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Sidelined rewrite of steep slope rules not going anywhere fast

fr steepslopeA stalled rewrite of Jackson County’s steep slope development rules will remain stalled for months, or even longer.

The fate of the county’s steep slope rules — whether they would be loosened a lot, a little or left alone — has been up in the air since this time last year. The direction largely hinged on the outcome of the county commissioner election last fall. 

That election is now in the rearview, but steep slope rules still aren’t something commissioners will address in earnest until much later in the year, according to newly-elected Commission Chairman Brian McMahan.

“It is not going to be on our plate for quite some time,” McMahan said.

McMahan said the commissioners haven’t really discussed it. They have a queue of more pressing planning issues in line ahead of the steep slope rewrite — Cullowhee land-use planning, cell tower rules and fracking.

Steep slope rules were on the verge of being loosened this time last year. The planning board had finally reached the finish line of a lengthy rewrite making the slope rules substantially weaker. The rewrite was shipped on to commissioners for final approval, but then sidelined by public outcry.

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With a commissioner election looming, the politically charged climate wasn’t conducive to rational dialog — so claimed then-commissioner Jack Debnam. So the rewrite was shipped back to the planning board and tabled until after the election.

The make up of the commissioners flipped in the election. The new majority were never fans of the rewrite, at least as proposed. 

But County Planner Gerald Green said some parts of the rewrite have merit and should eventually be considered. The rewrite cleaned up ambiguous language, for instance. And while the new board of commissioners may not endorse a major rollback of steep slope rules, they may be amenable to some modest loosening.

Still, it’s been difficult for those who worked so hard on the rewrite to let it go.

“I don’t want to see all the work the previous board has done, the previous board from a year ago, has done. The board had a reason for doing the revisions it did. I don’t want to see it thrown out and start from scratch,” Clark Lipkin, a surveyor and champion of the original rewrite, said at a March planning board meeting.

Green replied that the rewrite simply wouldn’t fly now, given the new political dynamic among commissioners after the election. 

Complicating matters, there has been turnover on the Jackson planning board since the initial rewrite. Those wanting to roll back the steep slope rules dominated the planning board during the yearlong rewrite. But just as the rewrite got to the finish line, a spat of new appointments altered the makeup.

Three new members came on the board last April, tempering the pro-rewrite camp.

The planning board is now more or less split into three equal groups: those who favor strong slope regulations, those who favor weaker rules and those somewhere in the middle.

“I believe it is more balanced now. We have pretty good give and take there. It is not all give or all take,” said Burt Kornegay, one of the new members to come on the planning board who favors mountainside protections.

The planning board will change even more later this year. Two chief proponents of the rewrite will be forced to step down from the planning board, having served the maximum number of terms. As vacancies come up and the new commissioners name replacements, the planning board will gradually shift to more closely mirror the views of the new commissioner board.


A false start?

A planning board discussion at the March meeting had a ring of deja vu to it. The planning board seems to be in nearly the same boat now as it was last March. The planning board was trying to regroup after the public shot down its rewrite. They had to decide whether to start over or pick a couple things to compromise on and ship a new version back out. 

Here’s an excerpt from that discussion last March:

“Golly, we could be starting totally over again. We got to keep moving,” said Ben Burgin. “Can we just agree on what the top three issues are?”

“There are probably six to eight issues that need to be discussed in the revision,” Sarah Thompson replied.

“So you are going to relive it?” Dickie Woodard asked, envisioning a replay of the 18-month rewrite up to that point.

Thompson said she would be willing to relive it if it resulted in a better ordinance.

Thompson was outnumbered then, and the planning board decided to soften the rewrite in a couple places to make it more palatable, and then ship it back out. That’s when the commissioners called for a time-out until after the election.

Now, the planning board is once again looking at reliving some of the old discussion.

The question is what should serve as a template: should the laxer rewrite be the jumping off point for that discussion, or should the planning board default back to the original as its working template?

David Brooks, a planning board member, prefers to pick up where they left off. 

To planning board members like Brooks who led the initial rewrite, it’s frustrating to see the rewrite picked apart by newer members who parachuted onto the field at half-time.

Green said he has defaulted to the original, stricter steep slope rules, but will mine the rewrite for the sections worthy of salvaging.

“I will bring up the things that I think will be acceptable to our board of commissioners,” Green told the planning board.

Although McMahan said commissioners wouldn’t get around to steep slope revisions anytime soon, the planning board cracked open the steep slope ordinance this month anyway and began tackling some of the low-hanging fruit.

One of those was the contentious issue of so-called housing density on slopes.

The original steep slope rules had a sliding scale — the steeper the slope, the fewer the houses. But the rewrite stripped the steep slope rules of the density restriction.

Now, the new majority on the planning board wants to keep some sort of density restrictions. And that didn’t sit well with those who previously fought to get rid of them.

“As I recall, we chose to eliminate the density standards,” Lipkin said at the March planning board meeting. “There were reasons, for those of you not on the board at the time.”

Green said keeping density standards was simply the reality.

“I am trying to find something that will get approved by the commissioners. That will not,” Green said.

A clear signal that the scales on the planning board have tipped since the initial rewrite days, the majority of the new board voted to keep density standards. However, they proposed a new sliding scale that isn’t as strict.

Sarah Thompson, a planning board member who served during the rewrite but was against most of it, hopes to restore the spirit of the steep slope rules, which were lost in the rewrite.

“At the macro level we are trying to manage risk — risk to the environment, risk to the homeowner and risk to the homeowners above them and below them,” Thompson said. “I recommend we back off and look at that and say ‘Have we actually helped manage risk?’”


Get in line

The steep slope rules are fourth in line, as McMahan sees it.

There are more pressing issues in the planning arena the county needs to address first.

• Cullowhee development guidelines are in the final stage of being passed, but aren’t out of the woods yet.

• A revamp of cell tower rules has been drafted, but has to move through the public vetting process and consideration by commissioners.

• Fracking regulations are the next priority. Planning board chair Sarah Thompson announced to the planning board in March that they had a directive from commissioners to explore what regulations were at the county’s disposal to try to regulate fracking.

One planning board member questioned why that’s the county’s business, since fracking is a state issue.

“I am not going to vote for that,” said David Brooks, a planning board member with an anti-regulation bent, who doesn’t want to wade into the fracking fray.

But the planning board is not a free agent, and can only work on issues the commissioners charge them to work on — and it appears fracking is one of those.

“We have been directed by commissioners to address that,” Thompson said.

McMahan said in an interview that he wants to put whatever protections the county has at its disposal in place as soon as possible, before the fracking floodgates open.

“We passed a resolution that stated our philosophy, that we opposed fracking as a practice,” McMahan said of the commissioners. “Are there other things we can do to help offer protections and enhance the safeguards?”

McMahan said that discussion will likely lead to a larger overhaul of a county ordinance regulating mining and other high-impact, heavy-polluting industries.

Green chimed in that he would like to update the language in the county’s junkyard regulations at some point, too.

“They are taking one thing at a time now,” Green said.

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