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planning board vote

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Planning board to vote on subdivision, steep-slope rules

By Justin Goble

Members of the Jackson County Planning Board are expected to vote on draft subdivision and steep-slope ordinances during their regular meeting tonight (Thursday).

County commissioners recently asked the planning board to have drafts of the two ordinances ready for them to review by their Tuesday, May 22 meeting.

The planning board has been putting final touches on the two ordinances over the past week. Members met last Thursday (May 10) to discuss the latest draft of the subdivision ordinance, which includes changes suggested by board members and in written comments from the public.

According to revisions by Hendersonville lawyer Michael Egan, who has been helping the planning board draft the ordinances, no land-disturbing activity can be carried out in conjunction with subdivision development until plats have been approved. However, Egan said he considered complaints from Trillium Development spokesman Greg Ward, who pointed out that the prior version made it illegal to market property before plats are recorded.

“Under the last draft, you were guilty of a crime if you simply told someone they could buy the property,” Egan said. “I see how that can be a problem, so I took that language out.”

However, developers could not sign a contract and actually sell the land until plats are recorded, Egan said.

Also added to the ordinance was a provision that allows for automatic plat approval if the planning department has not made a decision 60 days after receiving an application.

“I think that’s fair,” board member Bob Carpenter said. “The county has to have some due diligence on this.”

Egan also said the new draft includes language that forces people determined to have vested rights in their land to record plats no later than two years after that decision.

“There have been places where someone is determined to have vested rights and they sit on their property for 20 years,” Egan said. “This way we can keep that from happening.”

However, future expansion at any development given vested rights must comply with the ordinance.

The most contentious issue still appears to be the amount of open space required in the subdivision ordinance. Discussion began during the board’s meeting Thursday and continued when members met again Monday (May 15).

In the most recent draft, that number stood at 25 percent of the total subdivision. Prior drafts have had it as high as 30 percent and as low as 5 percent. Though not in this draft, Egan said he will also add language allowing developers to pay a fee to the county in lieu of offering free space.

While lower than the prior draft’s requirement of 30 percent, some members thought the number was still too high.

Planning Board member Richard Frady said requiring such a large tract of land for public parks and recreation areas would limit the amount of land used to recharge water.

“If you take a piece of open land and put in a walking trail, you’ll be making it an impervious surface over time,” Frady said.

Instead, Frady said he thought a better idea would be to have 5 percent of the land set aside as open space, while limiting the amount of impervious surface to one-third of a lot.

Board member Zac Koenig, a Cashiers builder, agreed with the proposal.

“I really think we should look at Richard’s idea,” Koenig said. “It will leave us with a lot of open space, maybe even more than 25 percent in a lot of places.”

“If you own 100 acres of land, 25 of it would have to be open space,” board member Christa Brooks said. “If you stood in the middle of your land and looked around, you couldn’t even see the end of that.”

However, others on the board said they were in favor of a 25 percent requirement.

“I think Mike was hired by the county to bring the ordinance into place,” Glenna Buchanan said. “We’ve followed his lead, and made changes to better suit the county. I don’t think he would lead us down the ‘primrose path’ and let us draft something we can’t enforce or shouldn’t do.”

Board Chairman Richard Wilson said the open space requirement would help the county protect water quality, which is important given Jackson County’s location.

“We’re on the Eastern Continental Divide,” Wilson said. “The rain that falls here goes both to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. The way I see it, that’s everybody’s water, and it’s our responsibility to protect it.”

“I don’t think 25 percent is that big of a deal,” Joe Ward said.

Since some of the members were absent Monday, Frady suggested waiting until tonight’s meeting before finalizing the open space requirement.

Board members then moved to discussion of the proposed steep-slope ordinance.

Egan said the new draft addresses slopes with both common law and statutory vested rights. Some public comments displayed concern that the common law vested rights did not seem to be addressed in prior drafts.

However, board member Dan Pittillo said he was afraid people with vested rights would build on slopes even if they were unsafe.

“If the slope is vested, but later on found unstable, can they still build on it?,” Pittillo asked.

“They have the right to build, but I think the county would ask them not to,” Egan said.

Pittillo then asked if the county would be held liable should such a slope fail.

“They have made an administrative decision in passing these ordinances to try and prevent that,” Egan said. “I don’t think the county would be liable in that situation.”

Members also discussed the requirements for all land-disturbing activity that are stipulated in the current draft.

In its present form, the ordinance states that any development on a slope greater than 30 percent requires a topographic survey, certification of maximum structure height, soils report, hydrology report and plan, tree survey and reforestation plan and a geotechnical analysis and report.

Koenig said requiring that much may be too expensive for developers and home-builders.

“All of these provisions add up to a lot of money,” Koenig said.

He suggested not requiring the hydrology and geotechnical analyses, since they would cost builders the most.

Other board members, however, said they thought those two requirements should stay since the reports determine how safe a slope is to build upon.

When Koenig asked if there were enough people qualified to do those reports in the county, Ward said they would come if there was a need for them.

“I don’t want to sound smart, but in 1965 there wasn’t a lot of need for builders in this county,” Ward said. “They will come if the need is there.”

Egan said the draft allows landowners to exclude areas not being developed. That would cut down on costs, he said.

Another change discussed was the density requirements. Under the current draft, lot sizes go from 2 acres on slopes 30 to 34 percent to 10 acres on slopes 45 percent and greater. The ordinance also limits the amount of land disturbed and the maximum amount of impervious surfaces allowed on each lot.

While these requirements are in place, Egan said there was some flexibility that would allow developers to cluster their home sites.

“Just because there’s a minimum lot size doesn’t mean they can’t cluster homes,” he said. “They can do it as long as they meet the density requirements.”

For example, Egan said a developer could put 10 homes close together on a slope between 30 to 34 percent as long as the overall development is 20 acres or more.

Tonight’s meeting is set for 6 p.m. in room A-227 of the Justice Center. Board members will finalize both ordinances before bringing them to a vote.