Commentary: Highest and best use? Or absolutely the worst use?

Editor’s note: The issues of density, zoning, Smart Growth and quality of life in the city of Asheville continue to generate interest and concern among Mountain Xpress readers. Recent letters to the editor on the topics have generated multiple comments and new letters, along with a lively thread on the Facebook group Asheville Politics, which had garnered more than 74 comments on Smart Growth and related issues. Here is the latest submission from a West Asheville reader.

Elected officials wax poetic with their passion about density, infill development and property-tax revenues for Buncombe County and Asheville city versus community and citizen visions of undeveloped green places and parks. They make the case for increased housing for those coming to live here but seem to place little emphasis on quality of life for those of us already living here who currently pay taxes and for those coming who might pay taxes.

Pushing maximum density but not providing infrastructure support or preserving green space for that maximum density is potentially killing the golden goose, so to speak, destroying the communities we value now. Two recent letters to the editor by Stephen Schulte [Will Asheville make Oregon’s density mistakes?] and Joseph Nolan [Time to act, while there’s something left to save] in the Feb. 11 issue of Mountain Xpress address these same serious concerns eloquently about issues soon before City Council.

The Beaucatcher Heights rezoning issue (away from R2) was scheduled to come before City Council on Feb. 24, the same day as the conditional rezoning for Craggy Park development issue for 45 dense, infill housing units in West Asheville (eight houses per acre zoning), about which I write. Currently, the Craggy and Louisiana Avenue properties are relatively undeveloped and are next to the wooded Falconhurst Natural Area and the city-owned Army Reserve property.

I applaud elected officials for their commitment and service to our community. However, I deplore the reality that we have no plans or money for increasing our parks and preserving green space as we more quickly increase our citizens and land utilization, depleting our undeveloped spaces. What has happened to reworking and improving already developed land that lies fallow and ignored? What happens when we run out of undeveloped land? Simply focusing on providing housing at the expense of infrastructure and quality of life is shortsighted and may lead to disastrous results in the long run.

The three-year effort to conserve the 8-acre Falconhurst Natural Area in West Asheville in the mid-1990s was a needed conversation about community, quality of life and our commitment to land, pitting moneyed economic interests against the ordinary people. The 1920s vision for parks in the 2010 plan included a greenway for Smith Mill Creek, linking it to the French Broad River and other waterways. However, the greenway was not realized and hasn’t been to this day.

The Buncombe County commissioners originally wanted to sell their 8-acre landlocked wooded parcel off Patton and Louisiana avenues to allow for commercial development. The Falconhurst Natural Area was not seen as having value undeveloped in the mid-1990s. The broader Asheville community and the commissioners eventually agreed that the community and the future were better served by preserving this parcel in its natural state. In a turn of fate, the city of Asheville now holds ownership with a strong conservation easement held by the conservation group that helped save it. The Falconhurst natural area serves to stimulate the community again, as there is renewed interest in having a Smith Mill Creek Greenway along Patton Avenue, the crown jewel of which could be the Natural Area and that wooded land along Craggy and Louisiana Avenue slated for development. But are there no means to realize the dream, truly? What is needed is courage, vision and some commitment to the community.

Moneyed developers want to do intensive high-end infill housing on 8 acres of modestly developed but primarily wooded land with a lovely stream adjacent to the Falconhurst Natural Area. This land would be a much-needed extension of the green space near Smith Mill Creek and would be an amazing park for the future. Are we not losing yet more relatively undeveloped land to intense development that would be better served by keeping it as green space and adding it to the city-owned Falconhurst Natural Area for the desired greenway?

We can’t claw this land back once it is developed forever. Landowners have no incentive to grant conservation easements, much less give ownership, when money and profit bark so loudly. Are good works and deeds dead? What is right for the land, the ecology and the future? Is it best for the land to be intensively developed or for the land to be preserved for the future generations?

Officials decry our lack of adequate park spaces and facilities but seem helpless and have no will to try to change it. We need to preserve this land for the future. Dreams can turn into reality with some ingenuity and the time to pursue alternative options. What do you say?

Catherine Morris lives in West Asheville.

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2 thoughts on “Commentary: Highest and best use? Or absolutely the worst use?

  1. Grant Millin

    Hi Catherine,

    I am a GroWNC consortium member and am running for Asheville city council. In GroWNC in became clear there’s only so many spots to develop around here. It became clear to me as well that any available spots that can be made public, used for food production, and/or placed into conservation needs to happen sooner rather than later.

    I am looking for board members to revive GroWNC as an ongoing free-thinking, dynamic, yet strategic nonprofit. By all means let’s collaborate.

    https://www.facebook.com/sustainavlwnc

  2. Great intentions, but seriously flawed arguments:
    To this commentator; I admire your desire to preserve land and I whole heatedly agree that preserving public spaces is so important to retaining the quality of life that we enjoy in our great city. I also thank you for the efforts that created the Falcolnhurst natural area in the mid 90’s.
    Your arguments in this commentary are unfortunately flawed concerning this specific property. While you describe the property as “undeveloped” this is not really true. As much as 50% of this property has at one point been graded. A significant portion of the property is covered with existing structures, driveways, derelict structures and trash. Much of the more pristine parts of this property are actually being retained as open space by the developer.
    You say that this property can’t be “clawed back after it is developed.” Are you suggesting that it be clawed away from the current owners now? I agree that it would have been great for the city to have acquired this property and turned the entire 8 acres into public land. This property actually sat for over a year on the market being publicly offered for sale; a year in which a public effort to acquire the property could have been mounted and achieved. But it wasn’t. Now the property is privately owned by a developer. Thankfully this developer has partnered closely with trusted local neighborhood leaders and developed a plan that actually incorporates open space and public access into their plan… This sounds a lot better than some other possible options that I can think of. Would it have been better if an individual had purchased this property and erected barbed wire fences around it with no trespassing signs? Or would it have been better for a developer like Windsor Aughtry to come in and grade the entire site for another exclusive suburban development? I can promise you that with the popularity of West Asheville, groups like that are watching and looking for opportunity.
    I’m sorry that the previous owner couldn’t have been convinced to do a good deed and give her property away, but I can guess that, like many people, giving away her largest asset may not have been a reality for her. I would argue that the current plan for this property includes many good deeds and is based on a triple bottom line approach to development which considers the needs of people and the community, the environment, as well as economics.
    By all means, I implore you to push the city to reconsider it’s priorities in acquiring property for public use. You are right in understanding the value of publicly held property to our quality of life. I just think your argument is misplaced with regards to the craggy park property and its proposed well considered development.

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