In a year marked by a constant churn of updating numbers — COVID-19 dashboards, economic forecasts, political polls — I took comfort in the times I was able to report more deeply on some of the issues facing Western North Carolina. Each of my top five selections from 2020 is a longer read, but each tried to understand some of the structural challenges to the region’s politics, health and environment beneath the daily headlines.
Although unaffiliated voters are the second most-populous political group in North Carolina, no members of the state’s Congressional delegation are unaffiliated, nor are any officeholders at the state level. According to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, just seven of 587 total county commission seats were won by independent or third-party candidates in 2018.
From March through July, the majority of local government boards and commissions meetings were canceled due to COVID-19, meaning citizens were largely shut out of formal policy discussions as Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners managed the tandem economic and public health crises caused by the coronavirus.
“We’ve got an epidemic within a pandemic,” says Kevin Mahoney with the Mountain Area Health Education Center. Social distancing, job losses and drug contamination associated with COVID-19 have all complicated local efforts to manage the impacts of opioid use.
“Folks are really starting to get weary of the pattern of hurricanes and extreme weather and are looking for more stable environments such as Western North Carolina,” says local real estate agent John Haynes, about clients seeking to move to the region from coastal states like Florida, New Jersey and Texas.
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman lists land use policy as a top priority for the new commission, sworn in on Dec. 7. Board members will likely revisit the county’s land use plan, a document originally developed in 1998 and last updated in 2013, in response to rapid community growth.