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Conservationists urge commissioners to keep tools to save farms, open land

If MountainTrue members supervised the editors, they’d probably start by taking the red markers from their hands.

Henderson County commissioners, land conservationists and some agriculture leaders say, are stripping the 2045 Comp Plan of tools the environmental community says are needed tools to preserve open land and save farms from development.

Last week, a roomful of people heard about ways the new comprehensive land-use plan could achieve those goals. So far, they were told at a MountainTrue-led presentation, Henderson County commissioners are declining to endorse the tools available to them to save farmland and natural areas and prevent sprawl.

Nancy Diaz, the southern regional director of the environmental nonprofit, noted that commissioners had often praised the planning staff and consultants for aggressively marketing surveys in person and on line that asked county residents what they hoped the long-range plan would do. The effort generated almost 8,000 responses. Survey results, the environmental community and land conservationists say, overwhelmingly supported saving natural areas, protecting farmland and preserving the county’s “rural character.”

“By deleting goals, they’re completely ignoring something they’re so proud of,” Diaz said.

‘Don’t delete tools’

Chris Joyal, the director of the healthy communities program for Mountain True, noted that the comp plan projects that Henderson County will add 30,000 people in the next 20 years, an in-migration he said will require 17,000 dwellings.

“We have a decision to make,” he said. “What we’re asking county commissioners to think about it is in the next 20 years, where are those people going to go? Are they going to go out into the rural areas that we’re working so hard to protect or do we want to concentrate them closer to Hendersonville, Flat Rock, Fletcher — the areas that have existing infrastructure, sewer, water, roadways — to absorb that new population.”

Toward the tail end of the meeting at Jackson Park, MountainTrue showed slides that recommended commissioners strengthen the comp plan’s role in protecting wildlands, forests and farmland. “Do not ignore public input. Keep recommendations based on community input sessions,” one said. “Add to our tool kit to guide growth. Don’t delete tools,” another said.

Among the goals commissioners removed in their Feb. 15 meeting were these:

  • “Continue density bonuses” to encourage land conservation in subdivisions with access to water and sewer and “evaluate additional density bonuses” as an incentive for workforce housing in new developments.
  • Develop an overlay district in the new Edneyville sewer service area to “limit uses that are incompatible with the existing rural, agricultural area.”
  • Set aside part of the Edneyville sewer capacity for industrial and agriculture uses.
  • Develop an Ecusta Trail joint overlay district with the cities of Laurel Park and Hendersonville that could expand allowable uses compatible uses compatible with the trail.

In Goal 2, entitled “Protect and conserve rural character and agriculture,” commissioners kept the goal of collaborating with Agribusiness Henderson County (AgHC) to support agriculture but deleted references to land-use planning related to economic development. They also kept a goal to assist three agriculture-supporting agencies — AgHC, the Soil & Water Conservation District and N.C. Cooperative Extension — but dropped the phrase “and encourage collaboration.”

During their Feb. 15 review commissioners also retreated from the more substantive recommendations under the “preserve existing farmland” goal, declining to endorse programs that would pay farmers to put their land in a form of conservation easement, which would protect the farmland from development in perpetuity. The board also declined to endorse a commitment to study a “transfer of development rights” program to move density from farmland to higher density zones served by water and sewer. And it deleted a goal to “consider applying the County Voluntary Agricultural District to all Present-Use Value enrolled farms” — those that get a property tax discount for remaining active in farm production  — “to further protect farmland from development pressure.”

Bert Lemkes, the manager of the TriHishtil commercial greenhouse in Mills River and a longtime agriculture advocate, implored commissioners on Monday night to restore strong tools in support of the goal to “protect and conserve rural character and agriculture.”

“My great concern is the list of recommendations relative to this goal that start with ‘study’ or ‘consider,’” he said. “Delay in any of the steps will eliminate the goal in a very short time. To preserve existing farmland, the voluntary farmland preservation program is a must and needs implementation. If this does not happen, Goal No. 2 will be part of the history and not the future of Henderson County.”

Commissioners continued their edits on Monday night, sometimes with a meat ax, other times with a scalpel. They deleted a recommendation sent up by the Planning Board to use the comp plan to direct “higher density housing closer to the city to reduce sprawl, provide affordable housing for workforce and relieve pressure on roads” and later deleted a reference to lighting mitigation on industrial and commercial land next to neighborhoods. They quibbled over the meaning of “robust buffers or ‘green belts’” between commercial and residential property before deciding to strike both phrases. The board members are expected to continue their review and editing of six more major goal categories over the next several months.