1989 Land Use Plan

The Land Use Plan

Town of Highlands

State of North Carolina
As adopted by the Board of Commissioners
September 20, 1989



"In the long run, the race belongs not merely to the swift, but to the farseeing . . . to those who anticipate change." - Lykes Lines

This Land Use Plan is a document of action that is intended to enhance the quality of life in the Town of Highlands. It was developed in response to the concerns expressed in the 1988 Public Opinion Survey and by the Land Use Planning Committee responsible for creating this document. The Survey results were used as the cornerstone of all discussions. The Plan was developed over a period of ten months, and incorporated advice from scores of professionals in the field of land management from North Carolina and across the nation. While the Plan addresses many of the concerns identified in the Survey, the results will not solve every problem or bring immediate relief to every situation. Implementing the Plan will take time and adjustments along the way. Its success will only be realized through a long process of hard work, strong citizen support, and a progressive spirit of cooperation on the part of everyone.

The planning process began by identifying the most valued qualities of life in Highlands and the surrounding area, and expressing these in the form of Mission Statements. Each Mission Statement was then followed by a series of specific actions or strategies designed to realize its objective. This planning approach is called Strategic Planning. It is an approach to problem solving that has been used by industry for more than twenty years, and was adopted for use in government almost a decade ago. It is a method of focusing efforts and setting the stage for results by, first, looking outward into the community and clarifying the most important issues, and second, conducting a realistic analysis of the steps necessary to address these issues in an action-oriented plan. The process is typically described in six parts, as follows:

1. The Environmental Scan: This first part is an effort to see the "big picture" of where the community stands in the context of its history, present day situation, and future vision.

2. The Mission Statement: The Environmental Scan gives light to a list of issues that is narrows to those most critical to the community's well being.

3. The External and Internal Analysis: Once the key issues are chosen, a probing examination is undertaken to fully understand the context and depth of the various situations.

4. Strategy Development: Following the mission statements, clear steps or actions are stated that will effectively achieve the desired results. Each set of actions must be sensitive to realities of the situation, and effectively use the resources of the community.

5. The Action Plan: Here the responsibility of carrying out each action called for in the plan is assigned to a particular board, committee, department, or individual, along with a due date and budget.

6. Implementation, Update, and Adjustment: While no plan is guaranteed success, every effort must be made to achieve the plan's mission and future vision. Thus, the purpose of this step is to provide some degree of flexibility and opportunity for midcourse adjustment. If properly conceived, the Mission Statements should not need modification. Changes should occur in the strategies chosen to accomplish the individual missions.

Implementation of this Land Use Plan should move government operations from a reactive mode to a mode of foresight and anticipation. In addition, it should provide a vehicle for the public to understand government action. These two forces should foster one another, and create a sense of progress and accomplishment.

Finally, attention should be called to the Plan's three appendices:

  • Appendix I: Results of the Public Opinion Survey.
  • Appendix II: The Natural Environment
  • Appendix III: Social and Cultural Characteristics.

These documents contain most of the background information used to develop the Plan. Their use as a reference is important in understanding the significance of the plan strategies.

Suggested References:

Brower, David J., et. al., Managing Development in Small Towns, Planners Press, Chicago, 1984.
So, Frank S., "Strategic Planning: Reinventing the Wheel?" in Planning Magazine, February, 1984.
Jenne, Kurt, et. al., "Strategic Planning: Taking Charge of the Future," in N. C. Popular Government, Spring, 1986.
Daniels, T., Small Town Planning Handbook, Planners Press, Chicago, 1988.

Statement of Mission

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The General Mission Statement given below encapsulates the essence of this Land Use Plan. With these words, full recognition is given to the fact that the Town's natural setting is the stage upon which all aspects of community life revolve and depend. It is from this point that the work begins for ensuring the continued quality of life in Highlands and its surrounding area. Through the adoption of this general mission statement, the Town is embarking on a clear course of action that will need the support of all its residents. The General Implementation Strategies that follow the Mission Statement detail the Town Board of Commissioners' commitment to this Plan, and the vision brought about through its successful implementation.

General Mission Statement

Preserve, protect, and enhance those gifts of nature which make up the unique quality of our Town and its environs.

This Land Use Plan is a document of action that is intended to e4nhance the quality of life in the Town of Highlands. It was developed in response to the concerns expressed in the 1988 Public Opinion Survey and by the Land Use Planning Committee responsible for creating this document. The Survey results were used as the cornerstone of all discussions. The Plan was developed over a period of ten months, and incorporated advice from scores of professionals in the field of land management from North Carolina and across the nation. While the Plan addresses many of the concerns identified in the Survey, the results will not solve every problem or bring immediate relief to every situation. Implementing the Plan will take time and adjustments along the way. Its success will only be realized through a long process of hard work, strong citizen support, and a progressive spirit of cooperation on the part of everyone.

General Implementation Strategies

Strategy 1: Implement all Mission Statements of this Land Use Plan. (1 Town Board.)

Strategy 2: Pursue each strategy within the time specified for implementation and, when necessary, make adjustments that are in keeping with the mission statements. (2 Town Board.)

Strategy 3: Ensure that adequate staff support and funding are available for Plan implementation. (3 Town Board.)

Strategy 4: As time and resources permit, identify additional strategies to further realize the missions of this Plan. (4 Town Board.)

Strategy 5: Assume the responsibility of amending this Plan should circumstances and conditions in the Town radically change. (5 Town Board.)

Strategy 6: Welcome and manage community efforts designed to support implementation of this Land Use Plan. (6 Town Board.)

Beneath this broad Mission lies a series of statements directed towards specific components of the Community. These statements of mission focus on the following aspects of the community.

Subsequent sections examine the separate aspects of Highlands in detail, and identify strategies to accomplish the desired mission. In many cases, the strategies are overlapping, and their implementation may actually support more than one mission. For this reason, the Plan should be approached as a unified document. If a particular strategy impacts more than one mission, it is stated once under its primary heading and is not repeated.

Natural Environment

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Volumes of facts and study materials could be prepared attesting to the unique qualities of the Highlands natural environment. It is truly an area of magnificent beauty and unusual attraction. While all of this information is important, certain facts have been highlighted in support of the strategies contained in this section. This information generally falls into three interrelated categories:

  • Soils and soil structure
  • Water quality and hydrology
  • Wildlife and ecology

Soils and soil structure are aspects of the environment that are most frequently overlooked and taken for granted. They are, however, resources of immeasurable value, and are the telling factors of not only ecological richness, but also constraints to growth. With careful planning, a developed environment can coexist with the natural environment. If proper care is not taken, the developed environment can continue, but it will do so at the expense of resource ecology. A careful examination of the soils found in the Highlands Township reveals that they are generally very fragile, and very susceptible to erosion when disturbed. More specifically, approximately 80% of the land area has a soil type with a severe rating for septic field absorption. Less than 2% of the land area is ideally suited for all types of development. Almost 46% of the soils have an exceptionally high rate of erodability when disturbed or not properly maintained. These same soil types present severe limitations on the construction of roads and buildings due to their structure.

Soil scientists have determined that, under normal conditions, nature will create one inch of topsoil every 500 years in a typical deciduous forest environment. The soil conditions in the Highlands area are more extreme than average, and this rate of creation is probably much longer. More importantly, the sensitivity to soil loss is significantly greater and requires a correspondingly greater amount of care as development occurs.

The second major environmental consideration is water and the region's hydrology. With the exception of the Pacific Northwest, Highlands has one of the highest annual rainfalls in the country, averaging 84.9 inches. The abundance of this resource is in evidence everywhere, and a relationship can easily be drawn to the area's lush vegetation and diverse ecology. Even though 60% of the Highlands Township's classified waters are suitable for trout propagation, there are reasons to be concerned about the continued quality of this resource. First, there is a significant sedimentation problem that is adversely impacting the area's waterways. An indication of this problem is the absence of water lilies from impounded water bodies. A more in depth examination of the sedimentation problem would reveal other effects on plant and animal species. Second, the drinking water supply of the Town comes from the Cullasaja River and Big Creek watersheds. These two watersheds yield water of high quality, but their continued development could jeopardize this resource. Storm water runoff, increased sedimentation from development, poorly functioning septic tanks, and activities common to land management such as the use of lawn chemicals, can all effect the drinking water supply and water quality in general.

The third major environmental consideration is the area's wildlife and ecology. At the present time, the limited amount of biological data indicates that the Township is exceptionally diverse. There are documented sightings of many rare and endangered plants and animals, and many species found only in distant parts of the hemisphere. The explanation for this phenomenon is that, during the last ice age, the higher elevations served as a refuge for all wildlife. After the ice retreated, most species were able to reestablish themselves throughout the continent. However, some species were left in isolated pockets and were unable to proliferate. Highlands is one of these "special areas," and continues to be an important environment because of its topography, wild climate, and plentiful water supply.

In light of this information, the following Mission Statement and related strategies are designed to squarely address the issue of protecting environmental quality:

Mission Statement

Maintain or improve the present quality of the natural environment.

Implementation Strategies:

Strategy 1: Implement a general environmental program that will work to improve conditions throughout the community. This program includes the following elements:

(a) Review the requirements of the North Carolina Ridge Law and assume responsibility for its implementation within the Community's jurisdiction.(7 Planning Board; due 6/90; update every 5 years.)

(b) Implement standards that will effectively protect trees and the vegetative character of the community. (8 Planning Board; due 6/90; update every 3 years.)

(c) Support the preparation of a natural areas inventory for the Township, and efforts to protect the resources identified in this inventory. (9 Planning Board; due 6/91; cost estimate $14,000; no update.)

(d) Encourage and support community programs of resource conservation, wildlife protection, and environmental education. This includes, for example, efforts such as trash recycling, the peregrine falcon release program, etc. (10 Planning Board; due 6/90; special appropriation; annual update.)

(e) Acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of the F.A.C.E. program, and other groups that work to improve the quality of the community's general environment. (11 Town Board; due 6/90; special appropriation; annual update.)

(f) Require that an Environmental Impact Assessment be submitted for all disturbed land areas greater than one acre as part of the development process. The criteria for the assessment shall be developed by the Town and incorporated in the Zoning permitting process. (12 Planning Board; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(g) Develop and periodically review emergency procedures for the control of hazardous substances accidentally spilled along the Community's roadways. (13 Planning Board; due 6/91; update every 5 years.)

(h) Exercise a one mile extraterritorial planning jurisdiction, and extend zoning and subdivision regulations within this area. (14 Town Board; due 12/89.)

Strategy 2: Implement a drinking water supply/watershed management program that will effectively support a WSII water quality classification. This program includes the following elements:

(a) Define and officially designate the Cullasaja River and the Big Creek watersheds as the drinking water supply sources for the Town. (15 Planning Board; due 12/89.)

(b) Seek special enabling legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly to extend the extraterritorial planning authority throughout sections of the officially recognized watershed that lie beyond the one mile limit. (16 Town Board; due 6/91.)

(c) Incorporate storm water runoff controls in the Zoning Ordinance that would require:

(1) all new development to retain the water runoff of a ten year storm (2.8 inches in one hour) on site for at least 24 hours; and

(2) all new development to channel runoff through vegetated infiltration areas, detention/retention basins, etc., prior to entry into any creek, stream, or water body. (17 Planning Board; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(d) Incorporate stormwater runoff controls in the Zoning Ordinance that would require:

(1) maintenance of a vegetated buffer;

(2) strict sedimentation and erosion control provisions; and

(3) prohibition of impervious surfaces (subject to a conditional use permit). (18 Planning Board; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(e) Establish a two acre minimum lot size in the designated watersheds, with a "grandfather" provision for previously subdivided lots. (19 Planning Board; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(f) Contact all property owners within the watersheds, and inform them that their property is within an environmentally sensitive area and that the Town will assist those planning to develop their property to consider watershed protection. (20 Planning Board; due 9/90; update every 5 years.)

(g) Seek elimination of all inadequate onsite sewage treatment systems and place priority on providing sewer service within the watersheds, particularly to properties around Mirror Lake and Lake Sequoyah. (21 Town Board; due 6/91; cost unknown; ongoing effort.)

(h) Examine all existing stormwater outfalls within the watersheds to determine if modification could be made to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff by redirecting it into woodlands, infiltration basins, or other areas. (22 Planning Board; due 12/91; cost unknown; ongoing effort.)

(i) Petition the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission to upgrade the water classification of the watersheds after the Town has implemented the preceding strategies. (23 Planning Board; due 9/91.)

(j) Periodically assess drinking water quality and quantity to determine if additional action is needed to protect these resources. (24 Planning Board; due 9/90; cost unknown; update every 2 years.)

Strategy 3: Implement a general water quality program that will work to improve conditions throughout the Community. This program includes the following elements:

(a) Sponsor a cooperative effort between the Town, the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, and the golf associations within the planning jurisdiction to improve the selection and use of fairway chemicals. (25 Planning Board; due 12/90; update every 5 years.)

(b) Sponsor biannual educational programs for the Community to encourage proper use and disposal of chemicals used in and around the home. (26 Planning Board; due 6/91; update every 2 years.)

Strategy 4: Implement a general land quality program that will work to improve the conditions throughout the community. This program includes the following elements:

(a) Improved seeding and landscaping of utility rightsofway. (27 Appearance Commission; due 12/90; cost unknown; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(b) Identify areas with steep slopes, where improper development could result in increased erosion and sedimentation. Develop appropriate standards to reduce density and environmental impact in these areas. (28 Planning Board; due 6/90; update every 5 years.)

Residential Areas

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The residential areas of Highlands are cherished for their charm, upkeep, low density, and single family orientation. They are a true reflection of the level of care and interest that people have for the Community. Many homes have been owned by the same family for generations. This has contributed to neighborhood stability and strengthened the bonds between the people and the environment. A home in Highlands has been historically used as a summer retreat and a true source of escape and rejuvenation for its owners.

Over the last decade, the southeastern United States has been discovered as a desirable place to work and live. This interest has brought with it a tremendous influx of people and improvement in the region's road system. The improved accessibility has created a boom in tourism and second home development. The Town of Highlands is caught in the middle of this wave, and there is a sense that the qualities of isolation and escape are threatened. Fortunately, there is also a belief that all is not lost, and that a more sophisticated system of development controls could serve to protect those qualities held dear by its residents.

The following Mission Statement and related strategies has been developed for the protection of the residential areas:

Mission Statement

Promote a neighborhood atmosphere made up of low-density housing that blends with the natural environment and preserves the Town's historical roots.

Strategy 1: Continue implementation of the Zoning Ordinance as it relates to residential areas. Adjustments to this Ordinance should be made as follows:

(a) Incorporate the Sign Ordinance into the Zoning Ordinance, and adjust sign requirements to residential areas. (29 Planning Board; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(b) Amend Zoning Ordinance to distinguish between mobile, manufactured, and modular homes, and propose regulations on their placement and appearance. (30 Planning Board; due 6/90; update every 5 years.)

Strategy 2: Maintain the appearance of residential areas and work to protect historic properties. This program includes the following elements:

(a) Incorporate basic appearance standards and landscape requirements into the Zoning Ordinance. (31 Appearance Commission; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(b) Recognize and protect historic properties through the creation of an Historic Properties Commission (see Municipal Government Structure). (32 Town Board; due 12/89.)

(c) Improve the appearance and design of road cuts to reduce sedimentation and provide landscaping. (33 Appearance Commission; due 12/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

Strategy 3: Initiate a community natural areas and greenways program. This program includes the following elements:

(a) Encourage the creation of an independent nonprofit Land Trust that would work in cooperation with the Town to protect natural areas and create a system of greenways throughout the community. (34 Town Board; due 6/90; update every 3 years.)

(b) Establish a source of funding that would be passed from local government to the Land Trust on a contractual basis for the acquisition and management of priority properties. This funding source may be in the form of a general tax increase, a land transfer tax, etc. (35 Town Board; due 6/90.)

Strategy 4: Continue implementation of the Town's subdivision regulations. Adjustments to this Ordinance should be made as follows:

(a) Expand the Ordinance to require subdividers to provide open space, greenway access, etc. in support of the Community's natural areas and greenways initiative. (36 Planning Board; due 6/90; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(b) Amend the Ordinance to reflect changes in the State enabling legislation, clarify the reasons for issuing a variance, and improve the general readability and structure of the document. (37 Planning Board; due 6/90; update every 5 years.)

Commercial Areas

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The commercial district is a bustling area of activity. While most small towns are trying to stimulate commerce, Highlands is in the enviable position of needing to manage its high rate of growth. The downtown is successful because of its quaint shops, clean environment, and rustic atmosphere that is not overstated. For many people, the downtown serves as a focus for social interaction. The general layout of the Town - the benches and rest areas - are elements that invite people to mingle and window shop.

While much can be said for the positive aspects of the downtown, it is not without its problems. The original layout of the central district never anticipated the high volume of traffic that moves through it, or the focused demand for parking. This situation is aggravated by the significant increase in tourism, and the development of "minimalls" and types of shops that require high volume patronage. Also, many new developments do not aesthetically blend in with the traditional architecture, and they have created an almost haphazard sense in their distribution. These problems have alarmed many residents of Town, and there is an outcry for strict management and effective planning.

Solutions to the problems of the commercial district need to balance the responsibilities of the public and private sectors. The public sector or municipal government has been given certain powers and authorities by the State Legislature to manage growth. These include zoning, subdivision regulations, and general authority to protect the public's health, safety, and general welfare. All of these powers are basic to "setting the stage" on which commercial activity and community life occur. The private sector also has certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities that may appear to be overlapping, but are separate and apart from those of government. These include the responsibility for directing commercial activities, advertising, and offering various types of goods and services. The public and private sectors have a common interest in the success of the commercial area, and need to proceed in tandem with one another as they exercise their rights and responsibilities.

The following Mission Statement and related set of strategies recognizes the distinct responsibilities of the private and public sectors:

Mission Statement

Realize a refined business environment that is enhanced by a stable mix of businesses, a complementary aesthetic character, and a general atmosphere that is conducive to social interaction.

Implementation Strategies

Strategy 1: Work to strengthen the relationship between the public and private sectors of the community. These efforts should include the following:

(a) Promote a jointly sponsored forum that will focus on downtown organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring, as modeled after the North Carolina Main Street Program and supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (38 Appearance Commission; due 12/90; cost estimate $2500.)

(b) Encourage and support efforts of the Chamber of Commerce to provide counseling for new businesses. This assistance would include statistical information on market conditions and needs, and information on permitting requirements of the Town. (39 Appearance Commission; due 6/90; update every 3 years.)

Strategy 2: Limit commercial growth, and improve the quality of new and existing development. This effort includes the following:

(a) Revise the Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Map to effectively:

(1) reduce the total area for commercial growth shown on the Zoning Map;

(2) adjust the distribution of zones allowing home occupations around the perimeter of the business district;

(3) develop and include appearance criteria for new and remodeled structures;

(4) study and adjust the standards for placement, distribution, design, and maintenance of signs;

(5) study and incorporate landscaping requirements for new and remodeled project sites; and

(6) add provisions requiring that all utilities be buried (including those for residential structures). (40 Planning Board; due 6/90; cost estimate $3000; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

(b) Develop and adopt a unified development permit ordinance that will allow sufficient time for project review and, where necessary, contact the Chamber of Commerce. (41 Planning Board; due 12/89; review within 3 years and update every 5 years thereafter.)

Strategy 3: Improve the social environment of the downtown. This should include the following measures:

(a) Adopt a functional definition of the downtown as a "walking district," and work to improve the ease of pedestrian access to all areas. (42 Appearance Commission; due 6/90; update every 10 years.)

(b) Initiate studies to examine pedestrian traffic, and propose improvements to sidewalks, paths, etc. (43 Appearance Commission; due 6/91; estimated cost of study $5000, estimated cost of improvements unknown; ongoing effort.)

Community Resources

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The commercial district is a bustling area of activity. While most small towns are trying to stimulate commerce, Highlands is in the enviable position of needing to manage its high rate of growth. The downtown is successful because of its quaint shops, clean environment, and rustic atmosphere that is not overstated. For many people, the downtown serves as a focus for social interaction. The general layout of the Town - the benches and rest areas - are elements that invite people to mingle and window shop.

  • The National Forests
  • The Hudson Library and Bascom-Louise Gallery
  • The Highlands-Cashiers Hospital
  • The Civic Center
  • The Highlands Biological Station and Nature Center
  • The Scottish Tartans Museum
  • The Studio for the Arts
  • The churches, schools, clubs, and organizations
  • The sponsored cultural activities

Mission Statement

Maintain or improve the present level of social and cultural opportunity in the community.

Implementation Strategies

Strategy 1: Provide continued recognition and support to all community groups, and encourage community participation in their activities. (44 Town Board; due 12/89; special appropriation; ongoing effort.)

Strategy 2: Conduct a study of the Highlands School and identify measures that can be taken to improve the overall quality of education. The study should include an examination of potential sources of supplemental funding. (45 Planning Board; due 12/90; update every 5 years.)

Municipal Government

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In order to carry out the full list of strategies identified in this Plan, some degree of change will be needed in the structure of municipal government. The first part of this restructuring will involve the consolidation, update, and refinement of the Town's ordinances. The current ordinance system has served the Community well until the most recent period of accelerated growth. Given this set of pressures, a more focused and manageable form of standards needs to be enacted. To this end, the Zoning Ordinance and the Subdivision Ordinance will be the principal tools for managing growth and development.

The second part of the municipal restructuring involves the creation of a joint commission for community appearance and the protection of historic properties. Support for both of these functions is found in the 1988 Public Opinion Survey. Models for this commission exist in other parts of the state and nation, and can be readily adapted for use in Highlands.
The third restructuring element involves setting and publicizing the committee structure of the Planning Board and, as necessary, the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The purpose of this is to encourage public involvement and ultimately enhance the responsiveness of government. The committee structure stated here may change over time, but will continue to be publicized.

The last element involves establishing a partnership with a private nonprofit land trust for the purpose of acquiring and protecting unique natural areas, and for developing a system of greenways throughout the Community. This could be accomplished by municipal government independently of a private corporation. However, based on the experiences of land trusts across the country, a partnership has proven to be more effective. The partnership agreement should annually specify both the level of funding and the specific projects the Town is interested in pursuing. Beyond this, the land trust would be free to acquire other properties, using independent sources of funding acquisition strategies.
With these changes in mind, the following Mission Statement and related strategies have been developed for municipal government:

Mission Statement

Provide a progressive government system that is responsive to the needs of the Community and enhances the quality of community life.

Implementation Strategies

Strategy 1: Maintain a high level of professionalism in the municipal staff through the following initiatives:

(a) Annually recognize and appreciate the work of the municipal staff through some formal program. (46 Town Board; due 12/89; special appropriation; ongoing effort.)

(b) Institute an employee suggestion system that will work to improve government and reward employee participation. (47 Town Board; due 6/90; ongoing effort.)

(c) Prepare a municipal organizational chart, and prepare a written job description for all positions. Review organizational chart and consider changes to improve municipal efficiency. (48 Town Board; due 6/90; update every 5 years.)

Strategy 2: Create a system of boards and commissions to successfully carry out the programs identified in this Plan.

(A) Maintain the following two boards and commissions for community service:

(1) The Planning Board with three standing committees:

(a) Environmental Protection.

(b) Land Use Plan Implementation and Community Involvement.

(c) Special Projects/Research and Development.

(2) The Zoning Board of Adjustment with no standing committees.

(3) A combined Appearance Commission and Historic Properties Commission with three standing committees:

(a) Architecture.

(b) Landscaping and Signs.

(c) Historic Preservation. (49 Town Board; due 12/89; update every 5 years.)

(B) Assign the responsibilities of implementing all strategies identified in this Land Use Plan to the appropriate board and commission. Section VI of this Plan lists each task, and identifies responsibility. (50 Town Board; due 9/89; update every 5 years.)

(C) Publicize the committee structure for each board and commission, and invite public comment and suggestions. (51 Town Board; due 9/89; update every 3 years.)

(D) Assign and schedule periods to review and update municipal ordinances. (52 Town Board; due 9/89; update every 5 years.)

Strategy 3: Establish a contractual agreement between the Town of Highlands and a local nonprofit land trust to acquire and manage lands identified through the natural areas inventory, and lands identified as part of a coordinated system of greenways. In the event that a contract cannot be successfully executed, the Town will assume the functions of this role. (See Appendix II for description of land trusts.) (53 Town Board; due 6/90;cost unknown; annual update.)

Municipal Services

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The survey found that municipal services were viewed with favor by the Town's people. A number of suggestions were given to improve service, which can be effectively addressed through in house work planning. The following Mission Statement and set of strategies are given to improve community service:

Mission Statement

Maintain or improve the level of community service.

General Implementation Strategies

Strategy 1: Direct each division of Government to prepare a five-year program that will address program changes and needs for staff, facilities, and equipment. Such plans should refer to and consider all suggestions made through the 1988 Public Opinion Survey. (54 Town Board; due 12/90; update every 5 years.)

Strategy 2: Mail annual letters to all property owners, highlighting accomplishments of the previous year and significant events of the upcoming year. (55 Town Board; due 3/90; annual update.)

Strategy 3: Review the specific concerns identified in the Public Opinion Survey, and address these problems in the division work plans. (56 Town Board; due 12/90; update every 5 years.)

Strategy 4: Formally accept the findings of the North Carolina Department of Transportation Parking Study, note any exceptions, and promptly implement all recommendations of the study. (57 Town Board; due 6/91; cost unknown.)

Strategy 5: Examine the road system in residential areas for safety, and develop a list of potential improvements. (58 Planning Board' due 12/90; cost unknown; update every 5 years.)

Strategy 6: Develop a five year recreation plan, giving added attention to programs for the youth and year round residents. (59 Planning Board; due 12/90; update every 5 years.)

Plan Implementation

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PHASE I July 1, 1989 through September 30, 1989.

1: Amend the Zoning Ordinance to control uses that will exacerbate parking and traffic problems in the downtown, and prohibit the creation of new shops of less than 800 square feet. The following temporary amendment is designed to accomplish this goal during the period of redrafting the Zoning Ordinance:

(a) Suspend the B1A District and temporarily designate the area as B1. All existing uses would be grandfathered and allowed to continue. In the event of a major fire or other catastrophe, the Planning Board would develop a variance procedure to allow replacement of lost structures. The parking requirements for businesses and retail stores would be changed to one space per 250 square feet of space. Businesses and retail stores could be converted to a different type, as long as the change did not increase the demand for parking.

(b) Prohibit all Special Uses from the B1 District.

(c) Prohibit the subdivision of shops into areas less than 800 square feet.

2: Rescind the moratorium on construction in the B1A District.

3: Call for the preparation of the following:

(a) An ordinance establishing an extraterritorial planning jurisdiction.

(b) A unified development permit ordinance that will specify procedures for reviewing development permit applications.

(c) An ordinance to establish a combined Appearance Commission and Historic Properties Commission.

(d) A redrafted Zoning Ordinance.

4: Contact the North Carolina Heritage Program in the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development and initiate a natural areas inventory for the Township. (Two year study; $7000 per year.)

PHASE II October 1, 1989 through December 31, 1989.

1: Adopt an ordinance establishing an extraterritorial planning jurisdiction, and extend zoning and subdivision regulations into this area.

2: Adopt the ordinance creating the combined Appearance Commission and Historic Properties Commission, appoint members, and charge them with both developing appearance standards for incorporation into the Zoning Ordinance and working to protect historic properties.

3: Call for the preparation of amendments to the Subdivision Ordinance.

4: Adopt the unified development permit ordinance.

PHASE III January 1, 1990 through June 30, 1990.

Adopt revisions to the Subdivision Ordinance, the redrafted Zoning Ordinance, and the Zoning Map.

PHASE IV July 1, 1990 through June 30, 1991.

1: Request introduction of legislation to extend planning jurisdiction throughout the Town's watershed.

2: Initiate development of five year plans for all government departments.

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This Land Use Plan
Was Adopted by the Board of Commissioners
On September 20, 1989

2005 Land Use Plan

The Land Use Plan Update

Town of Highlands

State of North Carolina
As adopted by the Board of Commissioners
July 20, 2005



"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". (K&G)

Statement of Mission

To protect the natural environment of the Highlands Plateau, enhance the town's village character, and preserve the community's cultural and historic heritage. (K&G)


It is the wish and recommendation of the present Planning Board that, once adopted by the Town of Highlands, this 2005-2010 Land Use Plan be annually reviewed, updated, and re-prioritized by the Town Commissioners. In 2009, we recommend that the Planning Board begin developing a Land Use Plan for 2010-2015.

Residential Areas

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I: Goal: Promote a small-town neighborhood atmosphere, comprised of primarily low-density housing that blends with the natural environment and reflects the town's historical roots.

(a) Refine the Town's residential development ordinances including zoning and subdivision regulations.

(1) Development on steep slopes. Consider including limits on the footprint of structures, limits on the removal of vegetation, and requiring the submission of topographic information when making application for a development permit.

(2) Ridge top development. Discourage development on ridge tops especially where property owners have alternative building sites. Also, consider options to limit the removal of trees for the sole purpose of increasing views.

(3) Overbuilding relative to lot size. Consider relationship issues between house size and lot size. Propose maximum footprint standards.

(4) Construction impact fees. Develop and implement impact fees to minimize construction impact on neighborhoods. Encourage timely completion of projects, as well as site safety and appearance.

(5) Setback and buffer requirements. Review existing regulations to determine if adequate setback and screening is provided between structures. Review uses permitted in setback areas and the need to protect large trees. Consider adjustments to Town ordinances consistent with findings.

(6) Multi-family opportunities. Consider "limited" multi-family opportunities on a "site specific basis" consistent with the village character of Highlands. Examine all zoning districts. Multi-family development could include duplex, triplex, quadruplex, apartments, condominiums, and townhouses.

(7) Zoning map revision. Examine the zoning map to identify potential problem areas consistent with the mission and goals of the Land Use Plan. This may include changing residential areas to commercial areas or vice versa. Changes would protect the central business district and residential areas, with regard to the best use of property. The examination would also include light industrial uses and conflicting or incompatible adjoining land uses.

(b) Amend subdivision regulations to accommodate environmental concerns in road design.

(1) Road width and grade requirements. Seek to improve the appearance and design of roads and their curb cuts.

(2) Regulations for roads, access roads, and driveways. Consider the issues of increasing public safety, reducing sedimentation, protecting natural vegetation, and enhancing landscaping.

(3) Various Provisions. Consider adding variance provisions for accomplishing strategies #1 and #2 above.

(c) Develop a town housing code

(1) Maintenance and upkeep of structures. Consider standards for the general upkeep and maintenance of structures and enforcement provisions for compliance.
(2) Removal of abandoned and dilapidated structures. Consider removal provisions

(d) Enhance residential appearance and landscaping.

(1) Residential development guidelines. Develop guidelines describing the types of building materials, construction styles, and colors consistent with those found in western North Carolina and the Town of Highlands. The guidelines would be written for residential and commercial property owners and added to the Appearance Commission guidelines.

(2) Residential tree ordinance. Residential standards may be different from commercial standards. Ordinance may require special enabling legislation.

(3) Native Landscaping. Encourage homeowners to consult local garden clubs and landscapers for advice and guidance in preserving and planting native vegetation.

(4) Visibility of utilities. Develop underground extension policies. Encourage replacement of existing utilities with underground utilities wherever feasible.

(5) Screening storage areas, junk and rubbish. Consider requirements to screen vehicles without valid inspection sticker, stored construction materials and other unsightly items from public view.

(6) Removing trash in the community. Review, update, and enforce the Town's trash regulations.

(e) Promote the development of green space and walkways in residential areas.

(1) Green-space. Consider adding and/or strengthening provisions for new subdivisions and for multi-family developments to allow clustering, to provide green space and to tie in with a community system of greenways.

(2) Walkways and trails. Initiate a study to inventory existing walkways and recommend areas of improvement, purchase easements or acquire fee simple ownership. The study should consider pedestrian safety, access to places of interest, quality of the pedestrian experience and labeling and signage of walkways. The study should consider all types of trails, including paved sidewalks and paths surfaced with gravel, wood chips and other materials. Evaluate and implement recommendations. Extend Master Sidewalk Plan to include residential areas.

(f) Initiate mandatory training and education for building contractors, developers, and individual property owners.

Require all contractors and developers working in Highlands to complete a training program familiarizing them with local development regulations. Develop a short film for individual property owners to see and discuss with the Zoning Administrator before receiving a building permit.

Commercial Areas

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II: Goal: Promote the village character of the town's commercial districts by enhancing the condition and appearance of buildings, facilitating pedestrian access, and improving the compatibility of adjoining land uses.

(a) Review and update the town's commercial ordinances, zoning, and operating practices.

(1) Building and sign codes. Implement commercial building and sign codes for maintenance, upkeep and appearance.

(2) Commercial buffering. Review sufficiency of commercial buffering, i.e., fencing and landscaping requirements.

(3) Parking ordinance. Review the town's parking ordinance for effectiveness, aesthetics, and environmental impact.

(4) Impact criteria. Develop and implement impact criteria to minimize construction impact on community. Encourage timely completion of projects, as well as site and community safety and appearance, by imposing penalties.

(5) Big box development. Prohibit development of "big box" stores and large parking lots. This includes over-development of existing commercial properties.

(6) Business zoning districts. Review all business zones (B-1, B-2, B-3, and B-4) for incompatible adjoining land uses i.e., light industrial use vs. retail/commercial/residential uses; and, consider rezoning to facilitate change in use. Review the Town's ordinances regarding sun setting non-conforming uses.

(7) Tree Ordinance. Review and strengthen the Town's commercial tree ordinance, especially for the CBD, including replacement trees and fines.

(8) Historic Buildings. Preserve historic buildings in commercial districts.

(b) Review and update the ordinances, zoning, and operating practices in the Central Business District (CBD).

(1) CBD boundaries. Define the boundaries of the Central Business District, which includes B-1 and portions of B-2 and B-3.

(2) Pedestrian traffic. Expand, prioritize, and implement the Master Sidewalk Plan in CBD and adjoining residential areas. Review type of sidewalk brick for pedestrian safety. Establish additional pedestrian seating along Main Street. Improve pedestrian crossing light cycles.

(3) Lighting and utilities. Develop uniform commercial lighting with regard to pole design and intensity and color of light. Place utilities underground.

(4) Streetscape design and appearance. Implement the Streetscape Committee's streetscape and landscape recommendations for CBD. Plant trees, upgrade trash cans for consistent appearance, and initiate an anti-litter department.

(5) Environmental concerns. Review and update CBD storm water controls. Develop adequate public restrooms in the CBD.

(6) Green spaces. Develop green spaces in the CBD: a mini park on Main Street (e.g., the Loafers' Bench lot) a central location for a town commons (e.g., the old post office site on Fifth Street), and greenway trails. Seek public-private partnership to develop these projects.

(7) Residential use. Increase residential use in the CBD.

Cultural and Historic Resources

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III: Goal: Preserve and promote the rich cultural and historic resources of Highlands.

(a) Promote the cultural heritage of Highlands and its diverse forms of expression.

(1) Cosmopolitan interests and mountain culture. Promote and publicize the dynamic interaction between the cosmopolitan interests and the traditional mountain culture of Highlands - in the areas of theatre, art, music, continuing education, etc.

(2) Central Location. Encourage location of cultural activities in or near the village center.

(3) Public-private partnerships. Support public-private partnerships with non-profit organizations that support the above objective.

(b) Identify, protect, and publicize the town's historic buildings, sites, and architectural heritage.

(1) Historic commission. Identify and protect historic sites and structures worthy of preservation and protection - including the establishment of a historic commission for Highlands.

(2) Historic education. Initiate an education awareness program of key historic buildings and sites in Highlands, the procedures for protecting them, and the economic benefits of their preservation.

(3) Architectural styles. Identify architectural styles and themes of Highlands' historic architecture and incorporate these findings in the guidelines of the Appearance Commission.

(4) Walking tours. Develop a walking tour of Highlands' historic properties.

(5) Public-private partnerships. Support public-private partnerships that support the above objective.

Natural Environment

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IV: Goal: Preserve and enhance the natural environment and scenic beauty of Highlands.

(a) Protect the watershed.

(1) Natural buffers. Protect streams and lakes with natural, vegetative buffers i.e., natural foliage, not landscaped.

(2) Larger lots. Preserve watershed by increasing minimum lot sizes.

(3) Hickory Hill Road. Define right of way and pave the portion of Hickory Hill Road adjacent to Big Creek to prevent silt intrusion into the creek. (See "Residential Areas" Objective B.)

(4) Watershed preamble. Incorporate a preamble in the watershed ordinances to clarify the intent of the ordinances.

(5) Perennial stream inventory. Update the Town's perennial stream inventory to comply with the State's new watershed ordinance.

(6) Conservation easements. Seek conservation easements in watershed areas.

(b) Expand green space.

(1) Greenways trail. Expand and publicize the town's greenways trail through cooperative efforts of local civic-environmental groups.

(2) Town commons. Identify and acquire land for a centrally located town commons. Explore possibility of selling or trading land currently owned by the Town.

(3) Additional green space. Seek to preserve the green space properties identified on Ran Shaffner's map, such as the Loafer's Bench property on Main Street and the old post office site on Fifth Street.

(4) Funding. Seek public and private funding to implement 1-3 above.

(5) School green space. Create covered picnic area inside present track. Macon County schools could do much of this work, along with community volunteers.

(6) Conservation easements. Seek conservation easements and public-private cooperation wherever possible.

(c) Control development.

(1) High impact. Oppose any high impact or incompatible development.

(2) Ridge tops. Prohibit any construction that rises above the ridge tops.

(3) View cutting. Prohibit clear cutting for views and promote aesthetic pruning of trees. Require tree replacement.

(4) Tree ordinance. Strengthen and enforce tree ordinance for residential and commercial development.

(5) Buffers. Require natural, vegetative buffers. Prohibit removal of existing vegetation, and encourage additional landscaping to increase density of buffers.

(d) Maintain scenic beauty.

(1) Highway buffers. Require natural vegetative buffers along highways.

(2) Litter control. Enforce existing anti-litter laws, and create a Town department to eliminate litter.

Plateau Governance

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V: Goal: Protect the Highlands Plateau, including the Town's water supply, the natural environment, and the highway corridors, by establishing one local governance for the Plateau.

(a) Establish an extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) outside of Highlands.

(1) Protect the highway corridors.

(2) Protect environmentally sensitive areas, such as the watershed for the Town's water supply.

(3) Identify and qualify areas for future annexation.

(4) Reduce the potential for high impact development.

(5) Insure compatible development adjacent to Town limits through zoning.

(b) Promote voluntary annexation, balancing the mutual interests of the Town and the property owner.

(1) The expense of providing Town services should be examined.

(2) The proposed annexation should fit with the vision of the Town Plan.

(3) The process should be user-friendly and mutually beneficial.

(c) Implement forced annexation of areas that qualify under N.C. statutes.

(1) Quality of the development and its infrastructure.

(2) Quality of the natural environment to be protected.

(3) Integration of individual communities into a single Highlands Plateau community.

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Land Use - Zoning Board

Zoning Certificates & Building Permits in the Town of Highlands

Zoning Board of Adjustment
The Zoning Board is an administrative body, established under the same authority of the General Statutes as the Unified Development Ordinance, whose function is to provide relief where a strict interpretation of the Zoning Ordinance would create a hardship. The Board is a "quasijudicial" body meaning that in some respects it is similar to a court of law composed of five laymen who are appointed to three year terms by the Town Board of Commissioners.

The Zoning Board's function is to:

  1.     Hear appeals of decisions of the Zoning Administrator, or in some cases make interpretations of the Ordinance or the Zoning Map
  2.     Grant Special Use Permits
  3.     Hear applications for variances

Appeals and Interpretation
Section 602.2(B) provides that any decision of the Zoning Administrator is subject to appeal by an applicant for a Zoning Certificate, or by any affected property owner or citizen; appeals must be taken within 30 days of the decision, and must be filed on the appropriate form. The General Statutes also authorize the Board, usually in connection with denial of a permit, to interpret parts of the Ordinance that are unclear, or to apply the Ordinance to particular situations. In exercising this authority, the Board is not permitted to vary the Ordinance, only to interpret and apply the Ordinance to a particular case; it is the responsibility of the Town Board of Commissioners to amend the Ordinance.

Another type of very specific authority the Board has under this category in Section 602.2(A) is interpretation of the Zoning Map in disputes involving lot lines or district boundary lines.

Special Use Permits
While most Zoning Certificates are issued by the Zoning Administrator, either prior to or in conjunction with a Building Permit, the General Statutes empower the Zoning Board to permit, in individual cases, certain exceptional uses that are authorized only under stated conditions; these are generally uses which might have a significant impact on the community, and in our Ordinance are as follows:

Section 501.1

  1.     All new commercial construction, additions to existing commercial buildings, and remodeling of existing commercial buildings which would result in an increase in the number of
  2.     business occupants in the buildings.
  3.     Crafts fairs, flea markets, and other similar transient retail businesses.
  4.     Places of entertainment, including indoor theaters, dance halls, skating rinks, and bowling alleys.
  5.     Hotels and motels.
  6.     Restaurants.  (See Section 507)
  7.     Automotive and heavy machinery sales and service centers or stations.
  8.     Service or fuel stations.
  9.     Private schools not accredited by the State of N.C. and not offering a full time academic curriculum.
  10.     Day care centers (as defined in Section 802).
  11.     Multifamily dwellings of any kind. (See Section 502)
  12.     Private social clubs. (See Section 503)
  13.     Tourist homes. (See Section 504)
  14.     Self service storage facilities. (See Section 505)
  15.     Flammable liquid storage facilities. (See Section 506)
  16.     Churches and other places of public worship.

The Zoning Board is required to grant a Special Use Permit if the following findings are made [Section 501.3(D)]:

  1.     The use will not materially endanger the public health or safety if located where proposed and developed according to the plan as submitted and approved;
  2.     The use meets all required conditions and specifications;
  3.     The use will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property or, in the alternative, the use is a public necessity; and
  4.     The location and character of the use, as developed according to the plan as submitted and approved, will be in harmony with the area in which it is to be located and in general conformity with the plan of development of the Town and its environs.

In addition to these four general conditions, some special uses have additional specific requirements (Sections 502 through 506), which are considered as part of Finding No. 2, that the use meets all required conditions and specifications.

The Zoning Board may, in issuing a Special Use Permit, designate additional conditions and requirements in connection with the application to ensure that the use will be "harmonious with the area in which it is proposed to be located and with the spirit of the Ordinance." These conditions are binding upon the original applicant, and also run with the land and are binding upon the applicant's heirs, successors, or assigns.

Vested Rights
Pursuant to G. S. 160A385.1, the Town amended its Zoning Ordinance on September 18, 1991, to permit an applicant for a Special Use Permit to also apply to establish a "vested right." A vested right permits a property owner to complete a development regardless of any zoning action of the Town, and remains vested for two (2) years. (See Section 501.7)

Appearance Commission
On February 20, 1991, the Board adopted Article 900 of the Unified Development Ordinance, which created an Appearance Commission; the Article originally had a "sunset" clause of two years, but it was made a permanent part of the Ordinance on February 3, 1993. Section 803.5 requires applicants for Special Use Permits to first submit applications to the Appearance Commission for review and recommendation; the Commission's report is then sent to the Zoning Board with the application. Special Uses which do not involve any change in the appearance of a building or premises are exempt from the requirement.

Under the State enabling legislation, the Commission's power is limited to review and recommendation only, and the Zoning Board is specifically prohibited from denying an application on the basis of a negative recommendation from the Commission. The purpose of the review process is to encourage applicants to consider the impact of their project on the appearance of the Town. The Appearance Commission is asked to consider such factors as "building design, relationship of building to site, relationship of project to adjoining area, landscape and site treatment, signs, lights, street hardware, miscellaneous structures, maintenance, and any other considerations it feels reasonably affect the appearance of the project."

The Appearance Commission meets when there are applications on the fourth Monday of every month at 7:00 p.m. in the conference room of the Town Hall. Applications are available from the Zoning Administrator at the Town Office, and should be prepared in conjunction with the Special Use Permit application in order to avoid unnecessary duplication in the preparation of plans.

All applications before the Planning Board must be made one week in advance of their monthly meeting (i.e., by the third Monday each month); applications made after that deadline will only be considered by majority vote of the Board at the meeting.

The Zoning Board's major function is the granting of variances from the Zoning Ordinance. A variance is a permit which the Board may grant in certain situations enabling a property owner to make use of his property in a way that conflicts with the literal provisions of the ordinance. The Zoning Board does not, however, have unlimited discretion in deciding whether to grant a variance. The Board's authority is defined by the State enabling act, which requires the Board to reach three general conclusions before granting a variance.

The first conclusion is:

(1) "There are practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships in the way of carrying out the strict letter of the Ordinance." The Town's Zoning Ordinance specifies that the five following conditions exist in order to determine that there are practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships:

(a) If he complies with the provisions of the Ordinance, the applicant can secure no reasonable return from, nor make reasonable use of, his property. Merely proving that the variance would permit a greater profit to be made from the property will not be considered adequate to justify the Board in granting a variance. Moreover, the Board shall consider whether the variance is the minimum possible deviation from the terms of the Ordinance that will make possible the reasonable use of his property.

(b) The hardship results from the application of the Ordinance to the property rather than from other factors such as deed restrictions or other hardship.

(c) The hardship is due to the physical nature of the applicant's property, such as its size, shape, or topography, which is different from that of neighboring property.

(d) The hardship is not the result of the actions of an applicant who knowingly or unknowingly violates the Ordinance, or who purchases the property after the effective date of the Ordinance, and then comes to the Board for relief.

        (e) The hardship is peculiar to the applicant's property, rather than the result of conditions that are widespread. If other properties are equally subject to the hardship created in the restriction, then granting a variance would be a special privilege denied to others, and would not promote equal justice.

The other two conclusions the Board must reach are:

(2) If "The variance is in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the Ordinance and preserves its spirit." That is, the applicant is not seeking to establish, to expand, or to extend in area a nonconforming use. Moreover, the existence of a nonconforming use in the same or in any other zoning district shall not constitute a reason for granting the requested variance.

(3) "In the granting of the variance, the public safety and welfare have been assured and substantial justice has been done."

The Board shall not grant a variance if it finds that doing so would alter the essential character of the neighborhood, materially diminish or impair established property values within the surrounding area, or in any other respect impair the public health, safety, or general welfare.

As with Special Use Permits, the Zoning Board may designate additional conditions and requirements in connection with granting a variance which are binding on the applicant.

 Watershed Amendments

Effective October 1, 1993, the Town has amended its Unified Development Ordinance to implement requirements of the Watershed Protection Act of 1989. Variances from these requirements in most cases, built-upon limits and buffer areas in watershed overlay districts are classified either as major or minor variances. A major variance is basically "the relaxation, by a factor of more than ten (10) percent, of any management requirement that takes the form of a numerical standard." In other words, if a required buffer is 50 feet, and a request for a variance is received proposing a buffer of less than 45 feet, then the variance is considered a major one.

In the case of a major variance, the Zoning Board hears the case according to the foregoing procedure. If the Board decides in favor of granting the variance, however, it only becomes effective if also approved by the Environmental Management Commission, according to procedures outlined in the Zoning Ordinance. The applicant should be aware that major variances will require a longer period of time to be decided, and possibly additional application fees required by the Environmental Management Commission.

The Zoning Board meets in the conference room of the Town Hall Building in Highlands on the second Wednesday of every month. Meetings are held at 5:30 p.m. year-round, and are conducted according to Rules of Procedure which the Board has adopted. Although not as formal as a court of law, the Zoning Board must make its findings in a proper and legal manner; testimony is sworn, evidence is taken, and exhibits are submitted. Any Board member has the right to question an applicant, and all meetings are open to the public.  Any member of the public may attend the hearing and shall be allotted reasonable time in which to offer testimony and/or recommendations concerning the application. Following the hearing, a ruling is prepared granting or denying the application.

Applications for Appeals, Special Use Permits, and Variances must be made on the proper form, which is available from the Zoning Administrator at the Town Office. In general, Special Use Permit applications must include detailed site plans, elevations and floor plans, and a complete and detailed description of the use proposed. Variance applications must also include a written summary of the facts the applicants intends to show and the arguments he intends to make to convince the Board that it can property grant the variance. Any documentation must be submitted at the same time as the application in order to give Zoning Board members the opportunity to study the case prior to the meetings. Board members may not, however, discuss any case with the applicant prior to the public hearing.

An application fee of $250.00 covers the expense of advertising the public hearing in The Highlander newspaper at least seven days prior to the hearing. The deadline for application is posted in the lobby of the Town Hall.

Every decision of the Zoning Board is subject to review by Macon County Superior Court. Appeals must be filed within 30 days of the ruling and as provided by law.

For Further Information

Copies of the Zoning Ordinance are available at the Town Office at a nominal charge, as are copies of applications for Appeals, Special Use Permits, and Variances. For more information, call Josh Ward, Planning & Development Planning & Development Director, at (828) 526-5266 or 526-2118.

Land Use - Subdivisions

Procedure for Subdividing Property in the Town of Highlands

Definition and Exemptions
According to the Town of Highlands Subdivision Ordinance and the N. C. General Statutes, a "subdivision" means any division of a tract of land into two or more lots. The following categories, however, are exempt from the Ordinance per State Statute:

  1.     The combination or recombination of portions of previously platted lots, where the total number of lots is not increased and the resultant lots equal or exceed current standards;
  2.     The division of land into parcels greater than ten (10) acres where no street rightofway dedication is involved;
  3.     The public acquisition by purchase of strips of land for the widening or opening of streets;
  4.     The division of a tract of land in single ownership whose entire area is no greater than two acres into not more than three lots, where no street rightofway dedication is involved, and where the resultant lots equal or exceed current standards.

All other subdivisions of land must be approved by the Planning Board and the Board of Commissioners before they can be recorded by the Register of Deeds, or any lots can be sold.

The Planning Board is responsible for the initial review and approval of subdivision plats. The Planning Board, composed of lay persons appointed by the Board of Commissioners, meets in the Conference Room of the Town Hall at 7:00 p.m. on the fourth Monday of every month. Application for a subdivision must be made through the office of the Zoning Administrator on the proper form "Checklist for Review of Subdivision Plats" one week prior to the meeting (i.e., by the third Monday of the month), accompanied by the application fee; applications made after that deadline will only be considered by a majority vote of the Board at the meeting. Approval of a subdivision is a three part process:

  1.  Preliminary Plat: A Preliminary Plat must be prepared by a Registered Land Surveyor, indicating all of the information in Section 303.  The Planning Board reviews the Preliminary Plat and makes a recommendation to the Town Board of Commissioners (failure to make a recommendation within the prescribed period has the same effect as a recommendation of approval). The Town Board may in turn approve, approve conditionally, or disapprove the plat. A Preliminary Plat is valid for one year.

  2. Improvements Installation or Guarantee: Upon approval of the Preliminary Plat, the subdivider may proceed with the installation of streets, utilities, and any other required improvements. These improvements must be reviewed by the Board of Commissioners or their authorized representative (such as the Town Engineer or Public Works Director). Building permits may also be issued, contingent on final approval being granted. But prior to approval of the Final Plat or the sale of any lot in the subdivision, the subdivider must have installed all of the improvements required by the Ordinance, or guaranteed their installation as approved by Resolution of the Town Board (See Sections 304 and 305)

  3. Final Plat: Once a subdivider has installed all of the improvements required, or has guaranteed their approval, a final plat is prepared; it, too, must be prepared by a Registered Land Surveyor, indicating all of the information required by Section 306. As with the Preliminary Plat, the Planning Board reviews the Final Plat and makes a recommendation to the Town Board; the Town Board may approve or disapprove the plat. When submitting a Final Plat for approval, the subdivider certifies that streets, utilities, and other required improvements have been installed in an acceptable manner and according to required specifications and standards; he then signs and notarizes a label of certification to that effect on the plat itself. The Mayor then certifies approval by the Town by signing and sealing the plat. Final approval does not constitute acceptance by the Town, however, of the dedication of any street, unless explicitly agreed to by the Board of Commissioners by separate resolution (See Section 205). Only paved streets meeting Town specifications will be accepted for maintenance. The Final Plat is then recorded by the Town with the Macon County Register of Deeds.

In the case of small subdivisions, or where no improvements are required, the Planning Board may approve the Preliminary Plat and the Final Plat at a single meeting.

Lot Size Exceptions
The minimum lot size in a subdivision is governed by the Town's Zoning Ordinance. However, under Section 409.2 of the Subdivision Ordinance, property may be subdivided without respect to the minimum lot size in order to increase the size of previously platted or recorded lots, provided the following conditions are met:

  1. Any lot which currently complies with the minimum lot size required by the Zoning Ordinance and has been used as a building site may not thereby be reduced in size below the minimum lot size;
  2. Any nonconforming lot which has been used as a building site may not thereby be reduced in size; and
  3. Any unimproved lot which is thereby reduced in size below the current minimum lot size shall either be replatted to reflect its combination with other previously platted or recorded lots or, if it is not so combined, shall be designated "NonConforming Partial Lot" on the plat and, if applicable, in any deed of conveyance.

For subdivisions of this type, a plat is prepared and submitted to the Planning Board for approval; if approved, an abbreviated label of certification is signed by the Chairman of the Planning Board, and the plat is simply recorded with the Macon County Register of Deeds.

A lot size exception is also permitted in order to cluster development (See Section 409.3). Under this procedure, property may be subdivided without respect to the minimum lot size required by the Zoning Ordinance if the development is "clustered" in order to provide more open space, tree cover, recreation areas, and scenic vistas; the overall total of the lots in the subdivision must meet the zoning density.

For Further Information

Copies of the Subdivision Ordinance are available at the Town Office at a nominal charge. Applications are also available at the Town Office. The application fee is set from time to time by the Board of Commissioners; as of March 4, 1992, that fee is $250.00. For more information, call Josh Ward, Planning & Development Planning & Development Director, at (828) 526-5266 or 526-2118.

Effective July 1, 2012




Zoning Certificates & Building Permits in the Town of Highlands


Construction within the Town of Highlands may involve several different areas of regulation, depending on the nature and scope of construction. In addition to the North Carolina State Building, Plumbing, Electrical, Mechanical, and Fire codes which are enforced by the Macon County Inspection Department, the Town of Highlands enforces a Zoning, Subdivision, Soil Erosion & Sedimentation Ordinance, and a Code of General Ordinances. Before commencing any construction or remodeling, a Zoning Certificate must be obtained from the Town of Highlands; a Zoning Certificate may also be required for any change in use, even if no building permit is required. After obtaining a Zoning Certificate, application must be made to Macon County for a Building Permit. (A small portion of the east end of Town lies within Jackson County--see below.)

Requirements for Zoning Certificate:

In general, the following documents must be submitted to the Zoning Administrator before a Zoning Certificate may be issued:

  1. Site Plan is required indicating the size of the lot, the location of the building on the lot, setbacks from adjoining lots and rights-of-way of roads, parking lots (if required), and driveways; driveway permits will be issued for new driveways in conjunction with the building permit, and the size of the culvert must be shown (minimum 15"). Any changes to be made to the natural terrain should also be indicated, including septic tank and drainage field location. A Land Disturbing Permit will be issued for any disturbed areas over 3000 SF. In addition, an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance requires, in commercially-zoned areas, submission of a landscape plan showing all trees and shrubs which are to be saved or newly planted, and landscape areas and strips, if applicable, in commercial parking lots. No grading, excavating, underbrushing, or tree removal may begin in commercial areas until a Zoning Certificate has been issued.

  2. Construction Plans are required sufficient in clarity and detail to indicate the nature and character of the work to be done. For minor work, plans may be limited to informal sketches, or the requirements may be waived entirely. For most residences, floor plans will be required at minimum. A set of plans may also be required by the Macon County Inspection Department for the County Building Permit. The Town will be reviewing the plans to determine compliance with its zoning and other land use ordinances, while the County will be reviewing them to determine compliance with the State Building Code. Under State law, any commercial job amounting to $90,000 or more, or greater than 2500 SF in area, must bear the seal of a licensed N. C. architect or engineer; as a matter of policy, the Town or County may require sealed plans for any substantial commercial building, and the County may also require engineered data for floor loads, spans, or other building components. Commercial plans will require close review by the Town of Highlands, and there will be a minimum of 24 hours required between application for a Zoning Certificate and issuance of same. Ideally, commercial plans should be submitted in advance of application for a Zoning Certificate so that there will be ample time to clarify or correct any problems. Ample time for review of plans should also be expected when applying for the County permit. The cost of a Town Zoning Certificate is shown in the Fee Schedule and is based on the cost of construction (see NOTE below). The cost of a County building permit is generally based on the size of the structure, and is on file with that Inspection Department.

Requirements for Watershed Protection Permit

Effective October 1, 1993, the Town has amended its Zoning Ordinance to implement requirements of the Watershed Protection Act of 1989. In Watershed Overlay Districts (which encompass most of the land within the Town limits), a Watershed Protection Permit must be issued in conjunction with a Zoning Certificate. This permitting requirements will affect submission of site plans in two ways:

  1. Built-upon Limits. For commercial property and for substandard lots i.e., lots that do not meet the minimum lot size for the overlay district (which may differ from the underlying zoning density)development is limited to a percentage of "built-upon" area. Built-upon area includes not only the "footprint" of a building itself, but also anything else on the lot that is covered by "impervious or partially impervious cover," including paved or gravel driveways or parking lots, patios, and sidewalks (uncovered decks are exempted because they are pervious). For affected property, the site plan will be required to indicate the dimensions and total area of all of the "built-upon" areas.

  2. Buffer Areas. The watershed amendments also require a buffer area, which is an area of natural or planted vegetation, either 30 or 50feet wide (depending on the overlay district), between any structures or "built upon" areas and certain streams and lakes identified on the Watershed Map. This "setback" would be required to be shown on site plans adjoining such waterways.

Requirements for Building Permit:

After you receive a Town of Highlands Zoning Certificate and Watershed Protection Permit, you must apply for a County Building Permit. The Macon County Inspection Department is located in the Old Post Office building on Main Street in Franklin (Telephone 828-349-2000). In Jackson County, permits are issued by the Jackson County Inspection Department in Sylva; (828) 586-4055.

Unless the building is to be served by sewer, the County will require an Improvements Permit from the Macon County (or Jackson County) Health Department for new structures, or additions to existing structures which increase the number of bedrooms. A Request for Addition will also be required for any addition to the "footprint" of a building, to ascertain that clearances are maintained from the septic tank and drainage field. Applications for Macon County Improvements Permit and Requests for Addition are available at the Health Department or at the Town Office here in Highlands. Direct all inquiries regarding septic tanks to the Health Department in Franklin; (828) 369-9526.

Licensing Laws:

The General Statutes require that certain kinds of work be performed only by licensed individuals; check with the County Inspection Department to ensure that you are in compliance with State law on contracting for General Contractors, Electrical/HVAC Contractors, and Plumbing Contractors.

In addition, different classes (residential and commercial) and limitations (limited, intermediate, and unlimited) of licenses are required, based on the type and the cost of construction (see NOTE below). A Town of Highlands Privilege License is required of all contractors.

If you are a licensed general, plumbing, or electrical contractor, you may not subcontract the work to unlicensed individuals. Employees of licensed contractors may actually do the work, so long as they are under the responsible supervision of the licensed individual and are actually on his payroll; it is illegal to use a license to permit an unlicensed individual to obtain a building permit, or to perform work which requires a license class higher than your own, or to falsify information about the cost of a job in order to avoid the intent of this law.

NOTE: In order to corroborate the cost of construction for the purpose of determining the permit fee, the Town of Highlands uses $60.00/SQUARE FOOT as a general yardstick to measure the cost of building in this area. If the cost estimate is less than that, you will be asked to explain and to document why.


All inspections will be made by the Town of Highlands and the appropriate County authority. The General Contractor and subcontractors are required to call for the proper inspections from the proper authority as work progresses. The County permit must be posted in a visible location at the job site near the entrance or at the distribution panel so that the inspector may initial and date this form after every inspection. Every attempt will be made to make inspections promptly but a minimum of 24 hours notice should be given for County inspections.

In addition to the required County inspections, the Town of Highlands will inspect the site before grading has begun, will inspect the water supply line to ensure 42" bury, and will conduct a final inspection.

In some cases, extra inspections may be necessary as required by either Inspection Department. No Certificate of Occupancy may be issued until final County and Town inspections have been made. The building may not be occupied, nor final power connected, until a C.O. has been issued by the Town of Highlands. The C.O. will take the form of a Certificate of Compliance, as well as a Watershed Protection Occupancy Permit, if applicable.

For Further Information:

Contact Michael Mathis - Town of Highlands Assistant Planning & Development Planning & Development Director 828.526.2118

Macon County: 828.349.2072
Jackson County: 828.586.7560

Updated December 14, 2007