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“The WNC census data I studied showed that between 1949 and 2001, 72 percent of what was considered farmland was converted to commercial or residential development.”

— Phillip Gibson, Environmental Leadership Center

Neil Thomas of Resource Data Inc
Buncombe’s changing face: This sequence of GIS maps, prepared by Neil Thomas of Resource Data Inc., reveals development patterns in the county from 1790 to 2005. Each dot represents a construction site or subdivided parcel up to 10 acres in size.

Asheville residents hardly need a press release from the U.S. Census Bureau to clue them in concerning the nation’s inexorably climbing head count: In these parts, the evidence is everywhere. From the disappearance of vacant lots downtown to the scalping and scraping of mountainsides, a continuing stream of house-hungry WNC immigrants is fueling a substantial reshaping of our landscape.

Of course, population growth is only one of a host of factors driving our current development boom. But the local situation may shed some light on what we can expect as ever more Americans seek to put down roots in a finite amount of land — particularly land that until recently was considered “undevelopable.”

According to the Census Bureau’s calculations (births plus immigrants minus emigrants minus deaths), the nation’s population reached the 300 million mark Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 5:46 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. A mere 11 seconds later, the meter rolled over again, to 300,000,001. And by the time this edition of Xpress hits the streets, that number will have grown to roughly 300,117,819.181818181823 people. (Think of the numbers after the decimal point as contractions. Now breathe.)

It took 52 years for the nation’s population to swell from 100 million to 200 million and another 39 years to reach the current threshold. At this rate, Americans are expected to number 400 million in just 37 years. Over the same period, Buncombe County’s population has grown from 47,000 to about 219,000.

Putting growth in perspective is one facet of the work done by the Environmental Leadership Center of Warren Wilson College. And helping the ELC make sense of the trends is a sophisticated, high-tech tool: geographic-information-system mapping.

The accompanying GIS maps, produced by Neil Thomas of the Asheville-based firm Resource Data, show development in Buncombe County between 1799 and 2005. Each dot on each map represents a building or developed parcel of land up to 10 acres in size. Asheville’s first full-blown boom dates back to the 1880s, but the county as a whole remained decidedly rural.

Between 1900 and 2005, however, that picture changed dramatically. In the last decade of the 1800s, 162 residential and commercial buildings were constructed. In the first half-decade of this century alone, there were 12,689 building starts. The GIS maps present that information in startlingly evocative form.

Government entities, nonprofits, activist groups and researchers use data collected and analyzed by the ELC to evaluate past growth patterns and the potential impact of future development. Using the GIS data, it’s possible to predict where and how traffic patterns will shift, gauge the ability of existing infrastructure to meet future needs, and determine where emergency services should be sited to best serve the populace. Development projections can also demonstrate the potential impacts, such as runoff and flooding, of differing amounts of impervious surface that may be created.

“A few years ago, I was doing research at Western Carolina University,” Phillip Gibson, the ELC’s director of research and community outreach, told Xpress. “The WNC census data I studied showed that between 1949 and 2001, 72 percent of what was considered farmland was converted to commercial or residential development. …

“We’re currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency wants to know where to focus its attention [in terms of] development and the likely impact on adjacent waterways.”

Given this kind of rapid change, it’s hard to argue with the idea that local planners need such information sooner rather than later. If you live in Buncombe County, you’ve acquired .009 new neighbors in the time it’s taken you to read this article.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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