To say that Asheville and the surrounding area is home to a large number of “green”-minded residents would be an understatement. There are plenty of environmentally friendly businesses, and many people either take individual action or donate to environmental organizations. But one local group could do a lot more to protect our environment. I’m talking about the Asheville City Council.
I know that a majority of Council members — maybe even all of them — want to do whatever they can to help forge a sustainable balance between human development and Mother Earth in these beautiful, God-kissed mountains. And today I want to focus specifically on preserving animal habitat.
I would argue that urban sprawl, with its attendant deforestation, manipulation of water supplies and loss of open tracts for migration, is the No. 1 threat to animal habitat in our region. And it seems that the more regulations we put in place to try to prevent these things from happening, the less woodland we have left around Asheville. All the good intentions in the world haven’t seemed to stop the spread of paved-over fields and gutted hillsides.
So maybe it’s time for a new approach. What if City Council saw its job as enticing people to come inward, rather than trying to slow the pace of those moving outward and upward?
The first step would require City Council members to accept that humans must have places to live, work and play. These seem like simple enough things, but there are some in Asheville who have an unrealistic idea that all development must be stopped. That’s not going to happen. So instead, let’s flip things around and say we’ll make the city of Asheville a haven for development.
Start by reducing the regulatory burden on builders. Follow that with drastic reductions in property taxes and water rates within the city. Make it so that builders see Asheville as a much better alternative than building in unincorporated rural areas. Lastly, drop all charges for parking downtown — garages and meters.
This would require a major paradigm shift. I have no illusions about how difficult that would be for some. But if Council member Brownie Newman is right that reducing the monthly cost of riding city buses will boost ridership and thus generate more revenue in the long run, wouldn’t the same hold true for development, job creation and property ownership? Reduce the cost to participate and you attract more people.
The endgame purpose of all this would be to reduce the pressure on investors to develop pristine areas. The main reason they do it now is that they can make more money, plain and simple. Building in the county is cheaper — lower permit fees, fewer building regulations, less government-created cost to transfer ownership — and land in unincorporated areas carries a drastically lower tax burden. So the city needs to get more competitive.
In the short term, making, these kinds of changes would cost the city money, but how many times have we heard Council members say, “You have to invest now for a greater return later”? As for fears about additional traffic problems, wouldn’t they provide an even greater incentive to use mass transit? Increasing bus ridership is City Council’s collective goal, right?
How could Asheville make up the difference in cash flow? Lobby the N.C. General Assembly to loosen its stranglehold on local governments by allowing them to create alternative revenue streams. Right now, municipalities are pretty much restricted to taxing your property in order to raise the money they need. I think a consumption-based tax would be fairer. A current Buncombe County commissioner told me several years ago that a 1 cent increase in the local sales tax would enable property taxes to be cut by up to 20 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Using competitive means to inspire developers to build within Asheville’s city limits would do a lot more to protect animal habitat from sprawl than regulating, taxing and annexing people into compliance ever could.
My grandfather always said, “You catch more bees with honey.”
[Matt Mittan hosts Take A Stand! on WWNC-AM, Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. The show’s Web site is www.MattCave.us.]