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Step up and be counted: Public could tip scales in steep slope rewrite

Who shows up and speaks out at a steep slope public hearing in Jackson County next week could alter what mountainside development looks like for decades to come.


The public hearing will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at the county administration building in Sylva.

“From what I have heard there are some organizing on each side of the opinion scale,” County Planner Gerald Green said of the expected turnout.

A rewrite of steep slope development rules in Jackson County has been in the works for 14 months. 

Some call it minor tweaking. Some call it a major rollback.

Certainly the revised rules aren’t as strict. But whether they were too arduous before and needed loosening up — and if so, by how much — is the question of the hour.

The planning board eventually cut off its own debate last month and will now float its best shot at a rewrite before the real panel of judges.

“Really the public voice, that’s where you are going to get the good and bad of what you are trying to do and really, the public should have the final call. That’s the way I look it at,” said Dickie Woodard, a Realtor who sits on the planning board.

The rules could be loosened further or tightened back up slightly, depending on the public comment.

“This is not the planning board’s ordinance and it is not the commissioners’ ordinance. It belongs to the people of Jackson County. If they want to be able to influence the ordinance, they should come,” said Tom Rogers, a planning board member. “The people of this county should not be apathetic about this.”

The planning board will make a final pass of the ordinance after the public hearing.

But the buck ultimately stops with the county commissioners. They can approve the revisions as is from the planning board or make their own adjustments.

“It is absolutely not a done deal,” said Sarah Graham, one of the few planning board members who would rather keep the current rules intact. Graham called on those who fought for the steep slope rules to be enacted seven years ago to come back out and stand up for them.

“There was a lot of energy that went into the creation of the original ordinance and a lot of passion behind people’s convictions and beliefs, and I think commissioners need to hear from folks that still feel that way,” Graham said.

And in an election year — Commissioners Jack Debnam, Doug Cody and Charles Elders are up for election — public sentiment could have some sway.

Meanwhile, those on the other side of the fence intend to make themselves heard as well.

David Brooks, a planning board member and builder, said the rewrite doesn’t undo enough of the regulations.

“I still don’t agree with it. I don’t agree with restricting people,” said Brooks. “Everybody thinks this is set in stone. It’s not. We are taking it out to people to get their input.” 

Woodard, who is somewhere in between Brooks and Graham, said there probably isn’t anyone who agrees with every single line in the ordinance.

“We will never have everything just the way we think it should read,” Woodward said.

Clark Lipkin, one of the most vocal members of the planning board during the rewrite process, pledged he would suspend his own opinions to consider public comment. He knows what it’s like to be on the outside of the process. He was there himself seven years ago when the first version went through.

“I honestly felt like I didn’t get listened to. So I am going to try to keep that in mind and take the public’s comments seriously,” Lipkin said.

The public hearing will allow anyone who pleases to get up and say his or her piece, within time limits. But it won’t be an open dialogue or back-and-forth discussion.

If someone wants to talk more at length, Jackson Commissioner Chairman Jack Debman issued an open invitation for folks to call him directly.

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