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Commissioners' comments hint at contours of comp plan debate

Commissioners Daniel Andreotta, David Hill, Rebecca McCall, Michael Edney and Bill Lapsley agreed that they need at least four workshops to debate the draft 2045 comp plan before adopting it. Commissioners Daniel Andreotta, David Hill, Rebecca McCall, Michael Edney and Bill Lapsley agreed that they need at least four workshops to debate the draft 2045 comp plan before adopting it.

After 16 speakers had used their allotted three minutes apiece to pan the draft 2045 comprehensive land-use plan as weak on preserving open land and preventing sprawl, Henderson County commissioners absorbed the task before them, glanced at the clock and called a timeout on moving ahead last Monday night. They decided later to dissect, discuss, diliberate, debate and act on the plan in eight not so easy pieces.

The first regular meeting of the year was the second one during which commissioners could have discussed or even voted to adopt the comp plan. Their comments last Monday night highlighted the magnitude of a vote intended to memorialize a vision of how the county should development over the next 25 years. The task confronts them amid pressure from growth, tension between property rights and low-density zoning and demands that they use the long-range plan to protect county’s rural character.

“All we have to do is figure out how to preserve everything just like it is, make room for the thousands that are coming, limit development and bring housing costs down,” Commissioner Daniel Andreotta quipped. “We should be able to do that before lunch tomorrow.”

Although commissioners’ comments shed little light on whether they agreed with the document the Planning Board forwarded to them on Dec. 1, the broader outlines came into focus. David Hill will continue to be the standard bearer for private property rights. Michael Edney plans to challenge the assertion that most county residents believe  land preservation ought to be the No. 1 priority of the comp plan. Always the policy wonk, retired civil engineer Bill Lapsley will ensure that the board’s review of the plan is thorough and in-depth. Andreotta, when he’s not making a wisecrack, will try to paint the broader context. And Rebecca McCall, now chair of the board, will bring to bear her family’s long history of political service in the county while seeking middle ground.


“Let’s ‘create,’ not just ‘consider’"

Commissioners’ comments came after 35 minutes of comments from speakers, most of whom panned the draft on the table as weaker than it needs to be.

The comp plan is “an opportunity for the county to be a leader in the region in protecting and preserving our rural character and agricultural communities,” Anne Coletta, Flat Rock’s vice mayor, told commissioners. “Creating a preservation program to establish agricultural conservation will be a forward-looking first step in that effort. Along with that, prohibiting commercial uses that are incompatible with rural communities will help protect those communities from inappropriate land use.

“It can be difficult to balance individual property rights and the rights of the overall community to enjoy its true benefits. … Language is important," she said. "Let’s not just ‘encourage’ a particular policy, let's adopt it. Let's not just ‘consider,’ let's create.”

Sandy Schenk has put 2,600 acres of land in Green River into a conservation easement and he urged commissioners to encourage more of the same.

“Love of land and the conservation ethic is in the blood of many Henderson County landowners,” he said. “It is a value that goes beyond money and profit. It is the value of heritage, reverence of soil, water and wild creatures. Conserved land is, I believe, one of the most valuable legacies we can give to new generations in Henderson County. A well-funded, broad-based conservation easement program can make important progress toward reducing sprawl and enhancing land protection.”

Like other speakers, Schenk implored commissioners to eliminate from the new plan the disruptive land uses that are allowed in the current zoning code as conditional uses in rural areas.

“As a camp director, I know how to run a camp,” he said. “I'm used to bears in the dumpsters, bats  in the buildings and snakes by the waterfront. I can deal with these problems myself. Please don't make me and others fight asphalt plants, shooting ranges, mansions on steep slopes and developers who see only short-term profit when so many of us see conserved land as a legacy that can benefit the county and its economy for generations to come.”

Katie Breckheimer, a longtime environmental activist from rural Saluda, criticized the Planning Board final edits that she said weakened the plan’s resolve.

“The recommendations are soft, often using words like ‘consider’ things as opposed to actual directives to get things done. The recommendations I'd like to see strengthened are: developing and contribute to a farmland conservation fund but do not limit to only farmland; limit development on and around steep slopes; remove barriers to green infrastructure projects; create design standards for the wildland urban interface; keep development close in where utilities already exist.”

Property rights are ‘granted by God’

If commissioners want to adopt a plan whose primary intent is land preservation and a ban on high- to medium-density subdivision, condos or commercial use in rural areas, they’ll have to go through David Hill to get there.

“I'm a native. I live in the country. I have acreage,” he said. “I have a family farm in two different parts of the county. I live in the south end of the county, grew up in the east side of the county, Rebecca's district. I've seen a lot of changes.

“I heard a few little shoutouts to private property rights. Any of you that know anything about me at all know that I am a private property rights advocate,” he continued. “This document’s main driving force, if you read through it and you look at it, is that development is pushed into infill areas.”

As a surveyor, Hill said that over 30 years he has seen land-use restrictions proliferate.

“It's only gotten worse, as far as regulations and the ability for people to use their property,” he said. “These rights are not granted by Henderson County. They are not granted by the state of North Carolina. They are not granted by the United States of America. Your rights are granted by God himself. Private property rights do not just relate to property, your land. It relates to you, yourself. It relates to your family. … We live in a free country, folks.”

Eight goals, 35 recommendations

Lapsley’s approach to the task ahead was practical, informed by an engineer’s linear thinking and attention to detail. After spending the holidays reading the plan, he reported to his colleagues that the document contains eight major goals, 35 recommendations and 200 items underneath those.

“When this board approves a plan — not necessarily this plan but some modification of this plan —we are signaling our intent to follow the recommendations and the action items in the plan,” he said. “If we're not going to do that then why have a plan?”

Words like “consider, implement, ensure, support” have meaning, he warned, that commissioners need to make sure they understand.

“To me, those are all very important words because if this board adopts it, it's telling the public what our intent is,” he said. “If we want to ‘consider’ that means we're going to discuss it. We may do it, we may not do it. Or if we say we're going to ‘implement’ it then we've made that decision and we're going to do it. So those words to me are extremely important.”

Many survey respondents live in city

While land conservation activists have cited the survey results from 7,000 respondents — a number close to the public response Wake County, population 1.2 million, received when it adopted a new comp plan — Edney suggested that a deeper dive casts doubt on how representative the survey was.

“Of the 7,000 folks, 40 percent of them live in the city and we're not even dealing with the city plan,” he said. “Eighteen percent was Etowah-Horse Shoe, which is amazing. Sixty percent of the responses are from two areas but they don't include a lot of other parts of the county. That concerns me. Over 75 percent of the responses are from people 55 or older. So that means our younger people are only providing a minimal amount of responses. That bothers me.”

Workshops will take in-depth look

McCall struck a more optimistic tone, saying commissioners and the public can arrive at a good solution.

“Change is going to happen,” she said. “When the first (land-use) plan was put in place we had 94,000 citizens in this county. We now have 120,000. And most of those (new residents) weren’t from birth.”

She also responded to members of the public who have questioned why the draft comp plan does not designate zoning.

“Somebody said that there's not an implementation plan,” she said. “We aren't there yet. We've got to adopt this plan and then develop an implementation plan based on this plan.”

His colleagues accepted Lapsley’s proposal that they devote four meetings to workshop the comp plan — with a goal of adopting it by June. In other words, we’re just in the first quarter of the game.