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News County sets year’s planning priorities

Last week at a joint meeting with the Macon County Planning Board, commissioners reviewed currently active planning projects and set the board’s priorities for the coming year. At the top of the list is the completion of the county’s comprehensive plan, a general document that will give elected officials guidelines in planning for future growth and development in the county.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, members of the planning board presented current projects as well as projects which the board and county administrators believe should be addressed in the future. The meeting concluded with discussion by the commissioners about which projects should be prioritized and recommended timelines.

The list of priorities for the county included: 1. Complete and adopt the county’s comprehensive plan 2. Complete and adopt the Comprehensive Transportation Plan 3. Complete slope development recommendations for the county’s consideration 4. Complete the review of the Subdivision Ordinance 5. Upon completion of the above priorities, the commissioners asked the Director of Permitting, Planning and Development to begin a process of overall review of all county land-use ordinances.

According to County Planner Derek Roland, the comprehensive plan was given priority because its adoption is integral to the subsequent adoption of the county’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP) by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

At the meeting, Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Commission, the Rural Planning Organization (RPO) for Region A, gave an update on the CTP’s progress. Over the past two years, a draft of the plan has been compiled which details specific projects for transportation improvements in the county, including improvements to highways, sidewalks, greenways, bicycle routes and public transit.

Sherby explained that in developing the plan, the CTP Committee was projecting growth in the county to the year 2035. “We know things won’t go exactly as we projected,” he said. He added that the CTP should be updated every five to ten years or as needed. “It’s a best guess given the statistics on growth trends we had at the time,” he said.

Sherby noted that before the NCDOT will adopt a CTP, the county must have a comprehensive land-use development plan in place. Citing statute, he explained, “A jurisdiction must have an adopted comprehensive plan prior to the NCDOT dedicating engineering resources to conduct a comprehensive transportation plan.”

Sherby said that since the county was already engaged and committed to producing a comprehensive plan, it has been allowed to proceed with developing a CTP. “We kind of went on the honor system,” he said. “Typically, you wait until a county has an adopted plan.”

The CTP process is fairly new and is part of Gov. Bev Perdue’s 2009 mandate to reform the transportation planning process in the state to include community input and engagement for identifying future needs and projected growth and development. Like many counties across the state, Clay, Swain, and Jackson counties have all recently established comprehensive plans. Graham County is currently in the process of creating one.

“Until the NCDOT adopts the plan, you’re working under your old plan,” Sherby explained. Currently Macon County has a 1995/1997 Thoroughfare Plan for Franklin and Highlands, but, as Sherby notes, the county has seen significant growth since those plans were put into place.

Once the CTP and its recommended projects are approved by the NCDOT, the next step is to have projects placed on the state’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a program which is updated every two years. Projects are prioritized by a points rating system which, among other things, takes into consideration the existence of a current development plan for the county.

Roland gave an update on the comprehensive plan, which covers multiple areas that would be affected by growth in the county, from transportation to education to health services to the environment and more. Roland noted that for several months the planning board has been in the process of editing a final draft of the plan. He said the planning board may be able to present the draft to the board of commissioners as early as March with no definitive deadline for completion.

“We have a plan here that is representative and which was built by the citizens of Macon County and for the citizens of Macon County,” Roland said. “It is representative of a vision, and it is a plan of how to achieve that vision. It’s up to governing boards now and in the future to use that plan as they see fit.”

Like the CTP, the comprehensive plan will need to be reviewed periodically, said Roland. “We will revise that plan and review it regularly to evaluate its effectiveness, make any needed changes as trends or projections change.”

Commenting on the importance of the two plans – the general comprehensive plan and the CTP – Sherby said, “They are two necessary tools that will keep [the county] competitive for future funding, whether it be transportation projects or other grant-funded infrastructure projects. Having your project in a plan gives it a foundation. It’s been through a public process and has more weight and validity, which is what a lot of these granting agencies want to see.”

Steep/Safe Slope Development Recommendations

Also at the meeting, Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland and Vice-Chair Al Slagle went over the proposed recommendations for a slope development ordinance that a planning work group is currently compiling. Penland asked the commissioners to review an inventory of recommendations and to advise the planning board on its next steps.

Work on the recommendations has been a matter of some controversy in the county over the past year, with some people concerned that any new ordinance would stifle development in the county. Others have pointed to the increased frequency of landslides in the region as one reason such regulation is necessary. In addition, regulations would offer a guarantee to potential homebuyers that their homes built on steep slopes meet minimum guidelines for saftey.

Roland notes that the planning board has not begun the process of writing an ordinance. “The slope development committee will finalize their recommendations and then present them to the planning board,” he said, explaining the process. “Then the planning board will review [the recommendations] and make adjustments. At that point, the planning board will take those recommendations before the commissioners to ask whether or not they should begin working on an ordinance and drafting language for a statute using the recommendations as a guideline.”

Over the course of the last 12 months, the planning board has been holding monthly meetings in communities around the county in order to inform the public about the basics of the slope development and to collect input. According to Roland, the process has yielded valuable information that the subcommittee has taken very seriously.

County to review all land-use ordinances

The planning board is currently engaged in the task of reviewing the county’s Subdivision Ordinance as part of a regulated biannual review. At the joint meeting, Jack Morgan, Director of Permitting, Planning and Development, gave commissioners a full overview of all of the county’s land-use ordinances, recommending that there be a full review of the statutes in the near future.

The county’s land-use ordinances include the following:

• Building Regulations Ordinance
• Flood Plain Ordinance
• Sign Control Ordinance
• Sedimentation and Erosion Control Ordinance
• Telecommunications Tower Ordinance
• Watershed Protection Ordinance
• High-Impact Land-Use Ordinance
• Hazardous Waste and Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Ordinance
• Subdivision Ordinance
• Sexually-Oriented Business Ordinance

Morgan gave a short history of each ordinance, noting when they had been adopted, when they were last updated, and any issues of effectiveness that have come up. He noted that some provisions of certain regulations had become outdated, giving the example of a requirement of the Building Regulation Ordinance that all building contractors be registered. In the past all contractors have had to fill out paperwork at the permitting department to register. “Now of course, we can check their license on the internet in about a second, so some of that is antiquated,” he said.

Commissioners agreed that Morgan should begin a process of deliberate review for each ordinance and bring his recommendations to the board one at a time. Morgan said the county should be able to complete the process in about ten months.

Commission Chairman Brian McClellan said that the meeting was very useful and informative, especially for Commissioners Ron Haven and Kevin Corbin, who are both new to the board. He noted that since the planning board is an advisory board appointed by the commissioners, it was important for the commissioners to prioritize the projects the planning board is tasked with.

“They’re tasked by the commissioners to do certain work,” he explained. “There’s no use for them to work on things that we don't intend to take up.”

McClellan also emphasized that the county’s comprehensive plan, while not binding, was key to moving forward with planning in the county. Though the comprehensive plan will not be written into statute, it will offer general guidelines for current and future boards to utilize.

The planning board has “gathered a lot of good data and come up with general guidelines, and what we’ve got to do is prioritize those things that will be most beneficial to the county going forward,” McClellan said.

Public meeting on CTP to be announced

A public meeting on the Comprehensive Transportation Plan will soon be announced for early March. According to Sherby, the CTP Committee will present what has been done on the plan so far with the goal of soliciting feedback from the public. All public input will then be reviewed and compiled for consideration in drafting a final version of the plan.

Sherby predicts there will be broad support for the plan on the board of commissioners. He added that the committee hopes to reach local adoption of the plan in Franklin, Highlands and Macon County sometime during the summer.


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