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Firefighter safety versus right to build steep driveways

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?


The current ordinance limits how steep or narrow roads leading to multiple houses can be but does not address individual driveways. 

Richard Frady, the former Cullowhee fire chief and a planning board member, feels strongly the county should ensure the safety of its residents.

“We have an obligation to look at the potential of health and safety issues for the residents of the county as we develop this ordinance,” Frady said.

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Many mountain homes are reached by windy, steep, narrow unpaved drives. Firefighters, medical responders and law enforcement responding to a 911 call can have trouble reaching the home. 

“We don’t need to be overbearing with superhighways, but we need safe means to be able to get the fire truck and ambulance to those residences,” Frady said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Frady said he’d like to see that change in the new set of rules, including wider turning radius and minimum road widths. Frady acknowledged that mountainside homes will always pose a problem for emergency personnel but certain standards could do a lot to help the larger fire trucks, typically 8.5 feet in diameter.

“Try to put an 8.5-foot truck on a 7-foot driveway and what do you get?” he said.

Furthermore, fire departments must use a larger truck as the one of the first responders out of the station to maintain better fire insurance ratings to benefit all county residents. And sometimes parking at the base of the driveway and running a hose up the hill is not an option, due to the drop in water pressure as the hoses are stretched.

However, at a recent board meeting, Frady’s safety-first philosophy met with pushback from several other board members. Mark Koenig, a homebuilder and the board’s chairman, said he would not be in favor of dictating minimum driveway widths in the Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance.

“Do we want to tell people what to do with their own driveway or not?” asked  Koenig.

Koenig’s sentiments were backed by several other board members who said they felt that it should be left up to the landowner to decide whether to provide emergency responders with a clear and safe route to their houses.

Board Member Mark Jamison countered that the issue comes down to basic consumer rights for homebuyers looking to purchase a residence in Jackson County. He said the rules should provided basic protections, since average buyers might not be experts in road standards and would benefit from a county ordinance that has their safety in mind.

Furthermore, he said the rewrite of the ordinance should consider the safety of the emergency responders themselves, regardless of the property owners’ decisions.

“I don’t care if they can get to my house or not when it burning,” Jamison said. “But regardless, they’re going to try.”

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