I happened to be on a vacation last week when we published stories from three of the counties in our coverage area that detailed how county commission candidates feel about growth and land-use planning. When I finally read those stories, my fears about the future of these mountains magnified. Even the most progressive of candidates are walking too gingerly into this debate. Still, it’s my hope that voters will read those stories (see our Web site at www.smokymountainnews.com) before next week’s primary elections and support the candidates who do support efforts to protect our mountains and improve the quality of life we enjoy here.
Reading those stories hit me especially hard considering what I was seeing all around me during my vacation. I went to Colorado, to a small town between Denver and Colorado Springs called Castle Rock. It’s grown from a population of 20,000 in the 2000 Census to about 32,000 by 2004. Explosive growth. And yet the town and the county both have master growth plans with more zoning regulations and requirements than we in this area could ever imagine. It’s online if you want to peek at it (just Google either the county, Douglas, or the town). And if there’s one place where property rights advocates hold as much sway they do here, it’s in the ranching and mining areas of the West. So don’t anyone pretend that advocating for sweeping land-use planning is impossible.
Douglas County’s zoning map shows about 14 different districts, from Agriculture One to Heavy Industry. The county is chopped up, and yet there are procedures in place for those who seek variances and special-use permits. It’s a map, in essence. But it provides a way for those who disagree with the zoning to seek approval for different uses for their land, and a way for neighbors to weigh in. People are told what they can do with their land, but an avenue of appeal is wide open. Seems simple enough.
And this is a county, remember, not the town. And it’s a mostly rural county. Here’s the preface to its zoning oridnance: “A Resolution of the Board of County Commissioners of Douglas County, Colorado that establishes land use classifications within zone districts. The health, safety, convenience, aesthetics and welfare of the present and future residents of Douglas County are assured through the regulations, prohibitions and procedures described within the document.
“This Zoning Resolution governs the use of land for residential and non-residential purposes, limits the height and bulk of buildings and other structures, limits lot occupancy and determines the setbacks and provides for open spaces, by establishing standards of performance and design.”
So that’s the governing document. And here’s what I saw, both in town and the county: rural neighborhoods where all homeowners were required to provide a right-of-way of 10 feet into one of their property lines to allow for a residential connector used by horses, runners, bikers, walkers, and children going from house to house; very few billboards to obstruct views; miles and miles of greenways and trails; no homes high up on the buttes that dot the county; and perhaps, most refreshing, no free-standing signs more than 10 feet off the ground at any commercial enterprises, be it gas stations, Wal Mart or even the new Lowe’s that is under construction.
Not paradise by any means, but it was evident that the county and town had developed a set of rules and requirements in anticipation of the growth that had come, a plan for promoting development while protecting the quality of life.
The time is now
When I look around here and see that none of our counties have made this kind of progress, I have to ask why. Our population is not exploding like that county in Colorado, but construction is. We don’t register those huge population hikes because so many of the second-home owners list other states as their primary residences.
When it comes to green space and community trails, Macon County is leading the way. It more than four miles along the Little Tennessee River, a marvelous attribute that its citizens are rightly proud of. Hundreds of hours of work have been put into the Richland Creek Trail project in Haywood County, and it is hoped that soon it will expand. In Jackson County they are dreaming of something big along Scotts Creek and the Tuckasegee.
But what about a master plan to connect new developments to these larger trails, requiring residential and commercial developers to donate right-of-ways? Why doesn’t Haywood County have a plan for a walking path along the length of Jonathan Creek that parallels U.S. 276? Instead of celebrating baby steps, why don’t we dream big?
There is also the issue of slope, road and neighborhood regulations. It seems that when progressive ideas get put on the table, development interests — which often includes local builders who aren’t from out of town — hold enough sway to scare elected officials away from taking steps that are long overdue. If demanding adequate roads to mountaintop developments make that property too expensive to develop or a home too pricey, then perhaps that’s a sign that those places should not be developed. If requiring engineering studies on slopes where an ugly and unsafe cut-and-fill lot was allowed previously makes that property too expensive, then don’t build there. It just makes common sense.
David McCullough’s book about the American Revolution, 1776, has become a bestseller. While reading that book I remember a discussion of the fact that a great many colonists did not originally support the concept of independence. They feared not having the support of Great Britain, of being defeated and perhaps hanged for treason, of trying to form a government and a nation. But our forefathers, the ones we now all can name without even thinking, were fearless in their leadership. They knew they were right and they had the smarts and courage to make it happen.
OK, so supporting land-use planning and turning local government into a tool to protect the mountains is not quite so ambitious as creating a country, but it will require bold, creative and decisive leadership. And it will take hard work. Come May 2, think long and hard about who you vote for.