Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sprawl on high: Losing N.C. mountain wilderness

If you love the North Carolina mountains – the rocky wilderness trails, shady streams, the waves of mountaintops fading into the horizon – you won't like what I'm about to tell you. On the other hand, if you like miles and miles of stripped-out highways lined with conveniences stores, gas stations, chain motels, chain restaurants and billboards, you may enjoy it:

A recent study has found that in 30 years – 1976 to 2006 – land development in the North Carolina mountains increased 568 percent – from 34,348 acres to 229,422 acres – while population increased only 42 percent.

This means the development grew even more thinly spread around the area than it was in 1976. The average number of developed acres per person, known as the "development footprint" went from 0.06 in 1976 to 0.30 in 2006.

Projections are that the number of developed acres will increase another 63 percent by 2030, while population will increase only 25 percent. So the development footprint will grow to 0.39 acres a person.

I know unemployment in the N.C. mountains has been a severe problem. My concern is that the form of development, not the fact of the development, is destroying a precious natural treasure. Plenty of other countries have figured out how to have both development and preserved natural areas. Too bad ours hasn't done that yet.

Read the full study at the newly launched, newly redesigned website for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. You can also read pieces by UNCC architecture professor David Walters, comparing Charlotte's transit options to those in Basel, Switzerland (er, we fall short), and a piece by now-retired Urban Institute director Bill McCoy on dynamic downtowns throughout the region.

Walters says, "Cities such as Basel are ... better positioned to respond effectively to future changes in lifestyle that may be occasioned by external factors such as climate change, volatile energy prices and diminishing oil supplies. Charlotte, by contrast, faces some daunting, self-imposed challenges as it struggles towards a more sustainable urban future."

McCoy concludes that downtown Charlotte puts downtown Atlanta to shame, and gives a rundown on changes in places such as Mooresville, a former mill town that now sees gallery crawls and wine-tastings in its downtown. He concludes: "The suburban big box retail option dealt a blow to our regional downtowns, but it was not a fatal blow. In fact, our towns have weathered that storm and have come back by emphasizing niche markets, micro-retail, festivals and celebrations, cultural events, music, residential opportunities, and other community building dynamics."

The mountain study come from a collaboration among researchers at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at UNC Charlotte, RENCI at UNC Asheville, researchers from UNC Charlotte's Center for Applied Geographic Information Science (CAGIS), with funding from the City of Asheville, the U.S. Forest Service, and RENCI's home office in Chapel Hill.

(Photo above courtesy UNCC Urban Institute, ui.uncc.edu)


Anonymous said...

Thank the second-home builders from the lowlands. The mountain counties love it, because the tax values of these massive homes dotting the ridges provide a lot of revenue, while hardly any services are needed for residents that only spend part of the year at their McMansion.

I've never understood the mentality of, "Oh, the mountains are so beautiful. That's why I built a house on top of one and ruined the view for everyone else."

Anonymous said...

As long as our cities and towns keep whoring out available land to developers, conservation efforts will be a moot point. Money talks...

Anonymous said...

As somebody who has a second home in the mountains built on land that's been in the family since the US Government chased the Cherokee Indians out, all I can say is if the locals didn't sell their land to "flatlanders" (mostly Floridians), there wouldn't be an issue. As the other poster said, money talks. If you want to trade your pristine mountain ridges for cash, you don't have a right to complain when the next owner puts a house on it.

Dale Johnson said...

"The sky is falling, the sky is falling" says Mary.

1976 .7% developed
2006 4.8% developed
2030 7.8% developed

I don't find it a bit distressing that 8% or even 10% of the mountains of NC are developed. Folks exercising their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the associated rights of demand, supply, capitalism, and property rights. Within reason, these are all glorious things!

Mary and others are using statistics to create panic. Statistics lie and liars use statistics...to promote statism and socialism, poisons to the US.

Big C said...

I also agree if the owners of the mountain real estate continue to take the money then its their on fault.

Karl said...

Of course, it's extremely unlikely that Mary or any of the other people who complain about development actually own property in the area in question. This is typical of the liberal modus operandi: "You may own the property, but I get to tell you how you are allowed to use it."

Ownership confers rights, Mary. If you don't want the land developed, I suggest you buy it -- and then you can do whatever you want, including nothing, with it.

Anonymous said...

Ms Newsom,

I'm curious as to how many acres of mountain land you have personally purchased in order to keep it "pristine". If the answer is "zero", which I'm guessing it is, then what right do you have to tell other private property owners what they may or may not do on their private property? Or do believe that individuals should not own land, that it should all be owned by the government? Or do you wish to promote the lie that individuals may "own" land, so that they may feed the government beast with property taxes, but that they do not possess *freedom* of use as they see fit?

Unknown said...

The only issue with no zoning or no restrictions Dale, is that people will clear mountaintop land, ruining creeks and local water supplies as well as asthetic values (see WV water quality-everyone is drinking arsenic with a little water). If development is properly positioned, it can be a good thing. But if there are no zoning requirements and ridge top building restrictions, everyone will suffer.

Anonymous said...

Driving through the mountains on back roads makes me not worry about this. Green for as far as the eye can see in every direction.

Mary Newsom said...

Dear "Karl" and "anonymous" 2:39: I don't own mountain land, though that's only for lack of money and time. The point I'm making is not that there should be no development, but that the form of the development should be different.

Unless one is in the far libertarian end of the spectrum and believes no development rules at all should exist, then the question becomes whether the current rules are accomplishing what they should. With the "developed land per person" expanding so dramatically, it says to me that rules (zoning standards, etc.) must change.

Dale Johnson said...

Terry! I agree with you 100%. No where did I advocate "no zoning or no restrictions" or "no zoning requirements and ridge top building restrictions". Certainly we need restrictions, WITHIN REASON, as I included in my post. Mary and others want to panic folks with deceptive stats in an attempt to gather support for control of private property and prevent legitimate development.

Create or join a nonprofit, Mary, and purchase what land you and others want to conserve.

Karl said...

"With the "developed land per person" expanding so dramatically, it says to me that rules (zoning standards, etc.) must change."

It seems like your preference would be that 10,000 people be jammed into a squalid single acre than for 10,000 people to be spread across 10,000 acres -- even though a mountain home probably takes up a small fraction of an acre and the rest of that acre is trees and other forest-type terrain.

I agree that people shouldn't be tearing up ridgelines and cutting down trees willy-nilly, because there is no need to do that in order to have a house. But it seems like you want everyone to follow your urban density rules even out in rural areas -- and I disagree. Houses on large lots can have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment and they sure as heck will be more attractive than jamming everyone together into shoeboxes and coffin hotels.

And I'll say it again because it bears repeating -- you need to stop trying to force your ideas about how property should be used on those who own property. If you want to control how land is used, buy it -- or find someone else who will buy it for you.

Dale and Karl's Mom said...

I am really pretty surprised at some of the comments on the article berating someone trying to raise the point about a well thought out and long term approach to development. I see Dale and Karl making fairly simplistic arguments that seem to fall along the lines of "If I own the land, then I get to do whatever I want with it." That is not only incorrect, it is not sensible.

I would think that anyone owning land in the mountains would realize that keeping it as pristine as possible (or developed in a thoughtful manner) would help everyone retain property value, keep tourism coming in, and also provide a great place for people to enjoy outdoor recreation. The argument that if I don't own it, I don't have a say, is pretty fascist (little "f"), not capatalist. You guys would kill the goose that lays some pretty nice golden eggs for the region, including the tourism $$ from folks coming for the trees changing color every year, outdoor festivals, and the very good quality of life you can experience in the region. I would think that both conservatives and liberals alike would be a bit closer to agreement in this point. Poor development of this area impacts everyone, since the tax revenue from all the folks who come through the area due to the natural wonders that NC has to offer would go way down and would affect mountain men and flatlanders alike. Who wants to come to see a bunch of billboards, strip malls, or factories on vacation. I doubt most of the folks who post to this article would...

Anonymous said...

Let's see, we need trees to breathe. We need water to drink. But let's develop everything, everywhere, all in the name of greed. And if the author has built a newly constructed house in a new subdivision, she is a hypocrite. The developers don't develop land - they destroy it. When we have no trees left and our smog problem (currently 4th worse in the nation to the reduction of tree canopy) gets even worse, we need to blame these people:

The owners of the land for selling/leasing it.

The "developers" for destroying it.

And ther Observer because they run ads for mountain property all of the time.

The Ctawba is also running out of water because of the development along it too and mor epople using it that it can sustain.

Anonymous said...

Not much NC won't zone for development. You no longer can see the ocean until your standing on the beach. Only is a matter of time before you can say the same about the mountains.

Tim Collie said...

Mary might of slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night and thinks sprawl is growing in the mtns, but the last 4 yrs the economy is dead in the mtns, and I actually work in the new construction business in the mountains. Nobody is building ANYTHING. What good is a study that ends in 2006? Its almost 2011.

I would love to know what Mary's solution is for jobs in the mountains, if they aren't growing in population? Urban planning?

I assure you the "locals" love people building vacation log homes that cost 500k to 1m.

Anonymous said...

Who cares what Mary thinks? What the locals who live in the mountains should be the opinion that counts here. While Mary amy be annoyed at seeing a house, a factory, a Wal-Mart or a gas station every now and then as she drives through the 'pristine rolling hills' on a family vacation once or twice a year, the locals are probably thankful to have all these items nearby. Now they don't have to drive 40 miles to Asheville, Boone or Hickory to shop for basic needs, and a place of employment may be a little closer as well. For years, we have heard how economically depressed the Appelachian region was. Heaven forbid the local leadership brings commerce and industry, not to mention a few wealthy snowbirds who will spend money in the area. Again, in Mary's utopian world...oh never mind...

Dale Johnson said...

And to repeat, Mary is hyping an out of date study that might suggest we'd have 10% development, not 100%, in the mountains by 2030--likely it will be a lot less with the recession. Reasonable zoning and restrictions are certainly needed and supported by me, but forcing conservation of private property is theft.

Anonymous said...

I purchased land in the mountains and I still own it. I own over 50 acres, not very much.
I don't want my land developed and none of you can make me develop it. Got that Karl?
The problem is that the developers come up to the mountains and buy up large chunks of land and then tear it up with roads and home sites. If the developments are sucessful, you have a large chunk of land that is not good for hunting any more (to many homes) and it also raises property values (all those 2nd home McMansions) so everyone elses real estate taxes go up too.
In the winter, when the leaves are down, you can see all the scars on the mountainsides and the homes, either in the developments or stand-alones. Then they all have the "security light" that the electric company encourages and they stay on all the time causing lots of light pollution.
Thank God for the bursting of the real estate bubble. Now every week you see forclosure sales for the lots in the gated community developments that speculators bought up and now no one wants to purchase. Or maybe the community is not going to happen due to lack of funding.
Lucky for you all, that's all I have time for.
Real Estate Development in the mountains is mainly bad. Redevelop old towns and homesites, especially in valleys and where bulldozing the mountainside is not necessary!

Tvan said...

Instead of going back and forth on the NC mountain issue, we should laugh our arses off at the person who compared Charlotte to Basel, Switzerland. Really, a relative modern city compared to one of the ancient cities of Europe? Come on man, of course Charlotte (and just about any other American city) is going to fall short of transit options of just about any city in Europe.

As for Mary's comment, "Plenty of other countries have figured out how to have both development and preserved natural areas. Too bad ours hasn't done that yet", I disagree with her, but not 100%. America still has very large tracks of land that is readily available to the masses for development or enjoyment CHEAPER than most countries. If land was this cheap in the UK, France, Germany or Switzerland, just to name a few countries, we would see something different over there. But land is expensive over there compared to here.

Finally, I doubt we will ever see the day of tree lined mountain tops giving way to miles upon miles of roof tops. I don't think anyone living in the mountain areas and those wanting to live in the mountain areas would allow this. Sorry Mary, while you are entitled to your opinion, I don't think we have anything to worry about.

Karl said...

"I don't want my land developed and none of you can make me develop it. Got that Karl?"

I don't know why you're mad at me. You seem to be under the impression that I want to force people to develop their land -- and you couldn't be any more wrong.

I'm not into making anyone do anything with their property. I'm also not into busybodies telling me or you what we can and cannot do with property that belongs to either one of us.

So you own the property and you don't want to develop it? That's absolutely your right. At least you, unlike certain other people, can make that determination with a clean conscience.

Larry said...

We had some land and a house in the Mountains and I agree that it was getting where too many people were coming into Heaven.

The roads became too choked and the Summer Folks, which we were part of, raised the prices too high during the Summer.

We realized that we enjoyed the weather but we were often stuck due to the crowds, and had to make traveling up there at off times just to avoid the traffic.

You can only build so many roads in the mountains so development is a concern.

We sold. Hated to do it but we did it before the market tanked and that was a big comfort at least. So we may buy back it thing get worse and the traffic slows up.

Nameless said...

If you're worried about places like the abomination "Sugartop", that's nothing compared to coal strip mining.
But I also would question, why we bragged for years that Union County was among the fastest growing in the country, but the mountain counties get more criticism just because they have a view.
Many of the mountain communities are poorer than dirt, and dirt is all they have to make a living off of. So I say let them grow.

Nameless said...

If you're worried about places like the abomination "Sugartop", that's nothing compared to coal strip mining.
But I also would question, why we bragged for years that Union County was among the fastest growing in the country, but the mountain counties get more criticism just because they have a view.
Many of the mountain communities are poorer than dirt, and dirt is all they have to make a living off of. So I say let them grow.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, Ashe County is going through an attempt at jurisdictional zoning/sphere of influence by the town of West Jefferson. The rancor and disagreement between both sides is amazing for a county with less than 30,000 citizens. The fight for a shrinking tax dollar and perception of a government takeover of property rights is pretty brutal up in the NW corner of NC.

Unknown said...

I have some good examples of good and not so good development that may help illustrate my point from earlier today. First the good; I am an avid hiking/bikepacker, cyclist, etc. I do not live in the mountains right now, but I have been trying everything to get back to them. Snake Mountain, about 7 miles north of Boone and close to where I used to live there has a beautful mountain pass between two 5,000 ft peaks, one of which now has a State Park, Elk Knob. There are some really neat cabins here, but they are down in the valley and not on the summits. Beautiful views for everyone and the water and other resources are not being contaminated. The flip side is Howard's Knob, in Boone. The mountainside is littered with homes that you can see from everywhere around there and contaminates the stream that runs into Boone. While I'm sure the property users made a lot of money on these lots, they were certainly not serving the greater good (everyone else in Boone), which should always be the priority. Following better zoning restrictions in the mountains is absolutely vital and can accomodate everyone, although some people may have to get off their arses and hike for a view instead of sit in their huge homes. If you need another example of bad mountaintop development, see Sugar Top Condos which should be destroyed and the developers beaten and flogged daily.

Anonymous said...

"If I own the land, then I get to do whatever I want with it." That is not only incorrect, it is not sensible.

I would think that anyone owning land in the mountains would realize that keeping it as pristine as possible (or developed in a thoughtful manner) would help everyone retain property value, keep tourism coming in, and also provide a great place for people to enjoy outdoor recreation.
....snip, end of quote.....
OK, gotta say with all respect you -and many posters here- have some upper crust ideal of the mountains. I grew up there. Before 1mm log cabins on the ridge we had trailers and shacks. Guess what? Poor people do not have some wonderful green lifestyle of urban living and commuting to work.

It's their land. Let them do with it as they wish.

And Dear Mary- how about a picture NOT from a helicoper 2000 ft above 'sprawl'? From ground level, or a mile away most developement is invisible behind those darn hills! Those trees have a way of blocking the obnoxious neighbors new mcmansion.

Keep up the city rants tho, we laugh at you Charlotte people with no clue about propery rights and the real world.

Anonymous said...

First, did anyone look at the picture? It is a picture of downtown Boone. Which would you prefer? The dotted houses on the near ridgeline or the mass chaos in the valley? The mess in the valley is the blight. Not the few houses on the ridgeline. I developed one of those ridgelines in the Boone area. Our company was extremely aware of the potential for abuse and was very cautious to maintain the integrity of the area. So are the people in the local towns and county boards. The Banner Elk area learned by the SugarTop debacle. Never again will anything like that occur. There are areas that don't have zoning in the mountains. This is where those who say "Let me do what I want with my land" should be very scared as to what their neighbor may do with their land. Imagine high rise hotels next to dumps. It can happen in those areas. You better be glad for zoning, deed restrictions and covenants protecting the value in the land and the future natural resource.

Anonymous said...

Great commentary! Unfortunately so many local governments have been in the pockets of the real estate developers for so long. One can only hope that a groundswell will resist laissez-faire developement and make a concerted effort to save our open spaces while it's still possible. I am much in favor of land trusts and conservation easements that would enable private land owners to conserve ecosystems and not open land up to new construction projects. I believe that ownership of land confers a responsibility. Probably a novel concept to many people.

WashuOtaku said...

As a person that live in the NC mountains, I can say Mary doesn't know what's she talking about... probably just visits Asheville and Boone as a tourist and doesn't really visit any of the other communities or wilderness of the area. There are a lot of mountains not developed and protected. And at one time it looked worse in the mountains, back in the 1920-30s when clear-cutting was the norm (check any old pictures of the mountains from that time period, they are all bare from Jefferson to Fontana Dam).

As for everyone pointing at the Citadel at Sugar Top, the state of North Carolina passed a law back in 1983 forbidding something like that ever again. Here's the link: http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/wq/lpn/statutes/nc/mountainridgeprotection.htm

Jumper said...

They will push it until the abandoned Walmarts are colonized by rats and coyotes, and must be seized as abandoned nuisances.

Anonymous said...

We will never see a development sprawl in the Mountains like we have in the last 10-15 years. Mary can throw all of these statistics at us of what has happened in the years past but the truth is that demand is not what it used to be. In WNC land is expensive and unemployment high. As a lifelong resident of WNC I know how the cycle works. I can't count 5 foreclosed developments that doesn't have one sold home lot within 5 miles of Hendersonville. And also to comment on what Mary said, I would bet that nearly 90% of all the development and population gain is centered within Asheville and a 10-15 mile radius around Asheville. I have seen it change a ton around that area within my years but other than parts of Henderson and Buncombe counties, the rest of WNC still remains untouched!

Anonymous said...

The Appalachians have always been a basket case. TVA was created to help bring the descendants of poor Scots-Irish farmers, Indians, and slaves into the 20th century, and now, after having logged out the hills, these same people are selling their birthright to a bunch of rich people who care nothing for the communities in which they build their trophy homes.

Unless the health, safety, and welfare clause of the U.S. Constitution is inherently socialist (and if so, good luck changing it), it is a long-held legal principle that the use of your land is not absolute if it causes impacts off-site. When an area sprawls to the point where water supplies are impacted, roads are jammed, and habitats are degraded, then it is right and proper for the government to take measures to protect its citizens. You can quibble all day with that and even cross your arms and hold your breath, but it is nevertheless true.

And it is also true that this goose may have laid its last egg for a while. What are y'all going to do now that you can't swing a hammer for a buck? Calling someone from afar a socialist because you don't agree with them isn't going to feed your family. Perhaps you should go and get that education you refused to get so long ago, and join the 21st century.

Darin said...

This is a great post. It's important that we have discussion about what harm is being done to the Appalachian ecosystems by urban and suburban development.

Forests are being fragmented by development in ways that measurably affect the precious, native species that make the Appalachian landscape so unique. Species that require unfragmented connectivity are being lost within these ecosystems.

From the Southern Forests for the Future web site:

“For species that prefer large tracts of undisturbed forest, fragmentation can diminish available habitat and create barriers to movement, thereby decreasing connectedness among individuals and populations, increasing roadside mortality, and decreasing access to food.”

It makes me sad to see commenters attempt to create a "socialist/liberal oppression" panic when these important land-use issues are thoughtfully raised.

What is your landscape worth if so much of it is transformed from a vital, unique Appalachian one to a suburban one that supports only the kind of flora and fauna that can withstand this fragmentation? So much of the North Georgia ecosystem has been immensely altered by sprawl reaching into the mountains. The native mountain lions that roamed here until the 20th century are long gone as are many other species. The same thing can happen in the Carolinas.

jim said...

"it's my land, I can do whatever I want with it." What is with this adolescent ethos that's all the rage nowadays? Are these people even American? It sounds like a European caricature of the 'american way'. Pick up a book. The Supreme Court has ruled, since the early days of the Republic, that you don't have a right to do whatever you want.

Anonymous said...

As a resident of WNC and a board member of one of the local land trusts, I can agree and disagree with some of Mary's statistics. While development has increased (or did until 2008) more and more of it is being done with land conservation practices being implemented. That is what "sells" the development these days. Her statisitics don't reflect what kind of development is occuring or what the housing density is, only that the "development footprint" is growing. It might be growing because of more open/natural space is being incorporated into new developments.

I would argue that the buyers of the land and homes are the ones that actually control how development will be done. Let's face it, we are capitalists - supply/demand. To blame the locals for selling their land is a lame excuse for placing blame. I believe that the "newcomers" do not have near the passion or attachment to the land that the native WNCarolinians do. The newcomers want a view or stream side home, usually as a priority to being sensitive to the land, the environment, and their neighbors.

If you want to do something about land conservation, please join your local land trust and let your voice be heard and your talents be put to good use.