The Macon County Board of Commissioners will not ask the county planning board to prioritize consideration of an amendment to the High Impact Ordinance. Some residents of the Clarks Chapel community have requested the amendment as a way to preempt the development of a training course for dirt bikes in their neighborhood.
At a December meeting of the county board of adjustments, after meeting stiff resistance from neighbors, Herman “Bud” Talley withdrew a request for a variance that would have allowed him to develop an officially sanctioned, mile-long, motocross racetrack on his 45-acre farm in Clarks Chapel. While Talley has stepped back from his plans for an official facility, he has publicly stated that he is still considering a training course that would operate under the limits proscribed by the High Impact Ordinance.
The current ordinance, which regulates all high impact commercial uses of property in the county, specifically lists motor sports as one of the regulated activities. However, unlike most high impact uses defined in the statute, there is a level of commercial motor sport activity which the law does not regulate.
As the law currently reads, Talley (or any county resident) has the right to operate a commercial motor sports facility on his property, with no required setback, as long as he does not operate more than three motorbikes at one time. In addition, an unlimited number of bikes can be operated on the property for two hours in any eight hour period.
Many neighbors feel threatened by Talley’s plan, which they claim will harm their property values and the peace of the community. At a recent meeting of the planning board, Talley produced copies of a number of emails from neighbors threatening lawsuit if he proceeded with his plans.
Talley has been defiant, claiming that he has abided by all regulations and procedures in the county and has the right to develop his property within those limits.
During the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting of the board of commissioners, Clarks Chapel resident John Binkley presented a proposed amendment to the High Impact Ordinance which would regulate all commercial motor sports activities in the county and force property owners to observe a 750-foot buffer from property boundaries for all levels of activity. Binkley requested that the county move rapidly to amend the ordinance to avoid the possibility of lawsuits that will likely come if Talley decides to go ahead with his plans.
Binkley noted that the debate was being framed by some as between longer-term residents and newcomers to the county, but he claimed that was a false impression. “The kinds of damages we’re talking about won’t distinguish between old-timers and newcomers,” he said, adding that many old families in the Clarks Chapel community were counted among those opposed to the racetrack.
Binkley also noted that it behooved the county to move quickly on the issue considering the negative publicity it was already bringing to the area.
Later during the meeting, the board discussed whether or not to direct the planning board to adjust its priorities and immediately take up the issue of possibly amending the ordinance. At a recent joint meeting with county commissioners, the planning board’s priorities for the year were established. A review of all county ordinances has been slated for the year, including the High Impact Ordinance, but other issues have been set as the priority for the board.
Another issue discussed by the board was whether or not Talley’s proposed racetrack could be “grandfathered” in before the ordinance was changed. Interim county attorney Chester Jones said that while he had not done any findings of fact on the Clarks Chapel controversy, under North Carolina law, property owners obtain “vested rights” to develop their land “in the event that a land owner has made substantial expenditures towards the furtherance of a project in good faith reliance upon governmental approval.”
“The mere fact that there’s an idea out there alone is not enough to acquire vested rights,” Jones added.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale said he was concerned that if the ordinance were changed the county would be opened to lawsuits from individuals claiming vested rights. Jones replied that the county was vulnerable to suit from parties on both sides of the issue.
Chairman Brian McClellan noted that while the commissioners had the ability to unilaterally make amendments to county laws, it was a matter of protocol that the ordinance should return to the board which drafted it for revision. He added that he did not feel the controversy over the issue should elevate it as a priority for the county.
“We knew that was an issue when we set the priorities,” McClellan said. “I think the things that we tasked them with as priorities are more important for the county than this issue.”
Other commissioners expressed similar reservations regarding moving to hastily on the issue.
Beale noted that the planning board deliberated for more than a year while drafting the ordinance. “I think the High Impact Ordinance has done it's job,” he said, adding that he felt the current wording of the ordinance had been considered carefully when it was first developed.
None of the commissioners stated that they were necessarily opposed to amending the ordinance if the planning board were to bring such a proposal at a later date.