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Wednesday, 21 June 2006 00:00

Bethel survey

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The Bethel survey polled a random sample of 273 residents in Bethel via telephone. The Bethel Rural Community Organization sanctioned the study to identify community sentiment toward development, farmland and what makes their community special. Here are some of the more striking results:

• 1.8 percent said there had not been enough development in Bethel.

• 65.7 percent said they support some type of public funding to help Bethel remain a rural community.

• 98.5 percent said it is important to help farmers stay on their land if they wish to do so.

• 93.7 percent said the issue of development and rural character needs to be addressed.

• When asked what made Bethel a nice place to live, the majority of answers referred to the rural character and close community ties. People felt farms contributed to these aspects, while development threatened them.

Members of the Bethel Rural Preservation Committee, an offshoot of the Bethel community club, were surprised at just how much people seemed to value farmland.

“I thought it would be positive but I didn’t realize it would be so overwhelming,” said Steve Sorrells, a farmer in Bethel.

Sorrells said it makes sense, however. The entire county benefits from the farmland has a vested interested in seeing it stay that way.

“I’ve had neighbors come up to me and tell me that they paid more for their land because of my farm. They wouldn’t have paid so much if they looked out at another subdivision,” Sorrells said.

Same goes for tourism.

“Maggie Valley’s restaurants and hotels benefit from these farms,” Sorrells said. “If people wanted to ride around and look at development they could have stayed in Atlanta.”

Members of the Bethel Community Club hope the survey will have an impact.

“The obvious motive is to get support for protection,” said Dave Curphey, a Bethel resident and member of the community club. “The biggest value is to raise awareness.”

The survey was funded with grant money from the N.C. Rural Center. The survey is considered statistically accurate and was conducted by the Richard Hoffman Center for Assessment and Research Alliances at Mars Hill College.

Survey results indicate that development has a domino effect on the agrarian landscape. More than half of the 23 farmers who participated in the survey said the decision on whether to sell their farm or keep farming “depends what happens around them.” In other words, it’s no fun to farm when surrounded by subdivisions or strip malls. If the land around them is sold off for this kind of development, they would be more likely to sell.

This statement indicates there is a small window to save farms before they start disappearing more rapidly. There are numerous farmers willing to put their property in conservation easements, preserving the farms for future generations, if there was a cash incentive, said George Ivey, a coordinator for the Bethel Rural Preservation Committee, an off-shot of the Bethel Rural Community club.

“Having a good survey like this helps us when we go to funders and say ‘Look, the community support is there,’” said Ivey.

Haywood County Commissioner Larry Ammons wanted to know whether the study would be shared with residents in Bethel.

“I think it is a great opportunity for folks in the Bethel area to know how their friends and neighbors feel,” Ammons said, suggesting distributing copies of it within the community.

One purpose of the study, however, was for residents of Bethel to get their message across to county commissioners and policymakers more so than to each other.

Bethel residents have squared off with county commissioners twice in five years to stop the extension of water and sewer lines into Bethel. Water and sewer lines are seen as a precursor to sprawl, laying the groundwork for denser subdivisions and commercial development

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