When Candace Stimson lost her job last winter due to the recession, she seized the opportunity to go back to school and pursue something meaningful.
She wasn’t sure just what that would be, however, until she happened upon a new degree being offered at Haywood Community College. This fall, HCC became the first college or university in the state to offer a degree in low-impact development.
“Right now people are starting to look around and see how important it is to take care of the earth,” said Stimson, 42. “Things are going to get more and more green. We are heading in that direction as a country.”
HCC forged the curriculum from scratch and convinced the state community college system that the field warranted its very own degree.
“We actually developed it from the ground up,” said Chad Bledsoe, vice president of the academic affairs at HCC. “We saw with the changing economy and the green movement, there would be a need for individuals with these skill sets.”
Winning support wasn’t a terribly hard sell, but did make for a teaching moment.
“People at the state level were not aware of low-impact development, so we went through an education process of what kind of career a person with that degree would have,” said Dr. Rose Johnson, president of HCC.
The college had to prove there was a demand in the marketplace for the graduates in the field — and that it rose to the level of a standalone degree. So HCC solicited input from the development industry to help make that point through interviews and roundtables.
The idea for the degree got a strong endorsement across the real estate, development and construction industry. Their input helped refine and shape the curriculum, honing in on the skills new hires touting knowledge in sustainable development should have.
“They were able to give us information about the number of people they would want to employ if we got a program in place and had graduates coming out of it,” Johnson said. “They were so excited about it. We felt like there was a lot of emerging job potential that would cut across many sectors.”
The curriculum scored final approval by the state less than a month before the start of the school year. The new degree has just eight students this fall, but it’s expected to grow.
“We are going to see a statewide draw, and from other states as well,” Bledsoe said.
As graduates filter through the program and into the workplace, they will hopefully influence future development practices throughout the region, Johnson said.
“We want to show how you build without destroying the land and ground you are building on,” Johnson said.
The new degree dovetails with a sustainability push Johnson is spearheading campus wide, from incorporating biodiesel and alternative fuels in automotive classes to installing solar panels on the new craft building that is slated to get under construction next year.
How it started
The low-impact development degree has been in the making for more than three years. It dates back to a sustainable development pilot project pursued jointly by the college, Haywood Waterways Association and Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District. The organizations pooled grant money and expertise to help two developers go the low-impact route.
The pilot helped developers tailor their projects to the mountain terrain, and that allowed them to protect the environment while maximizing profit.
Some poorly planned developments have left an unfortunate mark on the mountain region: crumbling roads and slipping foundations, streams decimated by erosion and slopes cut so steep stabilization after the fact is hopeless. In most cases, the environmental and construction nightmares could have been avoided with better planning up front.
“You look at any development here in Western North Carolina and there are several lots that will sit there and continue to sit there because it’s too steep,” said Blair Bishop, a natural resources instructor at HCC and one of the designers for the low-impact development curriculum.
Following the principles advocated in the college’s curriculum allows developers to end up with a more marketable subdivision. They can avoid lots that looked suitable on paper but on the ground are unworkable, perhaps hemmed in by a creek on one side and large boulders on the other, leaving no room to shoehorn a house or driveway without serious earth moving — and in turn environmental consequences.
“It is definitely environmental but also economical in terms of planning those communities,” said Bishop, who served as the “boots on the ground” during the pilot project.
The degree could be applied to development anywhere and will touch on some of the environmental considerations in other regions. In coastal areas for example, steep slopes aren’t a problem but sandy soils and fragile underground aquifers are.
The new degree will fall under the umbrella of the Natural Resources Department at HCC. The Natural Resource Department already has a reputation for one of the most outstanding two-year degrees in fields like forestry, wildlife management and horticulture. While most community colleges cater almost entirely to students in their own backyard, the natural resources program at HCC draws students from across the state and even the country looking for hands-on training
Bledsoe expects it won’t be long until other colleges copy the degree now that HCC did the hard work of designing the curriculum and getting the state to recognize it.
“We hope we will model for other institutions,” Bledsoe said.
The college is offering a low-impact development certificate as well as the full-fledged degree. It’s obviously not as comprehensive, but is ideal for those already in the industry who want to bone up on sustainable practices.
HCC will hire a new full-time instructor dedicated to the low-impact development degree before the start of the next semester.
As for Stimson, she hopes to find work as a consultant for developers, graders and contractors when she becomes one of the first graduates in the state to hold such a degree.
“It fit right in with my values,” Stimson said. “I have a farm myself and I love the outdoors. I live in the mountains because it is so beautiful here. We have to start taking care of that.”