Discussions over the fate of Cashiers Hillside continue

Cashiers Area Community Planning Council met once again on Jan. 25 for a quasi-judicial hearing to discuss a special use permit for Cashiers Hillside, the proposed 57-acre development on the southeastern corner of the intersection of Highways 107 and 64, a.k.a. the Crossroads.

Council members spent 8 hours in The Village Green Commons hearing from parties seeking standing, disclosures, the staff report from the Jackson County Planning Department, and an expert witness for the applicant Macauley Investments.

No decision was made regarding the SUP’s approval and hearings will pick up where they left off with more testimony from experts on Feb. 22.

Read details of the proposed development HERE.

Plans to build the Cashiers Hillside development on the southeastern corner of the Crossroads (pictured below) include 57 acres that stretch just beyond Frank Allen Road along Highway 107, and to Monte Vista Road along Highway 64.

Hearing Highlights

The hearing began with the Council approving a couple more parties either with standing or as witnesses, both designations allow parties to ask questions throughout the hearings.

Disclosures

Jackson County Attorney Heather Baker said that all parties during these hearings are entitled to an impartial decisionmaker, so before moving on to witness testimony, Council members must disclose any conflicts of interest that would recuse them from further proceedings. Conflicts may include Council members with a fixed opinion, financial interests, or undisclosed communication with other parties involved.

All Council members disclosures went off without a hitch, until Attorney John Noor who represents several parties opposing the development, asked Council Chair Michael Cox about an offer to purchase a property that abuts the proposed project shortly before hearings over the Cashiers Hillside project began.

The owner of the abutting property is also a party with standing in these hearings. Cox said he approached her two days before the first hearing for the Cashiers Hillside project back in November 2020, and that the project and the offer to purchase her property were unrelated.

Noor said this shows a clear conflict of interest and asked Cox be recused.

“I think that meeting with one of the parties with standing who is an abutting property owner on behalf of clients he [Cox] owes a fiduciary duty too, to offer to purchase the property within two days prior to the first hearing on this matter and being aware of the application that was pending at the time creates a conflict of interest,” said Noor. “We ask that he be recused from this matter just so it doesn’t taint any of the decision the board might make.”

It turns out the property owner was present at the hearing and told the Council she told Cox her land was not for sale, no numbers or prices were discussed, there was no contract, and she threw away Cox’s business card after he left.

Representing Macauley Investments is Attorney Craig Justus who said Cox did not receive any direct benefit from his offer to purchase the abutting property and does not constitute a conflict of interest.

“This is a Hail Mary attempt to have the Chairman recused,” said Justus. “The COI statute is a common sense one that deals with direct financial interest. If Mr. Noor wants to argue that some future benefit is possible is speculative and would essentially excuse most of you from being able to hear something like this.”

Baker agreed with Justus and said it does not seem to be a conflict of interest. Council members voted not to recuse Cox.

Fatal Flaws

Noor then contested the project saying the proposal had two “fatal flaws” that do not adhere to Jackson County’s Unified Development Ordinance and are beyond the Council’s jurisdiction to approve.

Noor said the first flaw is that plans include 5 access points to the development along both Highway 107 and Monte Vista Road, the JC UDO limits access points to 2 per development.

The proposed Cashiers Hillside development on the southeastern corner of the Crossroads.

“These proposed access points violate that provision of the code,” said Noor. “Those aren’t things the board can wave, these are absolute requirements that must be met by the development.”

Secondly, Noor said some of the buildings in the proposed plan exceed the maximum size limit of 5,000 square feet set by the UDO.

Justus said this was another Hail Mary from opposing counsel.

“The application has been out for months and we received the objection this morning,” said Justus. “What this means is that the application has been vetted by staff. We would not have gotten this far if the application was not complete and compliant on its face.”

He added that the UDO’s definition of development was anything that requires a building permit, and with the number of buildings and components in the plans for Cashiers Hillside, the 2 access points is a nonissue.

JC Senior Planner John Jeleniewski testified and said the 2-access limit in the UDO was in regard to driveway access points, not to road construction or existing roads.

JC Planning Director Mike Poston said there is no limit to building size, but anything larger than 1,500 square feet requires a SUP. He added the 5,000 square foot size limit Noor mentioned in his motion to dismiss was from an incorrect infographic on the County’s website.

Poston said the staff report recommendation to approve Cashiers Hillside was based on the technical standards reviewed for the three phases of the project, and they were all compliant with the UDO.

Cox said he did not think he heard sufficient evidence to dismiss the proposal.

“They had quite a bit of time to make this motion and presenting it at the last second, it seems Mr. Noor has found an interesting technicality, but I think we’ve come all of this way to let these people have their day in court,” said Cox.

The Council voted unanimously not to dismiss the project.

Density Reduction

Towards the end of the 8-hour session, Macauley Investments Principal Stephen Macauley addressed the Council and committed to reducing the density of the development from 726 residential units to 581.

“We did what we thought was best and I directed my team at every stage to follow our philosophical principals and adhere to the Small Area Plan at every step, they did that,” said Macauley. “However, over the last 2.5 months I’ve met with a lot of people who have concerns about the density of the project and the impact it would have. I listened.”

Noor then made the motion to dismiss the application and have the developer begin the process over again because changing the density of a project changes everything.

“We’re not just talking about cutting back,” said Noor. “We’re talking about a totally different rearrangement on the site that would impact virtually every expert opinion that has been given.”

Justus said he was shocked at the level of objection from Noor after offering to reduce the density.

“This is being offered not to increase, not to change anything from access or materially other than to reduce the density as a result of dialogue,” said Justus. “If a developer had to start that process over, they would be less inclined to offer up changes to reduce density.”

The Council voted unanimously to accept the amended plan with reduced density as long as it meets the technical standards of the UDO, and that a revised staff report be made available with updated numbers no later than two weeks prior to the next scheduled meeting on Feb. 22. It’s expected that experts will address concerns over water/sewer, traffic, erosion, etc. at the next hearing.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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