Discussion continues over Highlands Comprehensive Plan

The second public input meeting about the formation of the state-mandated Comprehensive Plan was held virtually the evening of Thursday, Nov. 5.

The first public input meeting was an in-person meeting at the Community Building on Oct. 22, but it was poorly attended. Suspecting COVID was the culprit, a virtual meeting was held last week.

Why the need for a Comprehensive Plan?

The State Legislature adopted amendments to the General Statues in July of 2019, which created a new Chapter 160D.  The reasoning was to consolidate county and municipal land use standards of Chapters 153A (county) & 160A (municipal) into a new Chapter 160D.  Chapter 160D, requires all counties and municipalities the have zoning to update their unified development ordinances and comprehensive plans by July 1, 2022, in order to comply with the standards.

A few months back, the town hired Stewart, Inc., to oversee the process of putting a comprehensive plan for Highlands together. It will entail incorporating plans already in place as well as eliciting input from stakeholders in the community as well as citizens.

Projected timeline of Highlands’ Comprehensive Plan.

In Thursday’s meeting was Highlands Assistant Planning Director, Michael Mathis and the staff of Stewart, Inc.

“This first-ever Comprehensive Plan is important as it will guide the future development of the town of Highlands for years to come,” said Mathis.

Project Manager with Stewart, Inc., Jake Petrosky directed the meeting which included a Powerpoint presentation which highlighted points including background and analysis.

The Comprehensive Plan will function as the town’s future plan promoting public health, safety and welfare of its citizens; guiding and managing growth and change while strengthening the community; to protect property values and investments and to improve the quality of life for residents while attracting and retaining businesses.

The Comprehensive Plan is meant to be collaborative conversation about what’s going well, what should be continued; what could be done better and what are issues coming up that need to be addressed.

“We are thinking in terms of 10 and 20 years out, but we also think about short-term actions, policies or standards or programs that can move us toward the overall goals,” said Petrosky.

Members of the group said comprehensive plans examine a lot of different issues – the interconnectedness between land use, growth and development, transportation, utilities, recreation, historic preservation, and the downtown area.

“The plan is not meant to be regulatory; it is a policy document so it doesn’t change zoning, or ordinances, or laws, but it can inform regulatory changes,” said Petrosky. “In the end, we might make recommendations to the town and suggest looking at some ordinances or zoning regulations; perhaps make some adjustments to be more in line with the overall vision.”

Representatives said they are looking at how the whole system in the town is interconnected.

How land use affects housing and economic development, parks and open spaces and environmental goals and how infrastructure affects housing. So, it’s a web, they said.

Highlands comprehensive plan will be building on the 2005 Land Use Plan whose vision statement said: We envision an attractive mountain community, which is founded on the beauty of the plateau’s natural environment , the uniqueness of Highlands’ village character and the richness of the area’s culture and history.

It had goals and strategies which are still applicable now, but some will have to be updated, they said.

The work will be done in phases which started late summer 2020 and will be completed the spring or summer of 2021.

Members of the Stewart, Inc., will continue to talk to staff, business owners and residents, and will continue in that analyses phase through the winter.

“We will then take back everything we have seen and heard, the survey results that close in December, and talk and come up with a draft plan sometime spring 2021, that encompasses our recommendations, visions, objectives, land use, everything the previous plan had and more.  Aiming for summer 2021 adoption,” said representatives.

There will be a lot of public input opportunities all along the way; the first of which is the survey available at www.highlandscommunityplan.com and can be taken through December.

Everything will be posted on the website so the community will know what’s going on all along the way.

Petrosky said they are looking at trends in town, doing a lot of mapping analyses, working with town and county staff and with DOT and natural resource agencies, to understand some of the issues that are ongoing in Highlands and on the plateau outside of town to understand what’s happening in Macon County.

Research has shown that Highlands year-round and seasonal population has grown. In 2010 there were 924 year-round residents and in 2020 there are 1015.

Seasonally, population in town grows to 3,000-4,000 and outside of town in the township it grows to 18,000. “Lots of folks coming in and out,” they said.

Petrosky characterized Highlands as a regional center for people in Macon and Jackson counties who come in for cultural activities, to dine and to shop.

Housing was a big research topic. In 2018 there were 2,218 housing units in the town limits and within those 646 are considered permanent for the 1,000 folks who live in Highlands. With 1,473 of the 1,572 homes being rented out either seasonally or for short-term rentals, there are only 100 vacant units at one time.

“This is something you don’t see in a lot of communities where only 29% of housing is occupied year-round and the rest is for seasonal visitors,” he said. “Most homes are single-family and through this planning process we will see whether people want to see more density in town. But right now, 85% are single-family homes.”

As everyone know, housing values have increased dramatically.

The median home value in 2017 was 507,000 and it jumped up to $550,000 – $655,000. The median price for condos has increased $200,000 in the last year and half.

“Highlands is experiencing explosive growth in home values. There has been a 77% increase since 2017, and that’s pre-pandemic levels,” they said. “Since the pandemic, houses are going really quickly and sale prices are up 11% from last year.”

There are 417 active AirBnB and VRBO rentals in the town limits and that more than doubled in the last three years.

“Almost 19% or one-fifth of Highlands housing is being rented online and that doesn’t include those rented by local property management companies. Folks are making good money renting out their homes. Rental occupancy rates throughout the year is just over 50% but in April it was 90% so we suspect that during the other seasonal months it is higher than that 50%,” they said.

Highlands retail market is heavily tourist based. Local businesses – clothing, food & beverage and restaurants are really dependent on tourists for their revenue, they said.

The number of jobs has increased since 2010, but the proportion of the largest job type are very similar to what they were – accommodation, food service and retail trade.

Essentially a lot of workforce drives in from other places because some of the industries in Highlands are lower paying so people live elsewhere because they can’t afford to live in Highlands. Even mid-level managers drive in from other places because there just are not a lot of long-term rentals available.

“In fact, only 370 workers live in town. About 1/3 of workers live elsewhere,” they said.

Stewart, Inc. is looking at areas in Macon County outside the town that will affect the growth of the town, too – to anticipate what could be voluntary annexations. Towns in North Carolina can’t involuntarily annex anyone.

The Highlands lifestyle is heavily influenced by what is outside the town and that’s what makes Highlands unique, they said.

Highlands is surrounded by 42,736 acres of public conservation land – USFS but also land trust properties within five miles. There are 36 ecologically significant natural areas within that five-mile ring of town; 107 miles of trout waters; trails outside of town and the seven miles of the Highlands Greenway off and on road trails.

“That is something you may want to build on and use for more purposes,” said Petroksy. “A lot of natural resources in a short distance which makes living in Highlands great.”

Within Highlands there are a parks and recreation facilities due to public private partnerships, and town initiatives.

Kelsey-Hutchinson Park actually functions as a town green,” he said.

Petrosky said Stewart, Inc. is looking for public input with the survey as a jumping off place but wants everyone to participate along the way.

“What else would you like in and around town? What connections do you want so they will be used more? Are there barriers? Those are the things we want to know about,” he said.

He said so far they know that the environment and preservation is important to people; there is a need for housing for workers and families; downtown safety during peak periods is a concern – there are sidewalks but they aren’t wide enough. There is a need by bike racks in town which may alleviate the need parking.

“It’s about maintaining a sense of community and the character of Highlands through careful, thoughtful development over the next 10, 20, 30, years. There is a lot of concerted effort to make sure new development fits where the vision is going while taking care of existing structures by revitalizing them,” he said.

For instance, there are a lot of one-story buildings in Highlands and the price of real estate downtown is really high. So, there is pressure to build multiple stories while maintaining the character, the size and the use, they said.

“We want to reinforce what makes Highlands special. Take the survey and tell your friends about it – what is your vision, your big ideas about recreation, housing, short-term rentals, downtown priorities and even transportation?” asked Petrosky. “Let us know.”

Pictured at the top of the article is a screenshot from the Community Comprehensive Plan meeting that was held virtually last Thursday evening with 35 people attending.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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