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Wednesday, 26 March 2014 13:18

HCC’s low-impact development degree axed

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fr lowimpactdevFour years ago, Haywood Community College launched the first low-impact development program in North Carolina, a new degree to train students in sustainable development and design.

 

But now that program is no more. The college’s board of trustees voted to cut it during a December meeting, citing low interest. Existing students will finish out their courses, but no one else can enroll.

“Enrollment has been a challenge continuously since the program started,” explained Buddy Tignor, HCC Vice President of Academics. “Additionally, there’s been a low graduation rate.”

At its height, low-impact development enrolled 17 students across the five courses exclusive to the program. And since the program’s kickoff in 2009, only four students have graduated with a degree in low-impact development. 

But that’s not because it was a shoddy or ill-conceived program, college representatives say.

It was more a case of unfortunate timing. When the program was planned, the real estate and development industries were thriving. 

“The market was booming, particularly here in the mountains,” said Blair Bishop, a forest management instructor who was involved with the early planning. 

“In terms of land values and real estate value, that was just through the roof.”

But by the time enrollment had opened for the program’s inaugural year, boomtown had bust. 

“It started the year the economy really took a slide downward,” said Barbara Parker, HCC president. 

 

The rise and fall

The program trains students to plan and design developments in a way that protects natural resources, such as water quality, slope stability, sensitive habitats and plant life. The idea came about after the Natural Resources Department embarked on a careful assessment of which skills the community needed most. 

“The idea was trying to get ahead of the initial planning process for development,” said Bishop.

And back in 2007, when the groundwork for the program was laid, plenty of development was happening. In Haywood County alone, 560 new lots were created that year, and 363 building permits were given. 

So, HCC put its muscle behind a program capable of turning out grads who could steer the boom in a sustainable direction.

The only problem was that creating a new program takes time. They had to develop a curriculum, get it approved by the curriculum committee, the college president, the state. By the time the low-impact development program was up and running, it was 2009, and the economy had screeched to a halt. 

In 2009, the number of new lots platted in Haywood was 60 percent of what it had been two years prior, and the county issued only one-third the number of building permits it had in 2007.

By 2013, the number had fallen from the 2007 total of 560 new lots and 363 building permits to 74 new lots and 80 building permits. 

Another obstacle the program faced, Tignor said, was its novelty. College officials had to spend a lot of time explaining to people what, exactly, low-impact development is before it could even hope to attract a significant number of students. 

That’s a problem HCC faces with many of its more unique programs, Bishop said, but it’s often able to overcome that obstacle by pulling from a much wider student pool than community colleges normally work with. 

In the Natural Resources Department, about 60 percent of students are from somewhere other than Haywood County. While the college doesn’t completely depend on out-of-county students to keep its unique programs afloat, Tignor said, “it certainly does help.”

“We have a great relationship with our local high schools, but we also look across the state,” Bishop said. “And we really have to with some of these unique programs.”

The recession made students less likely to travel for an education — when dollars are tight, students stick close to home, Parker said.

So the program’s uniqueness and the timing of its launch proved a lethal combination.

 

A worthwhile mission

But that’s not to say the principles of low-impact development will no longer exist at HCC. 

“It’s not like it totally has to go away,” Parker said. “We just have to rethink how we offer it and the best way to get it to people.”

Some low-impact development principles are absorbed into other courses, such as the “green” building techniques taught to construction students, from energy efficiency to eco-friendly materials.

And the natural resource classes — one of HCC’s flagships — that were the bulwark of the low-impact development program will continue to exist.  

The college also offers shorter-term classes helpful as continuing education for people already in the construction field. Past offerings have included workshops to teach graders and excavators how to prepare sites while protecting water quality, a weekend course on green building and a series about incorporating solar energy into construction. 

“You might get 60 or 70 for a weekend program, but you only have four grads from a two-year program,” Parker said. 

If the economy were to rebound, the program, or another like it, could return. But that’s a big if. 

“It’s not doing what it was, and likely won’t do in the near future what it was,” Kris Boyd, director of the Haywood County Planning Department, said of the new housing market.  

Building permit numbers are making a slight turn upward from last year, but slight is the key word. 

“I’m not calling it a great recovery, but I’m seeing slight gains,” Boyd said. 

It’s not hard to find someone who’s willing to give a pessimistic outlook to the future of land values and construction in Western North Carolina. But not everyone sees a completely bleak outcome. 

“I don’t think the opportunity’s bad. I really don’t,” said Bruce Rouse, CEO of Waynesville-based Bvr Construction, which employs 14 people. “I think young people coming out of school today could have some awfully good chances of doing well.”

Nevertheless, even the four graduates the low-impact development program managed to eke out have had trouble finding employment. 

“Those four were really stellar individuals, and they struggled to find positions,” Tignor said, recounting the fates of the three he’s kept tabs on. “One of them is currently employed, one of them is still looking for work in that area, and another continued on with us.” 

The issues the program was designed to address have not completely gone away, however. 

“There’s still a lot of interest and concern about steep slopes and building, and we’re still seeing that play out,” Bishop said. 

Those issues — and their implications for jobs — are something the college will keep an eye on going forward.

“We’re continuing to gauge the market,” Parker said. 

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