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Split board salvages goal to explore conservation fund

Commissioners David Hill and Rebecca McCall clashed over some parts of the county’s 2045 comp plan during the board’s ongoing review of the plan last week. ‘If we’re not going to plan for the future we just need to scrap the whole thing,’ McCall said. Commissioners David Hill and Rebecca McCall clashed over some parts of the county’s 2045 comp plan during the board’s ongoing review of the plan last week. ‘If we’re not going to plan for the future we just need to scrap the whole thing,’ McCall said.

Henderson County commissioners were about 45 minutes into their latest round of live editing of the 2045 comprehensive land-use plan when tension over the roadmap briefly flashed into the open.

Commissioners have plodded through the painstaking review during three meetings so far with more to come. Going over the recommendations that support major goals one by one, they’ve completed three of the eight categories. So far, they have deleted 12 specific recommendations — covering density bonuses, steep-slope building restrictions, lighting mitigation, a flood early warning system, among others — and made other edits that walked back commitments to conservation goals.

In most cases commissioners have reached unanimous consensus on which goals to keep, which to take out and which to tweak.

A strong advocate for property rights and no fan of zoning to start with, Commissioner David Hill is the board’s most persistent skeptic when it comes to restrictive zoning and conservation efforts, particularly ones that might cost taxpayers money in the future.

A recommendation calling for the study of a conservation overlay district on public lands was intended as a sort of safety net in case public lands were one day developed. Hill opposed it as unnecessary.

Chair Rebecca McCall defended the goal, leading to one of the only public disagreements in the real-time editing process.

“It’s not doing anything. It’s suggesting a study,” she said.

Hill: “Why not delete it if it’s not doing anything.”

McCall: “Because it hits on the subject of what could happen in those areas. We’re supposed to be focusing on what could happen in the future and we’re going so far away from that — so far away from that. It’s like we’re looking at — this isn’t the 2045 plan. This is a 2025 plan.”

Hill: “I’m just trying to be reasonable here and just trying to keep it from being so wordy.”

Commissioner Daniel Andreotta then asked Michael Edney whether he favored deleting the conservation overlay district goal.

Edney: “My preference would be to take it out because this whole document is so much more about environmental wacko stuff than it is land-use planning in my mind.”

Andreotta: “Some of it seems to be.”

Commissioner Bill Lapsley salvaged the goal by suggesting a compromise. “What if we just said ‘Study the creation of guidelines for development of public lands.’ Let’s think about what could happen here,” he said. “We’re just saying to the Planning Board, is there anything we should do?”


‘Don’t delete, strengthen’

At the start of the meeting, during public comment time, Rachel Pollar had urged commissioners to strengthen conservation and the protection of sensitive natural areas.

“At your December meeting, you decided to go through the plan word by word to make sure that it was as Commissioner Andreotta said a visionary document guiding us into the future,” she said. “I took that to mean that you were going to edit and strengthen the plan such that in 2045 we would be able to look back and be proud of our many and specific accomplishments.”

Instead, she said, commissioners had weakened or deleted several of the stronger tools for conservation and farmland preservation in goals 1 and 2.

“So I am here to make this simple request: that as you start your work on goals 3 and 4 this morning, you use your pens not to delete but rather to add, to strengthen our commitment to the future, the next generation that we all today have a stake in and passion for,” she said. “The words you choose have the power to shape our future. Please be brave enough to use them.”


Conservation fund goal survives — for now

After they axed the conservation overlay, commissioners adopted a goal strongly supported by environmentalists and land conservation advocates — with the support of Edney, the one who is wary of “environmental whacko” language.

The goal would have commissioners “consider the creation of a voluntary program with a land conservancy fund to purchase development rights and establish conservation easements” on significant natural land and sensitive habitats.

“What we’re talking about here is the county plan, and you all have already agreed to consider creation of a farmland preservation program,” Kieran Roe, the Conserving Carolina executive director who suggested the goal, told commissioners. “And that would be a county-sponsored program is the way I understand.”

Adding a fund for nonfarm land would expand “the number of landowners who could participate in such a program to include folks who have steep slopes or land in a floodplain or forested land or natural areas of high significance,” he said. “We think that expanding the land conservation program that you’ve already identified in the farmland section to include this broader group of landowners would just help the county achieve its goals in those target areas.”

Edney spoke in favor of the idea, saying it might help longtime residents hang on to family land under development pressure.

“If I’ve got 100 acres of granddaddy’s land and I want to maintain it, but John (Mitchell, the county manager) taxes the heck out of it because there’s a subdivision next to it, I think there should be some mechanism to allow the locals to secure their heritage,” he said.

Hill objected to the goal, saying it’s unnecessary.

“It’s like over 80 percent of the county is in parks, conservation, state lands,” he said. “So you know, we’re not like, overrun with development at the moment.”

“That’s the thing,” McCall said. “We’re not talking about ‘the moment,’ we’re talking about 20 years down the road. … We have to plan ahead. When I was in industry, we planned ahead — five years, 10 years. You might not do what your plan says but you have to have a vision to strive for. And that’s what this plan is — it’s a plan for the future. If we’re not going to plan for the future we just need to scrap the whole thing.”

Andreotta, who is generally aligned with Hill’s opposition to aggressive land-use restrictions and government-funded conservation programs, warned about the cost.

 “Whenever you hear someone say, ‘local government, create a fund’ you need to feel your wallet get thinner because we only have one kind of dollar and that’s the taxpayer dollar,” he said.

It was Lapsley again who pitched a compromise that kept the land conservation fund idea alive, at least for future consideration.

“So if we put this paragraph in, then this discussion is going to continue,” he said. “If we leave this paragraph out, we’re saying that this board does not support any discussion about that, and I think we want to have more discussion about it. I think we all need more information and to address the concerns of Commissioner Andreotta but we won’t even get there if we don’t include this as a recommendation. I think we should add that and then we’ll have discussions in more detail in the future.”

That left three commissioners in favor, Hill opposed and Andreotta skeptical.

“We can’t always be dependent on Conserving Carolina,” McCall said. “They’re an organization that’s there now but nonprofits come and go.”