Approval of a 38-home subdivision in Cullowhee has served as a catalyst for the Jackson County Planning Board to revisit the county’s steep slope ordinance, a controversial piece of legislation that passed in 2015 after nearly three years of heartfelt debate. If the last few planning board meetings are any indication, the next round of steep slope discussions will also be a lengthy and complex conversation.
Jackson County may have thought it was finished talking about its steep slope ordinance for a while when a much-debated revision to the document passed in 2015, but the planning board is gearing up to address yet another facet of the ordinance — which ridges in the county should fall under the definition of “protected mountain ridge.”
The rollicking steep slope debate in Jackson County may finally be put to rest next month after three years of tussling over whether and how much to water down the development rules.
A stalled rewrite of Jackson County’s steep slope development rules will remain stalled for months, or even longer.
To Jenifer Bauer, the conditions couldn’t be better for a hike. It’s cold and soggy. There’s no leaves left, nothing green at all on the forest floor save the rhododendrons and mountain laurels. Even the views are dreary and gray, leaving nothing better to look at than the ground beneath her feet.
The Jackson County Planning Board debated where to draw the line between safety and individual rights last month in its ongoing rewrite of steep slope rules.
Specifically, should driveways to homes on steep slopes have to meet safety standards?
A team of laid-off state geologists will soon start mapping landslide hazard zones in Haywood County after a coalition of environmental nonprofits raised money to keep the project alive.
The state two years ago axed an ongoing effort to map landslide risks in mountain counties. Haywood was supposed to be next up on the list when the mapping was terminated.
An earth-moving project that has left a large, visible hillside on Russ Avenue in Waynesville denuded, gouged and barren could continue into the indefinite future despite pressure from the state environmental agency monitoring the site to bring it to a close.
Jackson County’s planning board will continue weighing proposed changes to open-space regulations for a few more weeks before passing them on to commissioners for their thumbs up or thumbs down.
Jackson County is one of the few mountain counties with an open space rule, which requires developers to set aside a portion of new subdivisions as green space, natural areas and recreation. The open space rule has been in place for four years, but is being revisited for possible changes.
The planning board recently held a public hearing on the proposed changes. Members chose to hold off on a final decision about passing their recommendations along to county commissioners, who would have final say.
Planning Board Chairman Zachary Koenig and other board members, in delaying a vote, agreed they wanted time to consider what speakers had discussed and asked during the hearing.
The main concern expressed? Fear that the changes would hurt groundwater recharge. When the original open space rule was ushered in four years ago, along with a host of other steep slope and development regulations, groundwater recharge was central to the debate. Open space allowed rain water falling on the mountains to soak back into the soil and recharge the groundwater so many rely on for wells.
Some who spoke at the public hearing feared weaker open space requirements would negate what the previous board tried to accomplish.
Board members denied diluting the rules, however, saying they in fact consider the issue so critical they removed it from the open-space regulations to ensure separate consideration of the matter during the next few months. Multi-family and commercial development also will be addressed in these future groundwater recharge standards. The current open space standards address single-family residential development.
“That will be our next task as a board,” Koenig promised speakers. “We think highly enough of water recharge to put together an entirely new ordinance.”
A couple of speakers seemed unpersuaded by the planning board’s decision.
“I must say I’m a little taken aback at the idea of erosion, water recharge have essentially been pulled out of the open space” discussion, said former developer John Beckman, who works as a farmer these days in Jackson County. “How can you not discuss hydrology, and the impacts that would have on the environment? It is not like open space is totally distinct and different from water-related issues.”
Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, noted “on balance” the proposed changes “appears as a net positive for developers and a notable benefit for the environment and the future homeowners in news developments.”
Clapp did urge the planning board to set the document aside for a bit, as it did, though he requested “the issue of recharge … be addressed.”
The conservationist argued that the document turned the universally accepted definition of open space “on its ear. It never means built-up recreational areas such as tennis and basketball courts and golf courses, in my experiences.”
The changes include continuing to allow certain “hardscaping,” such as tennis courts, sidewalks and swimming pools, to count as open space in efforts to gain recreational space for the county’s residents, as the current ordinance does.
County Planner Gerald Green disagreed with Clapp, saying that including recreational space as “open space” is standard in planning circles. Planning board members also defended the use of recreational space.
Commissioner Doug Cody and Chairman Jack Debnam both attended the hearing. Cody said he hopes that residents “don’t have preconceived notions about what these revisiting of the ordinances are … I’m bothered that people think we are trying to destroy something. We’re not. We are trying to reach a balance.”
• Currently, for subdivisions of eight or more lots, 25 percent of land must be placed in open space. Conservation design subdivisions open-space requirement would go to 20 percent open space of the land area. Green said that remains higher than in other counties. Twenty-five percent, he said before the hearing, in his opinion “increases the costs of homes for people who work and want to live here and does not effectively address the goals that have been identified by the county, which include promoting sustainable development.”
• Developers can opt now to pay a fee in lieu of providing open space. This fee would go to the Jackson County Recreation and Parks Department to help fund activities and spaces for residents. Developers also could offer other land for open space.
Recharge is the process by which groundwater is replenished, and a recharge area is where water from precipitation moves downward to an aquifer. Groundwater is recharged naturally by rain and snow and by creeks, rivers and lakes. Recharge can be hampered by construction or other human activities such as logging.
Not long ago Kristina and Bruce Oliver invited a local couple they’d met in nearby Franklin to come play cards with them at their newly constructed house in Diamond Falls Estates.
The phone rang about the time the visitors were expected to arrive at the subdivision, a 285-acre development in the Cartoogechaye area of Macon County bordered on three sides by the Nantahala National Forest.
The local couple apologized and said they’d misunderstood the Olivers’ directions. They had driven somewhere else by mistake. They were lost in a construction zone and weren’t sure where they were or which way to go next. Not to worry, Kristina assured them after getting a description of what the couple saw from their vehicle’s windows. Just keep going, Kristina said, that house on the hill a short distance ahead was indeed the Olivers’ new home.
Drive into Diamond Falls Estate, just out of sight of the entrance gate and the ubiquitous-to-every-mountain-development clubhouse, past the perfectly manicured expanse of lawns, and you might understand why that visiting couple was confused. The subdivision does indeed in places resemble a construction zone, even now some two years after buyers started handing over dollars for lots in what the developer touted as “North Carolina’s latest green community.”
“The primary issue is the roads. We were all told that they would be paved,” Oliver said. She and her husband paid $61,000 for their lot and built a two-story house that was completed last fall.
“We’ve put a good chunk of our retirement savings into this,” said Oliver, a former financial controller and vice president of finances for a specialty store chain.
On this rainy day the roads in Diamond Falls Estates were rough quagmires of gravel, red subsoil mud and pools of water. Without four-wheel drive, they would be impassible. The Olivers, who live fulltime in Birmingham, Ala., purchased a full-sized Nissan four-wheel drive pickup truck because, they said, of the poor condition of the subdivision’s roads.
Michelle Masta and L.C. Jones of Franklin represent Diamond Falls Estates’ developer, Shirley Buafo. A message left with Buofo’s secretary at her workplace Monday in Macon, Ga., went unreturned as of press time.
To hear Masta tell it, Oliver is a bad apple spoiling an entire barrel of subdivision fun. Masta flat out accused Oliver of “telling lies” about the true situation in the subdivision. Masta said that there aren’t any issues with the roads in Diamond Falls Estates. At least, she said, on the part of the developer of Diamond Falls Estates. The real estate company that might have made promises buyers relied on? Well, that’s a different matter.
“I don’t appreciate Kristina Oliver making accusations that aren’t true,” Masta said. “We are doing everything we can out there. If a real estate agent told them something that was not true, we have no control over that – they need to go after the real estate company or report it to the N.C. Real Estate Commission.”
Masta said, not entirely accurately, that Oliver is the only one of 65 lot owners in Diamond Falls who “has a problem.” In fact, other homeowners besides Oliver are also concerned about the roads.
“We were sold a bill of goods,” lot owner Mark Moore of Atlanta said bluntly in a telephone interview.
But, Masta is correct in noting that not every lot owner is unhappy about the subdivision’s progress. Catherine Shea of Florida, who with her husband owns two lots in Diamond Falls Estates and is building on one of them next to Oliver, said she has found Masta and Jones responsive to issues and complaints.
“I’m not concerned yet; I’m really not,” Shea said.
Not that she’s A-OK with the condition of roads in the subdivision, either, however.
“The real culprit in planting a seed of negativity in Diamond Falls was the real estate company,” Shea said. “They out and out lied.”
That would be the group that marketed Diamond Falls on Oct. 4, 2010, when many of the lot owners first saw the Macon County subdivision.
“We’re not the bad guys,” Masta said of the development side of Diamond Falls Estates.
The chirpy advertising slogans that worked to attract buyers in 2010 sound so inviting: “indulge in an oasis away from the everyday;” “pure natural beauty preserved for the fortunate few.”
And there’s this paragraph in the online sales literature: “Have peace of mind knowing that protective, yet simple, building covenants will help maintain the overall beauty, theme and value at Diamond Falls Estates.”
Oliver finds it difficult to overlook the audacity of that sort of sales pitch. But, you are mistaken if you believe she’s angry. Oliver isn’t a woman who wastes much time on anger: a member of Mensa International, the high IQ society, she’s marshalling her facts and figures and laying out a strategy for moving forward. She and husband Bruce are members together in the society, a fact that was mentioned incidentally when the discussion turned to Western North Carolina’s own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, who blew up an abortion clinic in Birmingham. The Olivers, it turned out, were in Mensa with nurse Emily Lyons, who was disfigured in the explosion.
Moore said those involved have likely just crossed paths with one very intelligent woman who will work without respite to hold them accountable. Moore said he and some others in the development rely on Oliver to keep them abreast on what, for now, they claim is a lack of development in the development.
Some of the roads in the subdivision are an undeniable mess. But it could have been worse, Oliver told commissioners during a public hearing last week on planning issues (see accompanying article). That’s because the county’s subdivision ordinance will require the development company to pave the roads in at least a portion of Diamond Falls Estates, she said.
Development in Diamond Falls Estates was divided into two phases. The second phase, which included Oliver’s lot and house, was bonded, ensuring that the road will eventually be paved. This thanks to the subdivision ordinance, which was passed, enacted and amended by the time she and her husband bought a lot there last year.
A void in planning regulations is hampering development in Macon County, Oliver said. Not, as developers and anti-planning forces claim, the other way around.
“And there are a million regulations that are imposed by the developer on home owners,” Oliver said. “They just don’t want any imposed on them.”
Dan Kelley, another lot owner in Diamond Falls Estates, made a similar argument in an email sent to planning board member Al Slagle that was provided to Macon County commissioners.
“I know of four other houses (in addition to his) that would currently be under construction if not for the lack of development in Diamond Falls,” Kelley wrote. “My position on this and others within Diamond Falls is the quickest way to stifle business is for the word to get out that promises are not being honored.”
That said, Kelley wrote a follow up the next day via an email. Masta provided Kelley’s follow up to The Smoky Mountain News. That second email noted: “I do expect promises to be kept but at the same time I believe that L.C. (Jones) has acted in good faith to comply with owners’ needs.”
Kelley noted that he believes “the main issue” involves the original real estate company “promising roads completion and then when people go to Diamond Falls and see that no roads have been asphalted that leads to suspicion and people drawing conclusions.”
For his part, however, Moore is refusing to build until there is clarity about whether the roads will or will not be paved in Diamond Falls Estates.
“I’ve always wanted to have a house back up in the mountains,” the Atlanta resident said by phone late last week. “This looked perfect, and I loved the lot.”
Moore planned on building a 2,700-square-foot house, initially to serve as a second home and ultimately to become a retirement destination. Moore has the architect’s design already in hand. He estimated that it would probably cost him a total of $700,000 to build, which isn’t chump change to local builders and contractors struggling to survive in a dour economy.
“But I’m just not going to spend that kind of money until the roads are done,” Moore said. “It’s crazy — those are four-wheel dirt tracks.”