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