What are your biggest concerns about the future of Buncombe County?
Over 1,200 residents answered this question as part of a survey conducted by county staff as part of the process to create the county’s first comprehensive plan. Sixty-seven percent chose “rising cost of living,” 51% chose “losing natural areas and agricultural lands to new development” and 33% chose “tourism development changing the character and experience of the county.” (Respondents could choose more than one concern.)
Using these answers, and those from the 20 other questions on the survey, Buncombe County staff and a 23-member steering committee will create the county’s first comprehensive plan. When complete, the document will be a nonbinding, advisory blueprint of where residents and county officials want the county to be in 2043 and will outline the goals, objectives and policies needed to achieve that vision.
“The comprehensive plan is like a compass,” says Swannanoa native and artisan Dede Styles, a steering committee member. “It’s going to point the way that the county should go.”
Despite the cancellation of in-person meetings in January and February due to the omicron variant outbreak, Gillian Phillips, long-range planning division manager, says that the plan is on track to enter its third of four phases, which focuses on policy development, by the end of June.
Public engagement will continue throughout the summer. “We’re going to target groups that we didn’t get enough input from in that first phase,” Phillips says, citing in particular Black residents, residents of color and Spanish-speaking residents. Only 3% of the respondents self-identified as Black or African-American, for instance, even though 6.3% of the county’s population is Black.
To that end, staff plans to focus particularly on in-person outreach at events like farmers markets and summer festivals.
“We will be [in] as many places as we can possibly be with our team,” she adds.
A comprehensive vision
According to Buncombe County Planning Director Nathan Pennington, a common misconception about a comprehensive plan is that it is simply a zoning or city planning document.
“It goes beyond that, to things like making sure that in your growth areas there’s adequate infrastructure, enough police, fire, schools, potable water, parks and recreation opportunities,” Pennington said. The plan will address hazards as well, including not only forest fires and mudslides associated with climate change but also cyberattacks and pandemics.
Work began last August with the appointment of a steering committee composed of residents representing a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, incomes, occupations, ages and years of residence in the area. One hundred eleven people applied, including committee member Kareen Boncales, director of entrepreneurship at Mountain BizWorks.
“I’ve been working in the economic development [and] small-business space for many, many years,” she tells Xpress. “I wanted to be involved in a more comprehensive way in terms of shaping the decisions that are made about our community, and I saw this as a way to do that.”
Over the course of three virtual meetings last fall, the committee worked with county staff and land use consulting firm Clarion Associates on phase 1 of the planning process. This phase focused on reaching out to major stakeholders. Committee members interviewed local city and county officials, as well as 22 major stakeholders that included representatives from neighboring counties, organizations such as Land of Sky Regional Council, school districts and economic agencies. Presentations were also made to local groups like the Rotary Club, N.C. Farm Bureau and faith leaders.
“Cooperation and collaboration are key to analyze issues and opportunities and move forward with the best plan to benefit both communities,” says Henderson County Planning Director Autumn Radcliff, in charge of that county’s 2045 Comprehensive Plan. She has had multiple conversations with Buncombe County staff about rapid growth on the shared borders, spurred by existing sewage and water infrastructure and the airport.
“Planning doesn’t stop just at our boundaries,” adds Pennington. “It’s a regional conversation.”
Getting the word out
Once the stakeholder interviews were complete, county staff and Clarion designed the 21 questions for the public survey, as well as a graphic demonstrating the relationship among seven key topic areas. “Our project team set an ambitious goal….to reach everyone we could in the county,” Phillips says.
The team partnered with Raleigh-based startup PublicInput to create Engage Buncombe, a portal that enables residents to provide feedback, as well as learn about and livestream county meetings. Work began with a word cloud exercise in November, where residents could list up to five words or phrases that best described their visions for the county in 20 years’ time. As of publication, over 1,300 people have contributed over 2,000 comments. (The exercise is still live.) The portal proved particularly useful when the omicron outbreak delayed the start of in-person public meetings until March.
The team also distributed over 3,200 postcards to residents, with special instructions for children. “Something innovative we’ve done through this plan is [to] place an emphasis on youth involvement,” Phillips says. She and her staff visited county and city schools and distributed K-12 and college-level lesson plans to instructors.
“I really hope that one of these kids remembers me standing up in front of their class and talking about it when the next comp plan comes,” Phillips adds.
Children’s tables also played a large role in the 20 in-person meetings scheduled at libraries, community centers, and schools across the county. According to Phillips, 347 participants attended these meetings, contributing approximately 30% of the responses to the phase 2 public engagement survey.
Steering committee members also helped get the word out. To involve residents in her area of Lytle Cove, Styles stood outside Ace Hardware and Ledford’s Produce and visited East Haven Apartments, an affordable housing development in the area, to distribute paper copies of the survey.
“We need to know what the most vulnerable among us need,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest consensus in the public engagement survey centered on housing. Seventy-six percent of respondents chose the statement “Housing is not affordable to many families” as the biggest concern for housing in Buncombe County, far ahead of the 35% who selected “There are not enough choices of housing types to meet the needs of different households.”
Land also emerges as a crucial concern. Seventy-nine percent of the survey respondents selected “[the] natural environment” in response to the question “What do you like most about Buncombe County?”; 67% wanted growth to occur away from areas at risk from climate change like flood plains and wildlife habitats.
However, respondents also pointed out concerns not specified in the survey, including homelessness, public safety, and accountability and transparency of local government. Pennington explains that, while not specifically mentioned in the survey, fire, police and emergency medical services are considered as part of growth infrastructure. As for homelessness, the county is currently working with a consultant and will likely develop a separate plan around that initiative.
From vision to strategy
County staff and the steering committee hope to begin using the survey data to identify concrete policies and actions to include in the plan by the end of June. The public will be invited to provide feedback about these policies, according to Phillips.
“You tell us what you want, and we bring it back to you. And we say, ‘Does this look good?’” she explains. That back-and-forth process will continue after a first draft is written, scheduled to happen sometime this fall.
“Everyone wants the same thing, but everyone has different priorities in terms of how to get there,” Boncales says. She was encouraged by County Commission Chair Brownie Newman to “dream big” when considering not only visions and goals but also the policies and processes to get there.
“Now is the time to shape where we’re going to be in 20 years,” says Boncales. “It’s really an opportunity for us to be bold.”
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