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Is the sky the limit or will a recession put the brakes on?

Cantrell Hills, a development by the nation’s largest homebuilder, is one of the 24 residential developments totaling 2,416 dwellings the city of Hendersonville has OK’d since 2019. Cantrell Hills, a development by the nation’s largest homebuilder, is one of the 24 residential developments totaling 2,416 dwellings the city of Hendersonville has OK’d since 2019.

With 2,400 dwellings potentially in the pipeline in Hendersonville, elected leaders would be expected to ensure that the city’s infrastructure is adequate to handle the growth.

Water is in good shape, City Council member Jerry Smith said. Sewer, check. The city has a long-range plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on expansion, with ratepayers footing the bill. Roads? Not so much. When Smith is asked whether the roads can hold hundreds more cars, he says they can. But will those cars be able to move?
“That remains to be seen,” he said. “But there’s more traffic on the way, probably a lot more traffic. And I guess our community’s gonna have to be prepared for that. Normally the traffic has been in the summers when it’s high time for tourists. But I think traffic is going to increase year-round and I don’t know any way to avoid that at this point.”
Indeed, as the Lightning’s reporting on the housing boom shows — whether an economic slowdown delays it or not — change is coming to the county as the baby boom generation continues to retire, workers learn they can do their jobs remotely and families flee higher tax or higher crime locales.

Over and over, when the council holds a public hearing on a rezoning request for higher-density subdivisions, condos or apartments, neighbors warn that more development will make congestion worse. Most of the time, the roads that are going to get busier are maintained by the NCDOT, which has fallen years behind on road improvements that city leaders and motorists perceive as urgent right now.
“People have no idea,” said Jennifer Hensley, a City Council member who is also the city’s representative on the MPO, the regional transportation advisory board. “They literally think that they can call the DOT right now and they expect that there can be a road change in a year or two. And they have no idea that it is literally 15 years out.”
Smith said the only solution may be for the city to prime the pump.
“We have discussed at City Council whether or not we need to move forward with our own transportation bond so that we can start working on projects ourselves without having to wait for NCDOT,” he said. “And of course the hope is we provide the seed money and NCDOT will push a project forward sooner. I think that’s a serious consideration that the city is going to have to look at because, once again, absent some type of connector across our county, the connector comes right through downtown. So anyone traveling across the county has got to travel either close to or through downtown to get to various locations.”
A crosstown bypass that could have been under construction by now, the Balfour Parkway, was killed by the Board of Commissioners in 2018.
The hundreds of people who persuaded the Board of Commissioners to dump it “are the same people right now who are mad because it takes them 35 minutes to get across town on Four Seasons,” Hensley said. “There has to be some sort of common sense approach.”

Internet and an airport = workplace

Besides increased traffic, neighbors who pack public hearings on rezonings for more homes cite stormwater runoff, light and noise pollution, loss of tree canopy and loss of community character when they urge the City Council to say no to change.
“A year ago, we were getting ready for an election and one of the topics I talked about a lot is how we were going to define the small town feel of Hendersonville and I do think that we are adapting to what I call small urban,” Smith said. “Trying to find housing developments that meet the need but also are consistent with what people like about this community is the overall challenge that council faces every time one of these developments comes up for a vote and that is that is not easy.”

While it may be true, as the saying goes, that economists have predicted nine of the last three recessions, there’s no denying the mounting evidence of a slowdown. Supply chain issues and labor shortages are already slowing the pace of home construction; rising interest rates and inflation only add to the uncertain outlook. Which is to say: slim chance that developers will build all 2,400 units platted and approved in Hendersonville. But a recession, if one were to come, would more than likely be a timeout for rapid growth here, not a game over.
“I don’t want to be cliche in saying times are changing,” Smith said. “But it’s really true that the nature of Hendersonville is changing as are lots of other towns our size in America, because Covid has made it where more people can work from home. And so people are like, ‘I don’t have to take the commute to Philadelphia every day to work. I can sit on my laptop in my house, and I can do that anywhere in America,’ and that makes Hendersonville even more attractive to people who are not retirees as a place to work, for people who can work from the internet and all they need is an airport.”
In her day job as a chiropractor, Hensley sees the newcomers — and appreciates the fact that the newest city residents are no longer mainly retirees.
“They’re coming in droves,” she said. “I have probably two or three new patients every week moving here from California because they either have a job or they’ve realized they can work from home. They’re tired of the issues in California, they feel unsafe, there’s wildfires. We don’t have earthquakes, we don’t have the wildfires. It’s a generally safe, beautiful place to live. I get that. That’s why I came here 20 years ago because it was a safe, beautiful place to live.”

County gets in sewer business

Because it requires developers to annex into the city if they want sewer service, Hendersonville is the epicenter of the coming growth. But new homes are going up across the county as well. Since 2018 Henderson County has approved subdivision requests resulting in 1,836 residential lots, most of them minor subdivisions. The Tap Root dairy development is by far the largest; it’s approved for 699 home lots or townhomes. The developer is D.R. Horton, the nation’s largest homebuilder, which is also building the Cantrell Hills and Townes at Stone Crest developments on either side of Clear Creek Road at I-26. Horton bought 289 acres of the former dairy land from the Johnson family last October for $15.5 million. On either side of Tap Root, Fletcher has approved 464 dwellings and Mills River 283. The Village of Flat Rock approved an eight-lot subdivision in 2019 and has issued 55 permits for 55 single-family homes since January 2020.
Just as Hendersonville’s sewer capacity draws development, Henderson County will likely spark growth in the apple country when it gets into the sewer business. Commissioners have committed $22 million — $12.7 million in state money and $9.3 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars — to build a wastewater treatment plant on Clear Creek near Fruitland Road.

“It’s naturally going to bring more housing, it’s going to bring industry, it’s going to bring things like that to Hendersonville, but at the same time (Highway) 64 isn’t going to get widened anytime soon,” said Commissioner Rebecca McCall, circling back to the roads problem. “I don’t see that happening for a long time since DOT has no money. So, that in itself will delay a lot of progress in that area, too.”
The Henderson County permitting department reported that it had approved 873 dwellings from January through June, up 32 percent from 2021. The value of the homes and apartments was $294 million, up 30.7 percent over the previous year. The cost of commercial construction was even more inflated; at $125 million, the value for the first six months of this year was 244 percent more than in 2021.
All this is happening at a time when Henderson County commissioners are working on a rewrite of the county’s land-use plan designed to guide growth through 2045. The county got a robust response when it asked homeowners and other county residents for input on how it should manage growth. It received almost 7,000 responses, which was only a few thousand less than Wake County, population 1,092,000, received in a similar land-use planning survey.
Although McCall said she’s not sure where to draw the line, her sense is the county should slow growth before “it disrupts things that we find important like our quality of life,” she said. “One of the No. 1 responses we received on our 6-7,000 survey responses for the comp plan was to keep our natural resources intact — that’s who we are — (and preserve) our agricultural community.
“I don’t want to see us get so big that we can’t support the families with schools and things like that,” she added. “And I just don’t want to see our county get so big that we become more than we’re supposed to be.”