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County embarks on 'a really big deal' — comp plan rewrite

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners last week selected a North Carolina-based consultant to guide development of a new comprehensive land-use plan, passing on the top-ranked firm a committee recommended and rejecting one commissioner’s endorsement of a different firm.

After the county released a request for proposals, seven firms responded: AECOM, Benchmark, Clarion, Design Workshop, Holland Consulting Planners, Houseal Lavigne and Stewart.
A selection committee reviewed all the proposals, interviewed the top three consultant firms, checked references, and recommended Houseal Lavigne of Chicago for the job. The other two were Clarion, based in Chapel Hill and Denver, Colorado, and Stewart, which has offices in Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington.
Asked last month why the selection committee chose Houseal Lavigne, Planning Director Autumn Radcliff cited the company’s website savvy, outreach plans and proprietary mapping system tailored to comp plan projects.
“They were going to provide all the public outreach materials, they were going to do community education, the branding, an interactive project website and also interactive web-based mapping that they have developed in house with their company,” she said. “They would host the website, provide workshop kits in English and Spanish, prepare an ‘existing conditions memorandum’ and provide preliminary planning documents.”
Commissioners delayed a decision in December and again last month when commissioners expressed misgivings about the Chicago-based firm and support for two firms with the most experience in North Carolina. Most of Houseal Lavigne’s experience was in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains.
“I don’t want to be Colorado, Illinois or Indiana,” Commissioner Rebecca McCall said in December. “I want to be North Carolina. I want to be Henderson County, North Carolina, and when we go see grandma down in Zirconia and ask her opinion, the people making those visits, those people are very important.”
During the Board of Commissioners meeting last week, Commissioner David Hill made a motion to hire Stewart and then McCall made a motion to offer the contract to Clarion, which had done planning for the Oklawaha Greenway and also listed land-use jobs in Asheville and Black Mountain. Taking up Hill’s motion first, the board voted 4-1 for Stewart, with McCall voting no. Stewart’s price of $145,000 was about the same as what other firms had quoted.

Commissioners want public buy-in

Based in Raleigh, Stewart has guided land-planning projects in the towns of Franklin, Waynesville, Cullowhee, Highlands, Harrisburg, Huntersville and Winterville and Jackson, Alamance, Guilford, Granville, Harnett and Pitt counties. In its response to the county’s invitation to bid on the comp plan guidance, Stewart said it would build on the county’s 1989 and 2005 land-use plans — the so-called 2020 plan — and proposed a three-phase plan of project initiation and analysis, visioning and plan development, and implementation and adoption.
Scorched at times in recent years by a roomful of homeowners who felt blindsided by rezoning requests, commissioners have emphasized community outreach and buy-in for a comp plan rewrite designed to guide growth for the next 25 years.
“One of the most important things to me is that all the citizens get equal input in whatever we do,” Commissioner Michael Edney said before the board delayed a hiring vote in December. “A lot of our citizens are not on the internet and are not (social media) savvy.” Planners need to “stand out in front of Walmart and Ingles” to gather input, he added. “Grandma from Green River ain’t going to go out of her way (to offer input) and her opinion is just as valuable as anybody else’s. As important as this is, we need to go to them when they’re not going to come to us.”
In its community engagement pitch, Stewart said it would:
• Conduct leadership and stakeholder interviews.
• Form a diverse steering committee of elected and appointed leaders, business owners and other key stakeholders that would meet five times during the comp plan development.
• Conduct focus group workshops at key stages of the process.
• Hold design-oriented workshops and charettes to gather public input on issues, priorities and recommendations, to “refine a vision for the community” and gain support for recommendations.
• Host walkabouts to “observe real physical opportunities and constraints and discuss solutions.”
• Prepare a survey designed to reach a broad cross-section of the community and provide updates via social media.
• Host multi-media presentations and online public comment times, particularly as long as pandemic restrictions prevent in-person gatherings.
• Hold pop-up meetings where people are gathered — festivals, civic clubs, schools, senior events — to educate and solicit input.
• Host community open house meetings to present draft plans and gather feedback.
Stewart said its team would include a report on current land-use, develop a “suitability map” for residential and commercial development and open land and conservation and incorporate a study of transportation — including short- and long-range road projects and bike and pedestrian trails — public infrastructure and utilities, public health and equity, economic development, and parks, recreation, environment and open space into the draft plan.

When I-26 was ‘a dead-end street’

The day he was sworn in as chairman of the board, Bill Lapsley called a special meeting to outline the comp plan process and underscore its importance.
“I’m the immigrant of the group,” he said as he introduced the topic.
A native of New Jersey and graduate of the University of Wyoming, Lapsley came to Hendersonville as assistant water director in his 20s and is the only elected commissioner who is not a native.
“I was not raised here but I’ve been here 46 years and I’m trying to hold a little longer,” he said. “When I go back in my time here to the late 1970s, early 1980s, I-26 was a dead end street. It ended at Warrior Mountain. We were a little community at the end of the road with not a lot of things going on. I came in and I felt, This is a quaint little place, people are nice and they’ve got all kinds of good things going for them.”
But he soon recognized that an active core of leaders “thought because Henderson County is so quaint and so nice we shouldn’t grow, we should just stop right where we’re at.” Thirty years ago, people opposed the widening of I-26. “There was a very strong group of folks in our community that did not support any kind of growth and I found that to be a very concerning as a community member,” he said. “You’re either growing or you’re shrinking.”
The Chamber of Commerce and the original Committee of 100 led a counter-effort to “build the growth attitude and do what we could to encourage economic development of the county,” Lapsley said. “To me that was a watershed moment in the community.” The Committee of 100, the predecessor to the Partnership for Economic Development, identified manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and retirement as a four-legged structure to sustain economic growth.
The 2005 comp plan, the first zoning plan with teeth, was another watershed moment for the county but now that plan has run its course and proved numerous times to be outdated. Commissioners have felt the sting when they acted on rezoning requests that neighboring landowners thrashed as a threat to their quality of life.
“We need to have a guide so when we make a decision about a new industry or a new agriculture thing or a tourism thing, we understand that’s all part of where we see the county is going to be in the next 25 years,” Lapsley said. “What’s the use in having a plan if the public doesn’t get behind it?”
The county also should coordinate with the five incorporated cities, he added, a stab at unity that has often evaded local leaders.
“If we’re truly going to have a county comprehensive plan we’ve got to include them. We’ve got to make sure as best we can that they’re on board with it,” Lapsley said. “We need to be heading in the same direction. How bad would it be if the county wanted to go in one direction and the municipalities wanted to go completely opposite.” The 2045 land-use plan “will have a profound impact on the future living conditions for our county citizens. This is a big deal, a really big deal, from my perspective.”