If Reps. Tim Moffitt, Chuck McGrady and our state Legislature force Asheville to cede control of water-line extensions to the Metropolitan Sewerage District, MSD's appointed board will have the power to open the floodgates of urban sprawl. Swept along by their party's implacable anti-regulatory agenda, North Carolina Republicans may think they're giving developers a gift by removing the last effective tool that relatively progressive, environmentally conscious cities such as ours have for controlling sprawl beyond their borders. But it’s a strategy that’s bound to backfire.
Such a merger will inevitably turn MSD into a battleground between pro-development and anti-sprawl forces, making local and regional growth management a far more arbitrary, frustrating and politically charged process than it already is for developers, residents and officials alike.
In order to grow, uncontrolled low-density development needs connections, just as cancer must extend blood vessels to feed its metastasis. Those gated mountainside retreats plopped on former forest or farmland need roads, power and, usually, water and sewer lines extended to them.
Deny a tumor or suburb its connections and it can’t expand. Or, in the drier language of Asheville's “2025 Plan,” "Absent other growth management tools like zoning, the provision of water and sewer service is the key determinant of where commercial and high-density [anti-sprawl] residential development will happen."
And now that, for better or worse, involuntary annexation and its accompanying zoning are off the table, controlling water and sewer extensions may be the only way Western North Carolina’s cities and counties can ensure that the next real estate bubble won't mortally compromise the environment and infrastructure that all of us here in the mountains depend on for our economy and quality of life. Right now, Asheville officials control access to the best, most reliable water in WNC, meaning they can deny a hookup to a proposed development outside the city limits that violates regional sustainability plans.
A look at N.C. General Statutes Chapter 162A, which empowers regional water and sewerage districts, reveals how that will change if the Legislature merges Asheville's water system with MSD. Sections 162A-55 and 162A-75, titled "Submission of preliminary plans to planning groups; cooperation with planning agencies," require such entities to consult with local and regional planning officials — but not necessarily to get their approval. And though the current MSD board's policy is to follow local and regional plans, that could change at any time.
Giving a regional board the power to override city and county officials' recommendations, however, is a double-edged sword, depending on who’s appointed to it: A pro-developer board could enable a new development that violates smart-growth plans by granting water/sewer extensions, even if locals opposed it. By the same token, an anti-sprawl board could quash such development even if locals favored it.
Thus, for local, regional and national environmental activists, a new water/sewer superagency with the power to enable or deny development on a large scale will be a far more tempting target than local planning boards are right now. And when environmentalists succeed in persuading a muscular new MSD to block a major development, lobbyists for developers will set their sights even more aggressively on the agency — and it will be war.
Crowded, contentious public hearings will routinely overflow MSD's meeting room. Green activists will accuse board members of rubber-stamping applications from greedy out-of-state developers; tea party activists will claim the board is conspiring with the U.N. to impose Agenda 21. Brutal political machinations will ensue, fueled by costly fundraising campaigns to elect city council members, town aldermen and county commissioners who’ll make the board appointments each side wants. In comparison, the intergovernmental bickering that tore apart our Regional Water Agency a decade ago will look like a backyard pool party.
It's all too predictably inevitable if state legislators disregard Asheville residents’ overwhelming vote against a forced MSD merger. For a developer with a borrowed fortune at risk, however, there’ll be precious little predictability. If he cuts corners and disregards local planning recommendations, he'll be dogged by public outcry at MSD hearings that all regional news media will cover. But getting local approval is still no guarantee that the board won't vote him down.
Personal animus against the city seems to be driving Moffitt and McGrady's determination to wrest control of our water system from us. But hatred blinds the hater, and these two Republicans seem tragically unaware of how their vendetta is destined to undercut their party's developer base, if their fellow legislators in Raleigh go along.
— Former Mountain Xpress environmental reporter Steve Rasmussen can be reached at email@example.com.