GroWNC to streamline 5-county development plan
Transylvania County Library filled with people last Wednesday night as residents tackled everything from land-use planning to transportation, all toward figuring out a plan for the region’s growth and development.
The Brevard meeting marked the largest and last of five such meetings held recently in five Western North Carolina counties, which all aimed to collect public input on economic development, energy, health, housing, land use, natural and cultural resources and transportation, said Erica Allison, communications director for GroWNC.
Organized by Land-of-Sky Regional Council, GroWNC launched in 2012 to review, reorganize and design a more comprehensive strategy for economic development across Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.
Allison said residents should have a say in these issues, which impact WNC’s growth. And the community meetings were geared toward helping them do just that.
“If people don’t like it, we want to hear that,” Allison said. “If people like it, we want to hear it.
“We want to hear something new; we want to hear ideas.”
Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a consortium of local and regional partners, city and state officials are leading the GroWNC effort. The project will last at least through 2012, and ultimately plans to present a final plan to local government leaders who will then decide to adopt or refuse the proposal.
“For us, GroWNC is about growing, and it’s about economic development and competitiveness and jobs, because that’s what’s important to people right now,” Allison said. “And everything else either supports it or takes away from that.”
Effort attracts heated opinions
But while participants have agreed on some issues up for discussion, others have highlighted often stark differences of opinion about how the region should grow.
Transylvania resident Gerry Hunsicker said he does not support GroWNC and is working to stop it completely. He said he is opposed to large government and that his belief in private property rights is the driving force behind his fight against the project.
“When you touch (residents’) private property, they’re not too calm,” Hunsicker said. “You don’t get good reception.”
He said the possible development of designated greenways, protective land use rules and affordable housing would have a negative effect on the community.
“What we need to do is not to impose more on (the residents), but educate them in a simple sense: ‘Well if you do this you could poison the water,’ ” Hunsicker said while describing potential environmental regulations, “not make up a rule and come and enforce it, and they won’t even know the rule exists.”
Carroll Parker, partner with the housing section of GroWNC and representative of the Transylvania County Community Land Trust, said he understood the differences in opinions present in the room but said it was important to keep the project as a whole in perspective.
“There are people opposed to (GroWNC), and they have their right to express it, but I think, for me, the question is which direction are we looking,” Parker said. “Which direction are we trying to influence the community for the best?”
If the final plan is approved, he hopes to take part in the development of affordable housing for teachers in the area through the Community Land Trust.
Proponents say affordable housing, maintaining farmland top issues
“You’ve got a choice,” Parker said. “If you want education, you can pay teachers more out of your taxes. Or we can use some of these resources we’ve got and try to provide them and attract them and retain them (with) cheaper, affordable housing.”
For Steve MacLeod, volunteer with the Transylvania County Natural Resources Council, it is important to physically participate, discuss and change with the project to keep moving the community forward.
“Well, it’s hard to say, but if we don’t talk about it, what are we doing?” he said. “We can’t sit on our hands.”
And, MacLeod said he hopes the residents and workgroups would find a way to maintain Transylvania County’s agricultural land.
“I think it’s important for the local folks to have food source and livestock grown here in the mountains,” he said. “It’s become difficult these days to be profitable, not just productive, but profitable for (the farmers).”
Finding common ground
And it may be that the region’s geography itself will be the thing that ties political philosophies together, one consultant said.
“The people in this region historically have always been tied to the land,” said Kristin Peppel, another planning consultant with the natural resources part of GroWNC.
Peppel said she has noticed a lot of interest from both supporters and opponents of the project in sustainable agriculture and local foods, topics that may act as a bridge among those who may disagree of other topics.
Still, the overall consensus on preserving the land has not yet carried through to other areas. People are concerned about big government input, how they can afford to live in Transylvania County and where they will find jobs.
Parker said many times people’s hesitancy for change comes from fear for a loss of jobs, community or control.
“Those are real issues, and I think they have to be a part of the process,” he said. “(We have to say) ‘How can we deal with those as well as the needs that we have identified, the needs that work for folks – good work, good housing, good environment, good education – how do we do that?’ ”
Next steps? A strategy
Keeping the overall goal of spurring economic development in mind, the volunteers and coordinators of GroWNC hope to take the qualitative community input about these issues and turn it into data and a strategy that works for the majority of the residents, said Carrie Runser-Turner, project manager of GroWNC.
The workgroups will analyze and present their findings over the summer. The involvement of the community and its opinions will form their data. From there, the workgroups will develop a plan that best fits the input from the majority of area residents. The project’s member-based steering committee will decide whether to recommend the final plans to local governments.
Parker said: “Change is tough on people. It’s tough because we have preconceived ideas, (and) we have emotional ties to the way things were and those are real.
“But we’ve got to keep trying something.”
How to participate
Couldn’t make it to the first round of community meetings? There are other ways to offer your ideas into the region’s future growth. Here’s how:
You can take GroWNC’s Community Road Trip or complete a survey and give your input about each of the target areas of growth. You can also participate by checking out the GroWNC “Get Involved” section of its website.
The workgroup meetings over the summer are open to the public and you can find out more about when those will occur by signing up for the GroWNC newsletter.
The group also plans to hold second round of community meetings in the fall. Find the schedule overview here.
More questions? Check out their FAQ page.