Who gains and who pays?

Has anybody noticed that Asheville’s getting flatter? This is not a new phenomenon: In the 1920s, E.W. Grove took down a big hill to build the Grove Arcade and used the dirt to fill in a ravine that is now Coxe Avenue. Longtime Montford residents remember another ravine that once lay behind the homes on Panola Street. And the shopping center where The Fresh Market now sits on Merrimon Avenue also used to be a ravine.

Ravines are desirable areas, providing protection against erosion as well as natural habitats for plants and animals. They also add visual diversity to the landscape, balancing neighboring hills and streams in a way that flat, paved parking lots can’t. Unfortunately, several current development proposals entail filling in such areas. And whereas ridge tops and slopes are protected by law, ravines are not.

This is Asheville — a destination point for people seeking scenic beauty. And that beauty is also our natural capital: an asset that brings in tourists who add several million dollars a year to the local economy. It has helped put this city on a variety of top-10 lists, bringing word of our region to more people all the time. Yet our current review process does not protect these valuable resources.

It’s time that we who live here — the stewards of this land — established an environmental-review process that encourages better communication between developers and neighborhoods and do a better job of protecting our environmental assets. Individual projects need to be considered as part of a larger picture of development, and we shouldn’t hesitate to include development fees that would help pay for neighborhood improvements made necessary by the impacts of big projects.

The recently approved ravine-filling Campus Crest project in Montford comes to mind. When it came before the Planning and Zoning Commission, they realized that local law offers no guidance on projects sited within ravines. And although it was determined that the new construction would bring increased traffic to the neighborhood and City Council said that traffic-calming measures would be appropriate, there’s already a lengthy list of neighborhoods in need of traffic calming — and there’s not enough money in the budget to meet those needs. Those same concerns will undoubtedly come up once again in connection with the Grove Park Inn’s proposed mega-projects.

If those neighborhoods had been given a chance to provide input earlier in the planning process, those developments could have been designed to be more in scale with their surroundings. Besides reducing the impacts on the neighborhood, this could have resulted in projects that the community was actually excited about promoting.

Why are we straining our city budget to pay for improvements that are suddenly required to address the effects of large, private developments on natural areas and neighborhood residents? It’s time we had a review process that considers environmental impacts — such as the cumulative effects on the economy, noise, traffic, air quality, water runoff and archaeology — as interrelated parts of any new development. These and other factors are all part of the bigger picture. And how about the cumulative effect of several separate projects in the same area?

All the parties involved — including the developer, the neighborhood and local-government agencies — need to work together to assess and discuss these impacts from the get-go, with an eye toward minimizing their severity and cost. In other municipalities, it’s not unheard of to impose fees on developers to help pay for the agreed-upon improvements to mitigate the impacts. Why not here — especially when the projects in question affect our quality of life?

How long can we continue filling in ravines and clear-cutting slopes before Asheville starts to lose its distinctive landscape? And why is the city paying for the resulting impacts rather than the people who will benefit from the development?

[Sharon Fahrer is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and has worked as an environmental-planning consultant. She is the proprietor of The Montford Arts Center and edits the Montford Newsletter.]

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