Letter: Sierra Club criticism was baseless, unfair

Graphic by Lori Deaton

I am replying to Bill Branyon’s lengthy opinion article in the Mountain Xpress June 29 [“Sierra Club Chimera: WENOCA Chapter Endorsements Are an Environmental Disgrace”]. Clearly, his passion for the natural beauties of Buncombe County burns brightly. He and the local group of the Sierra Club should be natural allies.

Yet, like a jilted lover, in his opinion piece he heaps venomous scorn, most of it unfair and baseless, on an organization staffed exclusively by conscientious volunteers who selflessly devote their time and energy to doing what they can to preserve and protect the environment of Western North Carolina.

Branyon claims not to be motivated by “sour grapes” after losing badly in his primary bid to join the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and affirms his support for the incumbent Al Whitesides, who he acknowledges “has many good qualities,” especially since his general election opponent will be “a Republican.” Branyon goes on to remind us that “a vote for a Republican is even worse than a vote for most Sierra Club picks,” advising voters to “seek out those independents or Democrats who are not endorsed by the club.”

But Whitesides and other Democrats running in their respective county commission districts this fall have no opponents who are not running as Republicans. Does Branyon suggest that people not vote for any of the Democrats that the Sierra Club endorses this fall?

After slinging mud-dripping slurs like “front for reckless out-of-town developers” and “most destructive environmental parasites,” Branyon blames Sierra Club-backed incumbents for a list of changes in Buncombe County that he sees as avoidable. Here are my comments on his main criticisms:

1. Infill development in Asheville and large-scale (presumably multifamily) developments in Buncombe County. Everyone is aware of the acute undersupply of housing in our area in relation to seemingly boundless demand. Does Branyon believe that we can find more affordable housing by further restricting supply? Moving development and urban sprawl outside of the city and county rather than having infill development will contribute to traffic, congestion and increased carbon pollution. The fight to introduce even minimal zoning to manage development in Buncombe County in 2007 was a tough battle. Buncombe County is currently in the process of developing a badly needed long-range comprehensive land use plan for 2043 to address concerns and goals for projected growth, seeking widespread public input from all sectors and demographics of the county.

2. Twenty-five new hotels approved between 2010 and 2019. Many citizens are concerned about the growth of too many hotels in the greater Asheville area. Given the nature of North Carolina law and its constitution, there are severe legal limitations on what the city and county can do to limit hotel development on private property. The city lost a costly legal battle trying to ban a hotel. Asheville has restricted new hotel developments to a limited number of designated areas but can’t legally ban them.

3. “The incredible amount of environmental destruction involved in the widening of Interstate 26.” Stalled bumper-to-bumper traffic jams are an almost daily recurrence on I-26. Increasing the number of backed-up cars on the interstate will contribute to increased pollution and further contribute to climate change. Does Branyon think voters would support a ban on additional lanes? The Sierra Club joined with other environmental organizations to try to get the I-26 design through Asheville adopted that was the least destructive.

4. “The obliteration of extensive forest and animal habitat on the Pratt & Whitney plant site.” The plant is being built on private land, and the county lacks the legal authority to prevent this private development.

5. Branyon further objects to plans to attract more facilities like Pratt & Whitney. As Buncombe County continues to grow, a balance of additional good jobs from less-polluting industries will remain a necessity. Asheville and Buncombe County have widely recognized needs for higher-paying jobs.

Branyon accused Sierra Club spokesperson Ken Brame of insincerity in his explanation of the endorsement process and implied that the club only endorses candidates that can win. To be effective in representative government, leadership must understand the realities of real-world problems and the limitations of resources available to government. To be effective in achieving environmental goals, candidates need to get elected.

As Brame explained, “The Sierra Club does place a high value on supporting candidates with a proven track record of accomplishments and a voting and leadership record that shows their commitment to protecting our environment.”

Al Whitesides was a key vote when the county narrowly passed the most aggressive 100% renewable energy goal in the Southeast, and he has consistently voted for funding for energy efficiency and adding solar capacity to meet the goal. In addition, he is supporting the efforts to update the county’s land use planning to better deal with the growth we are experiencing.

In our view, Al Whitesides clearly earned the endorsement of the Sierra Club, as did Jasmine Beach-Ferrara for the same reasons. We also are proud of endorsing environmental champions such as Julie Mayfield with many years of fighting to protect our environment.

— John Sterling
Local Sierra Club volunteer



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One thought on “Letter: Sierra Club criticism was baseless, unfair

  1. AntiSprawl WNC

    The author makes some good points. Branyon is a NIMBY masquerading as an environmentalist. For many NIMBYs that is the cognitive dissonance they need in order to defend their entitled position of “don’t build this here”. When you zoom out and understand the macro level environmental impacts of saying “no” to infill development, no rational person who cares for the environment can defend the surburban/ex-urban growth patterns that then emerge. Up not out. WNCs hillsides, farms, etc are under threat because a NIMBYs like Branyon can’t bring themselves to accept any form of density close to the city center. The Sierra Club gets this and simply has endorsed rational, pragmatic candidates that see the big picture.

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