held joint workshops with the planning board and town board to chart governing philosophies for a new land-use plan, although work has not yet started on it.