Don’t let Asheville trash Richmond Hill Park

I consider myself very fortunate to have spent nearly five years in Asheville (October 1999 to August 2004), and my wife and I hope to return to this beautiful and vibrant city after I complete my graduate studies in ecology at UNC-Chapel Hill. But unless city residents band together to save it, one of my favorite places in Asheville will most likely be gone by the time we return.

Richmond Hill Park, which occupies a roughly 180-acre tract of forest near the Richmond Hill Inn, is home to an 18-hole disc-golf course and many miles of hiking and mountain-bike trails winding through hidden valleys and rolling hills. Bordered by quiet neighborhoods and the French Broad River, the city-owned property also contains a number of streams and small wetlandlike areas.

The relatively mature forests include some very old trees (such as 200- to 300-year-old white oaks). White and red oaks, hickories, tulip poplars, red maples, white and loblolly pines, eastern and Carolina hemlocks, black cherries, box elders, dogwoods, rhododendron, mountain laurel, blueberries, ferns and scores of species of wildflowers (including some less common ones, such as pink lady’s slipper, a type of wild orchid) are all plentiful at the park. Many species of animals also live there, including red foxes, woodpeckers (I’ve seen the pileated, red-bellied and downy varieties), wild turkeys, numerous songbird species, rabbits, raccoons and multiple species of turtles, salamanders and snakes.

Perhaps the largest publicly owned green space within the city limits, it’s probably the only one that’s capable of sustaining such area-sensitive species such as the pileated woodpecker and red fox. And because it connects with other forested areas along the banks of the French Broad, it’s a publicly accessible portion of a much larger habitat. Here, city residents can wander and explore the natural beauty of our region, teaching their children about ecology and wildlife while reaping the economic, social, spiritual and recreational benefits of protecting wild places and intact ecosystems. The miles of trails are the best place in town to mountain-bike and walk/jog with your dog, as well as go bird watching or take wildflower walks. The disc-golf course, considered among the best in North Carolina, is one of the most beautiful and challenging I’ve ever played.

But some of the park’s most exceptional areas may soon be destroyed. The city has agreed to let the National Guard build a new armory there; as part of the deal, the Guard has pledged to cover the infrastructure costs and rough grading for a future recreational complex. Together, these projects will consume a significant portion of the current park property.

Clear-cutting followed by extensive grading and leveling will kill many plants and animals, and the water quality in the streams will be severely degraded. People in adjacent neighborhoods will have to deal with heavy increases in traffic. And Asheville residents — who collectively own the park — will have that much less wild green space where they can spend their leisure time and enjoy nature.

I don’t oppose building a National Guard armory or athletic facilities for city residents. But the site in question is totally inappropriate, and other locations should at least be considered and evaluated, with a significant public-comment period and environmental-impact statements detailing the effects of the construction. It seems painfully obvious that building on other sites would be less environmentally destructive.

Perhaps one of the many abandoned industrial properties in the French Broad River floodplain could be pressed into service. It’s one thing to clean up a neglected site and put it to a better use. But to heedlessly destroy the wonderfully hilly, wooded terrain at Richmond Hill to build flat athletic fields is to ignore — and waste — the property’s intrinsic value. Don’t let city government take away something precious that’s already in short supply here by telling us this is the best or only choice. It is not. And if Asheville residents stand up in large enough numbers, we can stop this irresponsible and terrible destruction.

Construction hasn’t started yet — so visit the site and see for yourself what I’m talking about. Wander the trails with your children, your friends or alone, and observe the wildlife around you. Take your dog for a pleasant stroll or jog. Ride your bike on the challenging, hilly trails. Play a round of disc golf and discover a new way to enjoy time outside with friends and family. Tell your friends about it, so they can share this treasure. And then let the new mayor and City Council know you want this beautiful and valuable part of Asheville preserved.

[Former Asheville resident Neville Handel is doing graduate work in ecology at UNC-Chapel Hill.]

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