Nearly a year after its original timeline, Asheville’s government is preparing to ratify a Municipal Climate Action Plan. The city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment unanimously recommended adoption of the plan Feb. 21. City Council is expected to approve it at its meeting Tuesday, March 28.
As previously reported by Xpress, the $95,000 plan has been under development since September 2021, with efforts spearheaded by Winston-Salem consultancy AECOM. City spokesperson Kim Miller said the longer-than-expected process was due primarily to the available capacity of the project team and a shift in project management.
The plan sets three main goals: making sure city-owned assets are resilient, sustainable and efficient; embedding sustainability and climate priorities into city operations, participation and decision-making; and supporting sustainability and resilience for residents and businesses. It includes 22 recommended actions for Asheville to meet those goals, divided into timelines of short (one to two years), medium (three or four years) and long-term (five years or longer). Examples of immediate climate responses include enhancing stormwater control measures on city-owned property, creating a master plan for solid waste and increasing tree canopy cover in low-income neighborhoods.
Asked what action she was most eager to tackle, Bridget Herring, Asheville’s sustainability director, highlighted updates to the city’s emergency plans that will take climate stress into account. “This is an opportunity not only to learn more about how, as a community, we are impacted by climate change but also how best to support each other, particularly our most vulnerable residents, to prepare, live, adapt and hopefully thrive in a changing climate,” she explained.
The plan represents the most comprehensive guidance for the city’s environmental efforts since the 2009 Sustainability Management Plan. It does not provide specific budget estimates for carrying out the work. Miller said the plan “is intended to be implemented over the next 10-25 years and there are many factors that will impact the price of implementation.”
Buncombe launches land conservation maps
Buncombe County’s government has committed to protecting 20% of the county’s land — over 84,000 acres — by 2030. A new set of interactive maps shows how far the county has come on that goal to date, as well as its targets for restricting future development.
The maps note that about 18% of the county is currently conserved through private conservation easements, public parks and Pisgah National Forest. That means Buncombe must protect about 7,500 acres by the end of the decade to meet the goal. County staffers estimate that set-asides and providing technical and some financial support for private conservation easements will cost about $9.5 million beyond the county’s existing budget commitments.
Buncombe’s Agricultural Advisory Board and Land Conservation Advisory Board have flagged four areas in which to focus the county’s conservation efforts: Leicester-Sandy Mush, Greater Barnardsville, Fairview-Broad River and Candler-Hominy Valley. Those regions have been assessed as particularly important to the county’s water quality, agricultural economy, ecological health and other factors.
“Please remember that the focus areas help us guide conservation in the county but are not the sole determinant of project approval,” said Avni Naik, Farmland Preservation Program coordinator, in a press release announcing the maps. “If a property does not fall in a focus area, we will still evaluate its conservation values through fieldwork and landowner meetings.”
The full maps are available online at avl.mx/cgu. Landowners interested in protecting their properties can learn more about the Buncombe County Farmland Preservation Program at avl.mx/cgv.
Cherokee, American Rivers plan removal of Ela Dam
For nearly 100 years, the Ela Dam has stood on the Oconaluftee River in Whittier, pumping out roughly a megawatt of hydroelectric electricity for Bryson City and the surrounding area. But for countless millennia before then, the river — the main waterway running through the tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — connected freely with the Tuckaseegee River.
That’s the situation the Cherokee, in partnership with the national nonprofit American Rivers and other organizations, now hope to restore. American Rivers has applied for $10 million in federal funding to demolish the Ela Dam, reconnect the rivers and return about 100 acres associated with the facility to the Cherokee.
Erin McCombs, the Southeast conservation director for American Rivers, says the plant’s current owner, Northbrook Carolina Hydro II, agreed to explore removing the dam after an unplanned sediment release in October 2021. Eliminating the structure would rejoin 549 miles of the Oconaluftee watershed to the Tuckaseegee. Given that a typical dam removal only rejoins 10 miles, she continues, “this is a massive level of reconnection.”
McCombs says the reconnected waterways would greatly expand habitat for 11 endangered and at-risk species, including the Appalachian elktoe mussel and eastern hellbender. The structure’s removal could also reduce methane emissions from decaying plants in the flooded lands behind the dam, which contribute to climate change.
American Rivers expects a funding decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by late April. Should the money be approved, McCombs expects demolition work to begin in 2024.
Save the date
- The Friends of the Lake 5K returns to Lake Junaluska on Saturday, April 8. The fundraising race supports upkeep of the lake’s paved, 3.8-mile walking trail, estimated at $375,000 annually. Early registration is available at avl.mx/cgh through Thursday, March 23, and includes a “Love the Lake” T-shirt.
- Warren Wilson College professor Mallory McDuff releases her latest work, Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice, at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café on Wednesday, April 12. The book features conversations with a diverse range of female climate activists from across the country. More information is available at avl.mx/cgt.
- Hendersonville’s Environmental Sustainability Board hosts the inaugural Hendo Earth Fest on Saturday, April 22. The free event, taking place on Main Street and Fifth Avenue in downtown Hendersonville, will feature educational activities from groups such as the Blue Ridge Electric Vehicle Club and Conserving Carolina. More information is available at avl.mx/cgi.
- The United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County announced plans to add solar panels to its office at 50 S. French Broad Ave. in partnership with Green Built Alliance, Appalachian Offsets and Blue Ridge Power. The nonprofit is raising funds with a target of beginning installation by early fall; proceeds from the inaugural Green Built Alliance Earth Day 5K at Carrier Park on Saturday, April 22, will benefit the project. More information and registration are available at avl.mx/cgj.
- The Community Foundation of WNC awarded $75,000 to two local food nonprofits. Black Mountain’s Bounty & Soul received $35,000 toward its Produce to the People food distribution program and Farmers Alliance local food sourcing effort. The Asheville-based Utopian Seed Project got $40,000 to support its research and education for a biodiverse, climate-resilient food system.
- The city of Hendersonville received a Tree City USA Growth Award from the national Arbor Day Foundation. According to a press release from the Arbor Day Foundation, the honor recognizes the city’s record of “demonstrating environmental improvement and an outstanding level of tree care.”
- The N.C. Arboretum finished its new wayfinding and map system, promoting easier navigation of the facility’s more than 10 miles of trails. Upgrades include color coding, “you are here” maps and directions to emergency call boxes. More information is available at avl.mx/cgo.
- Buncombe County is accepting applications for Community Recreation Grants through Friday, March 31. Area nonprofits can receive up to $6,000 for projects that provide “low-cost, inclusive wellness and therapeutic opportunities that are accessible to all residents,” such as environmental education, community gardens and outdoor fitness courses. Applications and more information are available at avl.mx/cgk.
- The Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency seeks nominations of businesses for its Clean Air Excellence Awards. The honor recognizes voluntary efforts to improve the region’s air quality beyond regulatory requirements. Nominations will be accepted through Friday, April 14, with more information available at avl.mx/cgn.
- The Blue Horizons Project has reopened applications for the Neighbor to Neighbor Solar program. Buncombe County homeowners with a household income less than 200% of the federal poverty limit ($39,440 for a couple or $60,000 for a family of four) are eligible to have a solar power system installed at no cost. More information is available at avl.mx/cgl.
- In an effort to reduce bacterial contamination in local waterways, Asheville-based nonprofit MountainTrue is offering grants for septic system repairs to homeowners in Buncombe and Henderson counties. Applicants must make no more than 80% of the area median income ($51,400 for a couple or $64,250 for a family of four.) More information is available at avl.mx/cgm.