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Wednesday, 15 August 2007 00:00

Hats off to Jackson County commissioners

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Last week Jackson County commissioners passed what is being called the strongest set of development regulations in North Carolina. They’ve set a standard for other counties to follow, and we think they’ve accomplished this in a manner that won’t hurt the home-building industry that has become so important to Western North Carolina.

In fact, there’s a belief among many that these kinds of regulations will prolong the building boom we are now experiencing while also improving future opportunities for the re-sale of real estate by ensuring that development is done wisely while protecting the environment and neighbors. This will make this a desirable area for a long time, unlike some areas of Florida where uncontrolled growth has residents fleeing to these mountains.

The subdivision and steep slope ordinances were well-thought out and hard fought. When commissioners held their first public hearing on the subdivision moratorium, more than a 1,000 people showed up. A majority of those in attendance seemed to be against the temporary ban on new subdivisions — at least those against it were the most vocal — and they were worried about their jobs and their families.

That firestorm of protest did not cause the commissioners to back down. Instead, it seemed to inspire them to take extreme care in the development of the ordinances that were passed last week. The heat was on, so to speak, and the fear of putting people out of work and the threat of having to fight lawsuits in court are both powerful motivators.

The county planning board went to work, and attorney Michael Egan — an expert in land-use regulations — provided a framework for the ordinances and acted as both a sounding board and interpreter as the regulations took shape.

The ordinances are lengthy and comprehensive, but they are basically aimed at protecting viewsheds, protecting water (creeks and groundwater), and making sure development does not infringe on the quality of life enjoyed by neighbors. It does all it can to discourage ostentatious development that stands out for miles. It also encourages developers to conserve the most hard-to-build-on land, particularly tracts with steep slopes. In essence, it is mostly a common-sense document.

Some may need to be reminded of what prompted commissioners to take on this fight. From 1990 to 2000, Jackson County’s population increased by 23.4 percent while the number of homes increased by 37 percent. More than 2,360 new subdivision lots were recorded in Jackson County between 2005 and 2007. Mega-developers discovered Jackson County and its remote ridges, lakes and coves. Some in this industry don’t care if they flaunt the rules. Others, despite their best efforts, make mistakes or miscalculate the forces of nature. Rules were needed.

We would be remiss if we did not mention the role of county commission Chairman Brian McMahan during the development of these ordinances. McMahan is against them, citing his belief that the county went too far in regulating aesthetics and private property rights. Despite those views, he has conducted the public hearings and official meetings on these ordinances with a refreshing degree of candor and respect for those he has disagreed with. He has also made sure those who were against the new regulations conducted themselves with a fitting degree of dignity.

It’s also well to remember that the four commissioners who championed these ordinances — Tom Massie, William Shelton, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones — said last week that this ordinance is a start. Once problems are spotted, they will be fixed.

Most importantly, though, the mountains we all love have been imbued with some legal protections that leaders in other counties have been too timid to support. For that, these commissioners deserve praise.

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