Full announcement from Marc Hunt:
Between 1916 and 1927, the foresighted citizens and leaders of Asheville acquired the 17,000-acre North Fork and Bee Tree watersheds near Black Mountain to be protected forever as pristine sources of clean drinking water for the community. In 1996, the City took a step toward ensuring that permanent protection by granting a protective easement to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. On December 11th, Asheville City Council will consider another step forward by restating and strengthening the conservation easement’s protective measures.
According to City Councilman Marc Hunt, who has been active in the recent effort to see the easement improved, the earlier easement was created before conservation easements were common in North Carolina. “I think the intent of the framers was clear – that the community wants a rigorous level of protection of the watershed. The current easement is a bit vaguely worded though, and it does not include many of the conditions that best practices nowadays suggest, ” Hunt said.
The current draft of the new easement calls for a stewardship plan to maintain forest health, and prohibits commercial logging in the watershed. In addition, no structures would be allowed in the forested areas of the watershed, recreation uses would be limited, and significant additional roads would not be allowed. The easement strengthens protections for both wildlife habitat and scenic vistas along fifteen miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The easement would not affect the management, operation, or expansion of the dams and water distribution systems.
Weaknesses in the current easement were exposed in 2004 when the City entertained development of a forestry plan that conceivably could have allowed for extensive commercial logging and road improvements. Hunt continued, “The City and our partner, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, have been diligent stewards in protecting the watershed in day-to-day practice. The 2004 experience showed us that the easement needs to be improved. Research shows that even minor disturbances on the landscape can have significant impacts on water quality. I am happy for this opportunity to clarify the community’s intent and to ensure strong and permanent protection. Clean drinking water is critical.”
Future ownership and control of the Asheville water system is currently a source of political controversy. A North Carolina General Assembly study committee this year issued a report that recommends a transfer of the system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District, and according to Representative Chuck McGrady , Henderson County, legislation is likely to be introduced early next year to achieve that. “Members of the legislative study committee understand our efforts to improve the conservation easement, and are fully supportive. And if the watershed lands are transferred away from the City, the easement will permanently run with the land and remain in effect. Uncertainty about future ownership and control is a key reason we are seeking to move forward now,” said Hunt.
“The proposed new conservation easement strengthens permanent protections for drinking water quality, forest health, wildlife habitat, and scenic vistas from the Blue Ridge Parkway. We applaud the Asheville City Council’s foresight in embracing these positive changes that will ensure a pristine watershed for future generations,” said Reid Wilson, Executive Director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.
If Council approves the updated easement at the December 11th meeting, it would likely be finalized and put into place within a few weeks.