New portal to indulge public passion for planning debates in Jackson

Public outcry over a proposal to weaken steep slope rules in Jackson County has led to the creation of an online planning portal so the public can follow along, virtually, with what the planning board is up to.

The groundswell of opposition to steep slope changes this year revealed that the average Joe in Jackson County has a bigger appetite than most for the sausage-making of planning policies.

“We are fortunate to have people who are interested and concerned about what is going on and wanting to be involved,” said County Planner Gerald Green.

The planning portal will give the public a real-time, bird’s-eye view of what’s on the planning board’s plate.

Agendas for upcoming meetings, the minutes of past meetings, drafts of ordinances under review, relevant maps, reports and studies — basically any literature circulated to the planning board will also be posted on the portal for the public to track.

Green hopes the planning portal will serve another goal: to keep the planning board from being blindsided if it’s out of sync with public sentiment.

Public opposition effectively sidelined a move to weaken the county’s steep slope development rules. The planning board spent 18 months on a line-by-line rewrite of the steep slope rules, only to be shot down by the public at the finish line.

“It helps to have the thoughts and feelings of citizens as we are going along,” Green said. “We hope citizens will take the time to provide comments while we go instead of waiting until the end to make comments that would take us in a different direction.”

More than 100 audience members turned out at a public hearing on the steep slope revisions in February — all of them against a rollback of mountainside protections. That in turn prompted county commissioners to call for a cooling-off period, putting the rewrite on hold until after the county commissioner election this fall in an attempt to depoliticize the issue.

The planning board will casually discuss and ponder some of the more hot-button issues in the meantime, but they won’t formally take it back up until after the election.

The portal will make inner workings of the planning board more transparent, but they weren’t exactly cloaked in secrecy before.

Green regularly pushed planning board agendas, minutes and documents to a sizeable email distribution list of around 250 people who had at some point expressed an interest in planning topics. During the steep slope rewrite, the latest draft and revisions being considered were regularly sent out over the mass email list.

But as interest swelled, Green found the manual task of continually entering new names and email addresses to be cumbersome.

“The challenge of managing that got time-consuming. Especially when people would give me their email address on a piece of paper at meetings and then I couldn’t always interpret the handwriting,” Green said.

Now, the onus will be on anyone interested in following along with the planning board to sign up on the portal.

An invite to join the new planning portal was sent out to Green’s email list of stakeholders and planning watchdogs last week.

“We feel that the new system will keep you better informed and enable you to provide us with the input we need to make recommendations to the planning board and the board of county commissioners,” Green wrote in the mass email.

Auto email alerts will be sent out when new materials show up on the portal, so users don’t have to check in constantly.

The planning portal will serve up more than steep slope materials. The planning board is currently considering a rewrite to cell tower regulations, including the height of towers, and will soon take up a Cullowhee land-use plan.

Jackson County is more progressive than most in the land-use planning arena. It’s the only county west of Asheville to have any sort of land-use planning outside town limits. The county has two land-use planning districts — one in Cashiers and one along the U.S. Highway 441 corridor leading to Cherokee — that impose development regulations, from architectural guidelines to landscaping protocols. A third is in the works for the Cullowhee area.



Jump on the Jackson planning portal

Stay up-to-date with what the Jackson planning board is up to with the new planning portal web site. To sign up, go to

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