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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Planning is broken in Henderson County

The decision by the Henderson County Board of Commissioners to reject the building of 900 single-family dwellings and townhomes on the Tap Root dairy property was only the latest episode to illuminate the sorry state of our growth management.


To be sure, there were reasons to deny the conditional use rezoning request brought by an Asheville developer and Dallas, Texas-based D.R. Horton, which calls itself America’s Home Builder. Neighboring homeowners said roads are inadequate and the move-in of hundreds of children would overburden schools. Repeatedly and persistently, the top executives of the Asheville Regional Airport implored commissioners to turn down a development that would put more than 2,000 residents beneath the flight path of dozens of jetliners per week.
In the first of three meetings in which commissioners discussed the rezoning request, it seemed clear that the project was doomed. Commissioners Michael Edney and Rebecca McCall were openly hostile to the development on a variety of grounds. Because Chairman Grady Hawkins recused himself for conflict of interest (his wife’s sister is one of the owners), two votes were enough to kill it.
Commissioners Charlie Messer and Bill Lapsley deserve credit for voting yes, though that credit is unlikely to come publicly from the increasingly cowed caucus of property rights advocates. Property rights nowadays belong to the neighbors, it seems, not to the owner of land that would become a subdivision denser than another estate-lot neighborhood. We don’t need more McMansions. We need more townhomes, cottage homes and affordable 3-2s, yet commissioners continue to say no whenever a request for them is filed.
No one could have worked harder than Lapsley to negotiate a compromise — a grocery buggy of almost 40 individual retreats, pullbacks and concessions by the developer. Lapsley’s Sisyphean effort was to no avail. The stone squashed him.
Commissioner Rebecca McCall illustrated in stunning clarity the futility of Lapsley’s effort when she condemned the Tap Root developer for eliminating townhomes close to I-26 — a demand she had made three weeks earlier.
“The removal of the townhomes on I-26 was a positive,” she said. “However, they were providing a buffer from the noise for the other homes and now that buffer is gone and the noise will still be there.”
The political center of gravity on growth management has moved a long way in a short time. As recently as the late 1990s, the Sovereign Republic of Henderson elected leaders who ran for office as opponents of countywide zoning. One of them, Hawkins, is now one of the most reliable allies of the Nimby Nation mob. Hawkins tried to push through a development moratorium last year after the Board of Commissioners and its appointees on the Planning Board turned down three straight development requests in Etowah and Horse Shoe.
Hawkins is right on one point. He wants the Planning Board to start work on a rewrite of the county’s comprehensive plan. The inability of the Planning Board and elected commissioners to endorse any larger-scale housing development suggests to us that planning is broken.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Planning Board Chair Steve Dozier said of the fix the county has created for the Johnston family, the Tap Root owners. “We can’t find any industry to go there, they don’t want a residential development so what good is it?”
Lapsley suggested that the board’s rejection of the rezoning request was tantamount to condemnation of the land. Can it be interpreted any other way?
“The planning staff has worked hard to get development done,” Dozier said. “I think we’re still progressive. We just have trouble getting past the final hurdle.”
We’re facing an affordable housing crisis. The widening of I-26 over the next three to five years will push more traffic onto to alternative routes that are winding and narrow. We say no to housing, no to new roads, no to wider roads. This is not progressive, nor is it enlightened growth management. Unable to resist the siren song of not in my backyard, our elected leaders are settling for the instant gratification of applause while avoiding their duty to plan for the future.