Buncombe County Commission

Should the U.S. Forest Service trade two parcels of pristine but relatively isolated public land for a smaller amount of private land, in order to increase efficiency, reduce operating costs, and help protect the Appalachian Trail? If you listen to area environmentalists, Upper Hominy residents, and the Buncombe County commissioners, the answer is a thundering no. In a unanimous decision, the commissioners approved a resolution opposing the land exchange during their Nov. 17 meeting.

Dozens of residents of Upper Hominy, where most of the federal land in question is located, came out in an impressive show of solidarity to support the commissioners’ decision. The overflow crowd filled the chambers, spilling out into the hall as, one after another, speakers ranging from landowners to environmentalists decried the land swap.

But several other county residents — including Thomas Thrash, who wants to swap land with the Forest Service — spoke against the proposed resolution. Thrash also owns WNC Pallet, a company that wants to log the tract.

The land swap involves Tract P-298, a 403-acre parcel in the Hominy Valley; another piece of isolated public land in Macon County; and two privately owned tracts, in Cherokee and Graham counties. For the Forest Service, the primary goal is to acquire land adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, says Pisgah District Ranger Art Rowe. The Hominy Valley tract is surrounded by private land, making access and management difficult, whereas Thrash’s land has been identified as a high priority for Forest Service acquisition, because it would link two Forest Service tracts near the AT, improving the overall pattern of forest ownership.

Rowe explained that the Forest Service will seek public comment before making a decision. But he also made it clear that the commissioners’ opinions would carry some weight in the decision. “We are very interested in any comments you may have or any issues to consider,” he told the commissioners.

In the public-comment portion of the meeting, which was moved up to the beginning of the agenda, due to the heavy turnout, Tee Gentry outlined the concerns of Hominy residents. Then Bob Gale spoke on behalf of the WNC Alliance, a grassroots environmental organization. Gale said the Forest Service had told him that Blue Ridge Parkway officials had no real opinion on the land swap. But, continued Gale, U.S. Park Service Chief Planner Gary Johnson wrote in a letter that ” … large-scale changes in land cover, such as forest clear-cuts, or telecommunication towers breaking the ridge line” would definitely affect the Parkway’s pristine beauty.

Self-described naturalist and educator Betty Jean O’Kelly spoke out against logging the land, saying, “I want my green space. … I want to be able to teach my grandchildren that the fringed purple orchid is very rare, very fragile, and it requires a sensitive environment. … When we destroy this tract of land, neither your children nor your grandchildren will see it again.”

Walter Russell spoke about how logging the area would degrade water quality and destroy habitat, perhaps wiping out wild native populations of a genetically unique Southern Appalachian strain of brook trout in Hominy Creek. “The brook trout, out of all trout species, are the least tolerant of sedimentation, high water temperatures and low oxygen levels in streams,” he said. “Any logging activities may result in the destruction of this population.”

Joe Holliway, who has lived next to Tract P-298 for 13 years, and who said he has extensive experience in the logging industry, described in vivid detail the environmental devastation logging brings to the land. “For people who have never visited a logging site, you would probably be in apoplectic shock if you could see the damage and destruction. It’s like an atomic bomb had been dropped there,” he exclaimed. “Let me tell you about advances in logging machinery. They can throw a 13-foot-wide logging skidder up there with three-foot-wide tires on it, with a 60,000- to 80,000-pound, high-speed winch on the back. And they can drag a 15-inch red oak tree from 50 yards down the mountain at 10 miles an hour, and drag it to the loading site. … And as it drags along there, it just tears the ground all to pieces.

“And all those machines running back and forth,” he continued, “every time they make a pass, the next time it rains, that topsoil is in the stream down the hill. And the fish die, the animals leave, and the deer will be in your yards.”

Other citizens who spoke against the land swap included a woman whose family owns a 15-cabin resort nearby, a woman from South Florida who recently bought a summer home in the area because of its natural beauty, and the co-owner of the Pisgah Inn, who reminded commissioners about the cautionary fable of the golden goose. “If you keep plucking feathers from the golden goose, eventually there’ll be no golden goose left,” he said. “Maybe someone will benefit in the short run, but in the long run, we’re all going to suffer.”

Perhaps most striking, however, was the testimony of Hominy resident Lyman Whisman, who read portions of a letter from Edith Vanderbilt to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, dated May 1, 1914. Offering to sell much of what is now Pisgah National Forest to the Forest Service for $5 an acre, Vanderbilt wrote, ” … I make this contribution towards the public ownership of Pisgah Forest with the earnest hope that in this way I may help perpetuate my husband’s pioneer work in forest conservation, and to insure the protection and the use and enjoyment of Pisgah Forest as a National Forest, by the American people for all time.”

When Thrash took the podium, it seemed almost an act of courage to try to swim against the overwhelming current of public opinion in the room. Conceding that he could understand where his critics were coming from, he also maintained that some facts should be brought to the debate. “We do not clear-cut,” he explained, referring to his company, WNC Pallet; “we selectively cut soft timber, adhering to environmental-management practices. We permit hunting, hiking, recreational and educational activities on our tracts. We do not allow vehicular traffic on our tracts. We employ 130 people whose families depend on that weekly paycheck. We have 20 logging contractors whose employees depend on their weekly paycheck.” He went on to describe the taxpayers’ benefits if the property were allowed to become private, saying that the county’s tax base would profit greatly.

Maintaining that he has offered to meet with “these folks’ steering committee,” and that the offer was declined, he urged Chairman Tom Sobol to write a letter of concern to the forest supervisor. “Do not pass this resolution until all the facts are in,” he urged, adding, “Now is too early: The facts have not been fully explored.”

Several others also spoke out against the resolution. Sawmill owner John Fletcher of South Hominy defended the practice of logging. “[The Forest Service] needs to do their job in order to manage these forests, so we have these wood products. Wood products are important: We need these products. That should also be studied … if we’re going to continue to be able to stand up here on walnut podiums and speak.”

In the end, though, the resolution passed unanimously, to a chorus of roaring cheers.

Fear of an annexed planet

Speaking on behalf of the Buncombe County Land Use Plan Steering Committee, Scott Hughes formally presented the executive summary of the proposed Comprehensive Land Use Plan to the commissioners. After 12 separate public hearings, Hughes said the steering committee had concluded that people are not afraid of land-use planning. “They are actually in favor of a plan that incorporates infrastructure availability, planned economic growth, and prudent stewardship of our natural resources,” he explained. “[But] most people are afraid of annexation. And further, most folks have a fear of the concept of zoning as a planning strategy.”

Based on a transportation/infrastructure model that concentrates high-traffic development along certain corridors, the proposed plan is designed so that water, sewer and transportation arteries can be easily maintained and cost-effectively improved. Hughes described the plan as “balanced, incentive-based, proactive and action-oriented.” It suggests, he said, that instead of focusing on the things the people of Buncombe County don’t agree on, we accomplish the things we can agree on. “The contentious issues are not going anywhere,” Hughes declared, “but there are a number of planning assets that we can develop without fighting battles.”

The proposed plan essentially accepts the current uses of land, seeking to guide future development toward the desired model. It also calls for continued efforts to discourage annexation of outlying areas by municipalities and cities. “We became aware very early that the single largest impediment to land-use planning in Buncombe County is the overwhelming fear of annexation,” he explained.

Commissioner David Gantt asked about a section of the plan that calls for creating limited zoning regulations in existing industrial areas. Hughes replied that many large employers will not consider siting a facility in an area that does not have some sort of zoning protection. “Folks go into an area and build a significant facility, make a big investment in property, and if things go well, they want to expand their facility. Then … they find themselves in conflict with the surrounding property owners,” he said. Providing limited zoning and development potential in areas already set aside for industrial development will help attract manufacturers and developers to the area, he explained.

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