Few who lay eyes upon Western North Carolina would disagree that its landscape is magnificent. Layers of undulating mountain stretch to the horizons, shot through with crystal rivulets and waterfalls, tied together by the generous flow of the French Broad River — the place has attracted residents and visitors since at least 10,000 years ago, the age of the earliest Indigenous sites discovered on what is now the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
Agreeing that land is desirable is easy. Agreeing how people should use it is hard.
And in Buncombe County, questions of land use reverberate beneath many other difficult conversations. Approaches to managing the impacts of tourism, for example, largely depend on where hotels are allowed to be built and where short-term rentals are permitted to operate. Affordable housing advocates push for new rules that require developers to offer units at cheaper rates. Those concerned about climate change wonder how the county can absorb the thousands of migrants likely to arrive as rising sea levels eat away at U.S. coastlines.
While all of these issues are influenced by policy at the state and federal levels, local governments arguably have the greatest ability to determine land use. Through the legislative tools of zoning, cities and counties can specify what types of buildings go where, how big those buildings can be and what’s permitted to happen in them.
Those future-shaping decisions are happening every day in the city of Asheville, in unincorporated Buncombe County, in the towns of Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin. The goal of the Mountain Xpress Development Guide is to give residents the tools to engage with those decisions in the most effective ways possible.
This guide has itself been guided by the more than 230 readers who filled out an Xpress survey or participated in listening sessions last year. In response to that feedback, we’ve included sections about how to find projects in their earliest stages, as well as details on the limits of local government action. Many readers were particularly interested in learning how developers might be influencing politicians, leading to a section on campaign finances.
We hope that the engagement we saw while creating the guide will now be dwarfed by the public participation it empowers. Decisions about land use are too important to be left solely to elected officials, government staffers and developers — they involve all of us, and by their impacts on the patterns of society, they involve those yet to come to WNC as well.