Letter: The empire strikes back

Graphic by Lori Deaton

The many Xpress letters and posts disputing my op-ed analysis of the Sierra Club’s political endorsements [“Sierra Club Chimera: WENOCA Chapter Endorsements Are an Environmental Disgrace,” June 29, Xpress] are so breezily fatalistic that the writers seem to be in a state of prodigious denial.

For instance, online commenter Peter Robbins posted: “Unlike Bill, the Sierra Club does not consider infill construction, when properly done, to be an ‘atrocity.’ It is generally regarded as a sound step towards environmental and economic sustainability.” Stop! Right there! Before the obfuscating justification appears. Let us deeply consider that the environmentally motivated Sierra Club can zealously state that infill development — a process that will involve gouging out hundreds or even thousands of big trees, stuffing crowded buildings onto scores of remaining green spaces, cramming people into concrete, shadeless densities, etc., and etc.! — that all of that is environmentally sustainable? Truly amazing.

Asheville City Council institutionalized this atrocity with its recently passed open space amendment. It accelerates development that will eliminate much of what’s left of Asheville’s green space. Only mayoral candidate and City Council member Kim Roney voted against it. If you care about our sacred ecology, that means that in November, you should vote against those Council members who voted for it.

Of course, the Sierra Club’s justification is the contention that infill prevents more development in rural Buncombe County. But it has not! Dear Sierra Club members, please just drive around the county and look almost anywhere. You’ll see brave glades, gallant meadows and even gorgeous forests clear-cut and paved for giant, cookie-cutter housing projects. You’ll find strip malls and big-box stores sprouting like monstrous mushrooms of asphalt and concrete, and you’ll be smacked by the massive destruction involved in the Interstate 26 widening.

You’ll even see extensive French Broad riverfront woodlands being obliterated to make what may be many more plants that manufacture parts of weapons for that quintessential ecology destroyer: war. And the vanguard of those factories, the new Pratt & Whitney plant, makes products that may be used for the ultimate planetary ecological destruction: nuclear war.

To contend this is not happening involves a breathtaking amount of repression. “We must have ever more destruction of the environment to save it,” chants the Kool-Aid quaffing Sierra Club. “Listen to yourselves, please!” insist the thousands resisting the brutal armies of the Development Empire.

The infill doublespeak also divulges the class aspect of the Sierra Club’s approach, for only in middle- and lower-income neighborhoods does infill occur. Nobody’s urging infill for the large, graceful rose garden in the Griffing Boulevard neighborhood of North Asheville. Nor is anyone suggesting filling up and then infilling the gloriously uneconomic Beaver Lake or the extravagantly pastoral Grove Park and Asheville Country Club golf courses or the sumptuous verdancy of Town-Sunset-and-Reynolds mountains. With eminent domain, we could infill them all, but we won’t because it’s politically untenable and their zoning is too restrictive. However, zoning can work in any neighborhood that has enough political clout. Zone! And save what’s left of our holy, natural world.

Some letters accused me of being bitter about losing to Al Whitesides, but my supporters and I were mostly pleased with the 3,366 votes we did get, given the powerful momentums we were trying to overcome. Nevertheless, some experts believe that a Sierra Club endorsement is worth 3,000 votes. If that’s true and we’d gotten the endorsement, we would have won.

Whether 3,000 or a thousand less or more, the Sierra Club’s endorsement is worth a lot of votes. They are definitely the most powerful Buncombe County political machine. So, contact your Sierra Club friends and try to liberate their severely repressed, environmental souls. With all their ecological energy finally, logically expressed, there’s no telling how much development we can control.

— Bill Branyon


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8 thoughts on “Letter: The empire strikes back

  1. Peter Robbins

    Wow. Am I ever becoming famous. Shout-outs in the Mountain Xpress opinion pages two weeks in a row. I may have to hire a publicist to keep up with all my clippings. As a now-certified “online commentator,” I suppose I have an obligation to respond to Bill Branyon in a ponderous way appropriate to my new office. So here goes:

    First, it’s obvious that Branyon and the Sierra Club are miles apart on the critical question of whether urban infill – the practice of building new housing in existing city neighborhoods rather than in the sprawling suburbs – is good environmental policy. Branyon still thinks “relentless infill construction” is one of the worst “atrocities” in local history. The Sierra Club, like the rest of the mainstream environmental movement, thinks infill is a “key strategy” for discouraging urban sprawl, combating climate change and promoting economic justice.

    Everybody is entitled to an eccentric opinion or two, and I don’t begrudge Branyon his moment. But, as I said in my earlier online comment (which apparently set him off on his present tirade), Branyon can hardly claim to have been shocked, shocked to learn that Sierra Club did not find him to be its dream candidate when it came time for the local chapter to make endorsements for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners race. You don’t need to be George F. Will to call that one.

    My earlier comment included a link from which readers can download a 117-page explication of the Sierra Club’s position on smart growth and urban infill. https://www.sierraclub.org/smart-growth-urban-infill. And yes, Bill, the Sierra Club thinks infill development, when properly done, is a sustainable policy. People can judge for themselves whether the group knows what it’s talking about, but it looks to me like they did some homework. In fact, climate scientists consider urban infill to be one of the most important tools local governments can employ to reduce carbon footprints. https://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/scenarios.

    With respect to other assertions in Branyon’s letter, I’m not aware of anyone who has ever claimed that infill “prevents” urban sprawl with the swiftness of a divine sword dispatching unholy demons to Perdition. Infill discourages sprawl – by steering development to close-in urban locations where infrastructure already exists and where alternatives to automobile commuting are practicable. If you see lots of sprawl now, it’s in part because not enough infill construction was feasible under Asheville’s old (but recently improved) open-space requirements. (Of course, those are the same open-space revisions that Branyon, with his prodigious vocabulary, now labels – wait for it – an “atrocity.”)

    Branyon also raises some peevish objections to the looks of “cookie cutter” housing, by which he apparently means duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, microhousing, garden apartments and the like. The short answer is that some people like cookies. Particularly when they can’t afford cake. Some people even get used to cookie shapes they initially didn’t like when they see how much joy the cookies bring to their new neighbors.

    Finally, Branyon bemoans the absence of infill construction in wealthier areas of Asheville. Okay, I’ll buy that. But wouldn’t such a disparity imply that infill hasn’t been pursued relentlessly enough? I hope that’s the logical upshot of all this sound and fury because we could use Branyon’s passion, if not his belligerence, as Asheville moves on to regulatory issues more contentious than the open-space revisions. Join us, Bill. There’s a long road ahead.

  2. NFB

    “Nevertheless, some experts believe that a Sierra Club endorsement is worth 3,000 votes.”

    Which “experts” are these and why are they going unnamed?

    • Peter Robbins

      If the Sierra Club hadn’t turned voters into zombies, Bill Branyon would have won in a landslide. Stop the steal! Stop the steal!

  3. Keith Thomson

    Bill, keep clipping your coupons that allow you to afford your hobby of deliberately deconstructing the coalition of voters and citizens that took years and years to build to motivate getting worthy investments in energy, education and the environment on the agenda. Your enormous ego is not eco-friendly.

      • Keith Thomson

        What do trust fundamentalists do to cash their dividends in this century? I have to work for a living so I don’t know.

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    Yep, lots of large parcels of park like land in N. Avl that could house lots of people in a nice area …

  5. Prop Joe

    The bubble you live in is much larger than the development you oppose. Let’s pretend people don’t need housing and war isn’t real.

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