Change comes slowly to the mountains, whether it’s the thousands of years it took rivers to carve the breathtaking valleys and gorges or the decades it’s taking to change the way people think about their stewardship of the land.
A recent series of events, unrelated on the surface, tells us that change is coming even if it happens at a glacial pace.
In Ashe County last month, commissioners asked planners to revisit the county’s floodplain ordinances and recommend changes. That move came amid a lively and continuing debate over wind farms. The heart of the matter is whether windmills would violate the letter and the spirit of the N.C. Ridge Law, which restricts development along ridgelines.
Just across the line in Alleghany County, commissioners reluctantly gave up their court battle against an asphalt plant they felt violated the county’s polluting-industries ordinance.
Down the road on the Watauga-Wilkes county line, the 6,000-acre Laurelmor development continues to draw attention.
The movement toward some type of land-use plans in Northwest North Carolina, while imperceptible, is gaining momentum.
“You cannot just develop a plan and impose it on a county or its people,” said Richard Blackburn, the chairman of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners. “But if its grassroots and citizens clamor for it, then you have to look at it….
“It’s not an outcry yet, but I believe there has been a slight shift in attitude in that direction.”
The questions for us flatlanders are: Why should we care how mountain folks use their land? Do we have a say in these debates? Should we have one?
If you’ve ever taken an autumn drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway or enjoyed a quick weekend hiking or skiing getaway, you should care.
Rapid population growth and the development that comes with it is putting unprecedented pressure on mountain communities. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the mountain counties of Northwest North Carolina grew by an average of 12 percent in the 1990s. Half of the region’s 10 fastest-growing communities were in southeastern Watauga County – including New River Township, which had a whopping 166.3 percent growth rate.
So far in the oughts (or whatever you want to call this decade), there’s no sign of slowing. New residents continue pouring in from other states; massive second homes are springing up faster than kudzu.
Some mountain counties have dipped a toe in the waters of land-use planning but stop short of calling it zoning. Ashe County, for example, has considered a version of a uniform-development ordinance.
“We don’t want to be Hillbillyland for the tourists just to come up here and do what they want,” said Louis Zeller, the campaign coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “We want people to do as they please with their land and not be told what to do with it. And that’s the way it should be, as long as it doesn’t hurt the neighbors.”
The stereotypical image of fiercely independent mountain people, more than a little suspicious about government motives, isn’t too far from the truth.
Even hinting about zoning regulations used to be enough to kill a politician’s career – but not anymore. Blackburn laughed when he used the term “z-word” instead of saying “zoning” at a recent meeting about regulating wind farms.
“The rapid rate of development that’s taking place causes everyone to take a harder look at the need for some kind of land-use planning,” he said yesterday. “When the citizens start to see the need, then you look at it. You can’t cram it down people’s throats.”
Zeller said that mountain folk have a fine line to walk. The state has a role in enforcing the Ridge Law, and counties have a role in protecting people who live near industrial development.
Where to draw that line is a subject for debate, but at least it’s being discussed openly. “I think we’ve crossed a cultural divide,” Zeller said.
Change has come to the mountains. It was only a matter of time.
By Scott Sexton
13 February 2007
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