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Project will track growing number of lots

As Western North Carolina wrestles with growth issues, a project is under way to track where and how large mountain tracts are being carved up into smaller lots.


Typically, when an area is developed, a large tract is subdivided into a number of smaller parcels. The lots are recorded in the county property tax records, but there has not been a useful or easy way to cull and analyze the proliferation of lots.

An ongoing project has been launched to track these transactions by Warren Wilson College, UNC-Asheville, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a private data analysis firm.

Amassing data on lots offers a startling big picture. Often a tract of land can be subdivided into dozens of lots that are sold off, but are not immediately developed. Baby-boomers looking toward retirement are buying their lots now with the intention of building a home five or 10 years from now. A mountainside that looks sparsely dotted with homes today could be packed when that inevitable build out occurs by those sitting on their lots.

Building permits and new homes are most often used as a measure of growth, but tracking the creation of those lots is important to grasp the true picture of development.

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“Collecting parcel size information over time and using it as a surrogate for development can help communities look at how and where to accommodate future growth. We’ve seen there can be negative effects if growth isn’t done thoughtfully. This is a tool that can help community leaders approach growth in a thoughtful and deliberate manner,” said Carolyn Fryberger, a UNC-A student who has been working on the project.

In order to establish a baseline for future comparison, Fryberger collected parcel information from property tax offices in North Carolina’s 40 westernmost counties. From there, she took a closer look at how parcel size was changing in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, Transylvania, and Yancey counties.

Mark Cantrell, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is funding the project, points out that this information can then be combined with data on water quality, wildlife habitat, or various environmental conditions, which will help land managers, agencies and local leaders make informed decisions.

“This will allow us to map where the development is happening from year to year. That’s powerful information for a local land trust that is trying to decide what land to protect, a regulatory agency that is investigating a decline in water quality, or even a community that is deciding where to place its bus routes,” Cantrell said.

The information gathered so far will be made available to the public on a Web site.

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