The intersection of Patton Avenue and New Leicester Highway in West Asheville goes by many names. Area drivers call it a headache, a pain or a snafu. In 2017, a Chicago law firm called it the most dangerous intersection in North Carolina. And urban planner Joe Minicozzi, principal of Asheville’s Urban3, calls it a “crappy suburban traffic vomitorium.”
Similar snarls of multilane roadway, high traffic and sprawl mark many of Buncombe County’s major corridors. As the county’s population has grown by nearly 55,000 people since 2000, an increase of more than a quarter, businesses and housing have spread out from the city core of Asheville along roads such as Smokey Park Highway and Merrimon Avenue.
“If you don’t plan for it, what usually happens is you get this kind of ooze of sprawl that you see all along Hendersonville Road on the south side, or what’s already happening on the west side in Candler,” Minicozzi offers as further examples of the trend. “Growth is happening, but it’s not coordinated.”
County residents have taken notice, says Terri Wells. During the Democrat’s winning campaign to take a District 1 seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, she explains, land use planning was top of voters’ minds.
“People are concerned about farm conservation, affordable housing, transportation and overall quality of life in our county,” Wells says of the residents she will represent in the county’s northwest. “Folks in Leicester have made it clear to me that they don’t want Leicester Highway to become like Hendersonville Road.”
Buncombe government’s approach to all of these issues is anchored in its land use plan, a nearly 200-page document first approved in 1998 and last updated in 2013. In March, county staff had recommended that commissioners develop an entirely new plan in response to more than two decades of growth; although the board unanimously voted in favor, its members then cut a $400,000 allocation for the effort from the fiscal year 2020-21 budget in anticipation of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.
But with the new board that was sworn in on Dec. 7, a new land use plan is back on the agenda. Led by Chair Brownie Newman, the board includes six Democrats, the most since the body was expanded to seven members in 2012. On election night, Newman said that majority gave commissioners a mandate to pursue policies “that represent the goals and values of the community,” with land use among his top three priorities.
City folk, country folk
Democrat Parker Sloan, newly elected to represent District 3 in Buncombe’s southwest, suggests that the most effective land use planning may seem like a paradox. To protect the historically rural character of the county’s outlying areas, he says, officials need to adopt an “urban planning mindset.”
Without policies and zoning maps that encourage density near major transportation routes, Sloan explains, Buncombe will incur “random and sprawling development, most of which is not affordable to most residents.” While he doesn’t flag any specific projects as emblematic of that sprawl, several recently approved or proposed housing developments — including the 687-unit The Farm at Pond Road — have been slated for undeveloped land along two-lane county roads.
To ensure that denser development remains affordable, Sloan favors the adoption of mandatory inclusionary zoning. Such a policy, which isn’t explicitly allowed by state law but has previously been enacted by North Carolina cities such as Chapel Hill and Davidson, would require all new housing developments to reserve some units for low- or moderate-income residents. He also emphasizes the role of pedestrian, bike and bus travel in reducing the strain on roads that might otherwise result from density.
“While it’s true that we could make more progress, faster, if we had proactive, progressive support from the state government, there are a lot of land use policy decisions we can make that can make it more affordable for people to live and work in Buncombe County,” says Sloan, who served on the Buncombe County Planning Board before his election to the commission.
At the same time as Buncombe builds up its major corridors, Wells adds, the county must work directly to preserve rural regions. As the director of community and agricultural programs for nonprofit WNC Communities, she says, she’s particularly attuned to farmland conservation in places such as Sandy Mush and Alexander.
As previously reported by Xpress (see “Cultivating the future,” Sept. 23), Wells helped revise the county’s Farmland Protection Plan earlier this year while serving as vice chair of the Buncombe County Agricultural Advisory Board. She supports greater county funding for conservation easements, which prevent development on land in exchange for tax breaks, as well as outreach and education to area farmers.
Beyond those proposals, Wells is waiting to suggest specific policy interventions until the county has gathered more input. “It is imperative that we have a community-based process as we update our comprehensive land use plan,” she says. “We need to have a clear understanding of the wants and needs of our community members and our various communities.”
Blasts from the past
In several respects, the board will be playing catch-up as it revises Buncombe’s approach to land use. After the county finished its 2013 land use plan update, explains Planning and Development Director Nathan Pennington, the N.C. General Assembly stripped the power of extraterritorial jurisdiction from Asheville and Weaverville. That made Buncombe responsible for zoning in the rapidly urbanizing 1-mile radius around those municipalities, a need the plan hadn’t considered in detail.
And a 2012 state law sponsored by former Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, had removed cities’ ability to involuntarily annex adjacent areas. Due to the state’s Sullivan Act, Pennington continues, Asheville is the only city in North Carolina forbidden from charging higher water rates to customers outside its municipal limits, so officials have few ways to incentivize voluntary annexation. Therefore, the county will likely have to manage growth on Asheville’s fringes for the foreseeable future.
“That was kind of a double whammy, if you will, in terms of how urban areas grew,” Pennington says. “This county has not historically been in the business of having to think about sidewalks or other urban amenities.”
In the slightly more distant past, the majority of Buncombe residents were opposed to the concept of zoning altogether. A nonbinding referendum conducted in 1999 saw 55% of voters inveigh against the imposition of countywide zoning regulations.
Jim Coman, a former county zoning administrator, served in that role as the commission debated its first countywide zoning rules in the late 2000s. He says that officials, mindful of potential pushback, chose to create meaningful zoning districts only in areas served by water and sewer lines. Most of the county’s outlying areas were zoned as open use — “which is very, very similar to saying anything goes” — a decision that he says went against his profession’s best practices.
“There is still a lot of impact in the county from the lack of serious zoning,” Coman explains. “One of the prime examples is Dollar General stores: They do pop up in areas of the county that are 90% residential, and the people really resent it. Any kind of use that has any amount of noise or light impacting the neighbors is usually an unwanted use.”
While residents opposed to zoning were fearful that it would impinge on their rights to use and enjoy their properties, Coman continues, he argues that more regulation could have better preserved their quality of life. “[Zoning] puts restrictions only on the things that just about everyone in the community would say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not something that should be located here,’” he says.
Have a say
Even in areas with open use zoning, the county still exerts some influence through the Board of Adjustment. The volunteer body, appointed by the elected commissioners, must grant conditional permits for certain high-intensity uses such as concrete plants, hazardous waste facilities and large apartment developments.
The board uses a quasi-judicial process, in which members serve as a de facto jury and residents opposing a development must meet strict standards of testimony. Over the past year, that’s led to frustration among some community members, who have felt cut out of decisions about major new projects.
“The process is terrible. It’s confusing and expensive and unjustly favors the developers who have the time and money to engage their team of engineers and attorneys to carry out the work in their regular course of business,” says Kate Millar, president of the Malvern Hills Neighborhood Association, which has led opposition to a 660-unit housing development proposed for South Bear Creek Road just outside of Asheville city limits. “Meanwhile, Buncombe citizens are left trying to figure out the convoluted process and how to engage with it, often with only days until a hearing is scheduled to take place.”
While Pennington emphasizes that any changes to Buncombe’s approval process should result from a community conversation, he notes that other municipalities and urbanizing counties throughout North Carolina are abandoning quasi-judicial hearings in favor of conditional zoning. Under that process, the elected Board of Commissioners would evaluate big projects and could consider all community input, not just sworn testimony from development experts.
“Developers may have concerns about that because you’re adding two months to their project timeline,” Pennington notes. “But on the public side, you might feel like you’re being heard and have the ability to communicate more.”
Wells did not respond to a question regarding her thoughts on the quasi-judicial process. But Sloan said he’d recommend conditional zoning to his fellow commissioners. “I believe it is incumbent on the county to use every tool it has to promote sustainable growth, manage expensive sprawl, protect our environment, meet housing demand, and provide for adequate public input,” he said.
Further complicating Buncombe’s land use planning is the county’s lack of control over roads. Unlike in states such as California and New York, Coman notes, all road construction in North Carolina is handled by the state Department of Transportation, cities or private developers, so county officials can’t directly decide how those paths are laid out.
Without intentional road design, says Urban3’s Minicozzi, even parts of the county that have all the elements for compact development can succumb to a feeling of sprawl. He points to an area surrounding the intersection of New Leicester Highway and Mount Carmel Road: Within a few thousand feet of each other sit several multifamily housing developments, an Ingles supermarket, the Clyde A. Erwin High School complex and several restaurants, banks and small businesses. But many of those buildings sit on their own disconnected loops of road, and sidewalks are nowhere to be seen, making a car trip on busy New Leicester the most convenient way to get from one part of the area to another.
“If you’re not connecting these blood vessels, what ends up happening is the aorta does all the work,” Minicozzi offers by way of analogy. “You can’t just have an aorta: You need to have veins. You need to have capillaries. That’s where the county’s in an awkward position.”
Coman acknowledges that Buncombe has limited capacity to fix such problems. But he suggests that, through more aggressive zoning restrictions in developing areas, the county could keep existing roads from becoming overwhelmed with traffic from intensive uses. Greater zoning specificity, he adds, would also give the NCDOT better insight into where future needs might arise.
“The DOT has to react to what happens in the county; the DOT can’t do road planning based on nothing at all,” Coman explains, noting that Buncombe’s large open use areas give little guidance about what future roads will be required. “I know some DOT officials who are very upset about the way things are allowed on just any kind of a road.”
Buncombe County does engage with the DOT through the Community Transportation Advisory Board, Pennington says, as well as its membership on the Land of Sky Regional Council and French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization. And in the future, the county will seek to take advantage of the DOT’s Complete Streets Policy, which requires the state to build sidewalks and bike lanes that have been formally adopted in a local government plan when conducting road projects.
Pennington expects Buncombe’s upcoming land use plan to be critical for accommodating the county’s continued expansion. But he doesn’t anticipate that developing it will be easy.
“One of the toughest conversations we’re going to have to have is what are the future growth areas, because that’s obviously the most controversial. If you build it, they will come,” Pennington says. “It’s tough to have because there are a number of founded concerns, and then there are a number of concerns amongst folks that just don’t want to see any more growth.”
A strict anti-growth mentality, however, may fail to recognize Western North Carolina’s momentum as a draw for newcomers. Asheville was recently named the country’s seventh-best place to retire by Money.com, the latest in a litany of top-10 press honors. Visitors who first come to the area as tourists — Pennington calls Buncombe the “gateway community” for WNC — often find themselves wanting to live in the county. And the mountains offer a perceived haven for many coastal dwellers threatened by climate-driven extreme weather and higher tides.
Coman, himself a Buncombe native, hopes that the decades of growth since county residents were last polled about zoning will have made land use regulation more palatable. Commissioners, he says, need to avoid a “smoke-and-mirrors show” with their new land use plan and consider serious changes.
“Planning is constructive cooperation with the inevitable,” Coman continues. “And ‘inevitable’ boils down to what the community itself and the government and everyone involved thinks is inevitable.”