Thinking big: Buncombe County plan points way toward sustainable future

Image by Steph Guinan
Image by Steph Guinan

“In North Carolina, sustainability plans are pretty rare,” reports Scott Mouw, recycling director at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “Not many communities have taken on the task of comprehensively looking at their environmental footprint and worked through ways to reduce that footprint.”

In fact, Buncombe County is one of only a handful in the state to have such a plan, unanimously adopted by the Board of Commissioners May 15, 2012.

But what is it, exactly? And what does it mean for current and future residents?

The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development first popularized the concept of “sustainable development” back in 1987, defining it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And 25 years later, Buncombe County incorporated that definition into its own sustainability plan.

Unlike some other Tar Heel communities’ plans, however, Buncombe’s sustainability blueprint is extremely broad in scope. Rather than focusing strictly on environmental issues, it incorporates many other areas, such as crime prevention and infant mortality. And though it does include goals, objectives and strategies, it’s short on concrete, measurable targets.

Therein lies the challenge. Although the mission statement calls for “strengthening our quality of life for everyone by taking fiscally and socially responsible actions to ensure that prosperity of future generations,” the commissioners often part ways when it comes to translating that sweeping goal into specific policies and priorities (see “The Politics of Sustainability”).

Keith McDade, assistant professor of sustainability studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville, praises the local plan for its breadth and says he’s integrated it into his lessons. But he also worries that county officials “don’t really have an ambitious agenda for getting it done.”

A broad vision

The sustainability plan was a team effort involving county officials, planning staffers, consultants CDM Smith and representatives of 15 local organizations, including the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Asheville Board of Realtors and Hickory Nut Gap Farm. An initial draft was presented to the public in a series of community meetings. The final document breaks sustainability into three interrelated areas — economy, environment and community — with a range of goals and recommendations for each of them over the next five years.

To improve the environment, ,  the  plan  calls  for  “Partnerships for Conservation, Preservation, Restoration of Natural Resources,” “Pollution and Waste Prevention” and an “Accessible, Multimodal and Efficient Transportation Network,” for example. A lengthy list of strategies for achieving those goals includes supporting the development of the county’s Greenways & Trails Master Plan, promoting waste reduction, and encouraging energy-efficient building design and conservation easements. But the plan includes no cost estimates for implementing those strategies, and the commissioners didn’t allocate funding when they adopted it.

Instead, the Planning Department collects a range of statistics from various county departments and agencies annually and reports to the commissioners in May to provide “building blocks” for budgetary decisions.

Roughly two years into the process, however, a sampling of the data appears to show decidedly mixed results.

Hard numbers

To date, for example, the county has yet to build any of the 80 miles of greenways called for in its 2012 master plan, though a $50,000 donation from New Belgium Brewing Co. is helping fund additional planning. And while no price tag for fully implementing the greenway plan has been calculated, a 2010 feasibility study for the proposed 18-mile stretch along the Swannanoa River/U.S. 70 corridor estimated that it alone would cost $10.3 million.

Mike Sule of the multimodal advocacy group Asheville on Bikes says he’s frustrated by the inaction and hopes to be a “champion” for the cause in the coming months. And Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt concedes that building parks and greenways “is probably where we’re doing the least.”

“We need to do better. We’ve really got to get a systematic way to get parks, in particular,” he adds. “I’d love to see us at some point in the future — not in the near future — get a bond model where we have dedicated money going there, because there’s so much competing interest.”

On the other hand, Carl Silverstein of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, who helped draft the sustainability plan, says, “Buncombe County is really a leader in North Carolina in providing funding for conservation easements.” According to the latest figures, the county has spent $6.3 million protecting 5,262 acres of land from development since 2004. That includes 1,424 acres protected since the sustainability plan’s adoption in 2012, at a cost of roughly $800,000. The plan calls for continuing to fund new easements.

Some goals fall under more than one category, highlighting the interconnectedness of many of these issues. For instance, a call to increase the number of community gardens and farms is listed under health, environmental and economic headings, saying this will create jobs, provide more healthy food for residents and preserve land from development. In 2013, the county had 26 farms (up from 23 the year before) doing community supported agriculture, in which farmers sell advance subscriptions for weekly deliveries of produce. In that same time period, the number of community gardens jumped from 32 to 43 — 17 of them at local schools.

Overall, though, Buncombe County appears to be losing agricultural land rapidly. According to the plan, which relies on the most recent USDA statistics for this metric, the county went from 94,934 acres of land in production in 2002 to 72,087 acres in 2007 — a loss of 115 farms.

To help turn that around, the conservancy is working with the county and other partners to develop an “incubator farm” in Alexander that could serve as a training ground for “beginning farmers to learn their craft … before striking out and trying to lease or purchase their own land,” says Silverstein. The plan also notes that the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and Blue Ridge Food Ventures all “work to increase marketing to connect farms with buyers.”

A living document

Leaving the specifics vague also has its upside. The county plan, which describes itself as “a living document,” gives the commissioners considerable leeway in shaping future sustainability initiatives, and at least one board member has already taken advantage of it. Building off of the plan’s “Pollution and Waste Prevention” goal, Brownie Newman proposed an aggressive carbon reduction policy that was approved in December (see “The Politics of Sustainability”). Other facets of the plan, such as increasing access to public transit, building pedestrian infrastructure and promoting fuel efficiencies, could help achieve those goals.

The former City Council member believes the county should follow Asheville’s lead in focusing on reducing its carbon footprint. To Newman, “Energy stuff is at the heart” of sustainability, And he worries that due to the broad scope of the county’s plan, “You kind of lose that meaning around sustainability that has to do with environmental resources.”

“Not that you shouldn’t track those things, but I would question whether you include them in a sustainability plan,” he continues. A look at comparable plans in Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties shows them to be more strictly focused on environmental issues.

Silverstein, however, points out that the Buncombe plan’s inclusiveness could help it attract “wide community interest.”

Going forward, Gantt says he has mixed feelings about the breadth and direction of the local plan. “It’s great to have a foundation for all the decisions we make, to strategically talk about sustainability and try to measure it,” he says. At the same time, however, Gantt calls Newman’s carbon reduction goals “a really good way to go, where we give specifics about ‘This is where we want to be’ instead of just reporting back where we are.”

McDade of Lenoir-Rhyne University says he favors the idea of hiring internal staffers (as the city did in establishing its Office of Sustainability) to push for implementation and “at least [make sure] those conversations are happening.”

And over at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Mouw, who works with municipalities across the state on sustainability issues, says that while local communities can learn from one another, each must decide for itself what to prioritize and fund.

“It speaks pretty well to Buncombe County’s sense of responsibility that they’re trying to do it in a comprehensive way,” he observes. “There’s so many aspects to it, and the community has to choose which ones might have the most impact, given their limited resources. … I think, in the end, what we’d like to see communities do is give their citizens opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of their daily lives.”

To view Buncombe County’s sustainability plan, go here. For the latest on when the commissioners will hear this year’s update, stay tuned to mountainx.com.

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

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