Seeking balance

This map from the new land use plan shows that about 25 percent of private land in unincorporated parts of Buncombe County is owned by people who don't live in Buncombe County. Image courtesy of Buncombe County
This map from the new land use plan shows that about 25 percent of private land in unincorporated parts of Buncombe County is owned by people who don't live in Buncombe County. Image courtesy of Buncombe County

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners sought to improve the balance between environmental protection and private property rights Sept. 17, unanimously approving an update to their land use plan.

The document is intended to "provide a basis for future planning efforts" and "create a baseline for land use in the county," explained County Planner Debbie Truempy.

The county first developed a comprehensive land use plan in 1998. The only remaining commissioner who served at that time, board Chair David Gantt, remembered that the original draft generated "a pretty heated discussion."

However, Gantt says he and his colleagues are in accord on the updated version, and no residents mentioned it during a public comment period. Still, Gantt noted that zoning and land use issues are often contentious.

"We have a moral obligation to take care of our environment, while we balance the rights of people to develop their private property," Gantt said. "It's always a tough, tough balance to make that work right. And every community has a different value."

Commissioner Joe Belcher praised staff for adding language to the plan that emphasizes regulatory flexibility, particularly when it comes to affordable housing developments.

"I think it's a good plan with a lot of built-in flexibility," noted Belcher, who recently retired after working for decades in the manufactured-home industry. "There was a lot of mention of affordable housing. … I appreciate that."

Although the plan includes a number of other specific recommendations (see sidebar), commissioners will need to take further action to make them law.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Ellen Frost noted that many of the land use recommendations "seem to work hand and glove with our sustainability plan." She asked staff to add language to the land use document specifically linking it to the sustainability plan, which "is intended to inspire our community to put sustainable practices first, thereby strengthening our environment, community and economy," according to the Buncombe County website. Commissioners unanimously approved that document in May 2012.

In addition, Vice Chair Holly Jones emphasized that such plans need to be regularly evaluated and improved, taking into account demographic changes.

"We are a growing community, and these are documents we need to come back to," she noted. "As we find things that are working, or not working, lets come back to them. … None of us have a crystal ball."

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Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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