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Who goes first? Haywood candidates debate county’s role in future growth discussions

Grasping the extent of development sweeping across the Haywood County landscape is not always easy. So Marc Pruett, the county’s erosion control officer, came up with a little anecdote to put things in perspective. He tallied up all the private roads currently permitted for construction across the county — 73 miles worth in all.

“That would be like putting on your walking shoes and walking to Clyde, on to Canton, all the way to Asheville, up to Mars Hill and on over Sams Gap and down to Erwin, Tennessee,” Pruett said.

That’s a lot of miles of new roads that will soon be snaking across Haywood County’s mountainsides. Most of them will weave through subdivisions, where lots are being snatched up by the hour by baby boomers counting down the days until retirement.

Pruett shared his anecdote during a recent workshop on a proposed slope development ordinance.

“Maybe I would pose the question to you, what do want Haywood County to look like in 50 years when it is time for all the grading contractors to move west?” Pruett posed to the Haywood County commissioners.

It’s a question many residents in the county are asking these days. The answer has divided the five Democratic candidates squaring off for three seats in the primary into one of two categories: those who think the county has a role in jumpstarting community-based discussions about growth and those who think the ball is in the public’s court to launch those discussions.

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It’s time to talk

Two candidates — Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger, who is running for re-election, and Bill Upton, the superintendent of Haywood County schools — believe the county has a responsibility to facilitate discussions about growth in communities throughout the county. Swanger and Upton both supported what Swanger calls “community self-determination.”

“Lots of counties in Western North Carolina have tried land-use management from the top down. All it does is create a huge controversy and nothing gets accomplished,” Swanger said. “I think you need to recognize the uniqueness of each community and let them craft some good policies that are specific to their community — not a one-size fits all.”

Swanger said there is a difference between facilitating community discussion on land-use planning and leading those discussions.

“You can encourage dialogue, but it must be grassroots,” Swanger said. “I think the county and the communities need to form a positive partnership, with the county providing any technical expertise, answering questions and conducting research to allow the communities to make the best decisions about the issues facing them.”

Upton had similar ideas.

“I think we need a grassroots movement from each community and have discussion within each community on what their community should look like in 20 years,” Upton said. “We have to involve the stakeholders in whatever land-use planning we come up with.”

As superintendent, Upton has experience as a facilitator. He held round-table discussions each month with teachers from each school, principals from each school, janitors from each school and bus drivers from each school to hear what was on their mind.

Upton said the county should play a similar role with communities on growth issues.

“The more people you can listen to, the better the decisions are going to be,” Upton said. “I’m looking at a 20- or 25-year plan for how our county is going to look, and if we don’t start now we are getting farther and farther behind.”

As a precursor to jumpstarting community-driven discussions on growth, Swanger asked county staff last fall to compile a master document of all the regulations currently in place that apply to developers, whether it’s county, state or federal.

“I want this to go to every community club,” Swanger said of the master document. “It is something we can look and say ‘What else if anything do we need?’ I think it is the county’s job and the planning board’s job to facilitate these discussions and then stand back and act as a resource.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, a real estate attorney who is running for re-election, also believes the county has a role in addressing growth, but said the county should focus on the commercial development gravitating along the main highways and roads in the county.

“The most important thing is to control the corridors of commercial use,” Kirkpatrick said. “The residential areas are almost taken care of through the price of property.”

Kirkpatrick said the days of neighbors worrying about a pig farm, asphalt plant or junkyard moving in next door are probably over. Today’s prices would preclude anyone from buying property for such a purpose. When it comes to the proliferation of residential development, Kirkpatrick said “there’s only so much you can do.”

“You can only take a role in that so much,” Kirkpatrick said.

He said the county can’t make farmers keep farming or stop them from selling their land.

“It is a difficult thing and it is always going to be,” Kirkpatrick said.

Swanger has proposed the idea of creating a non-profit arm to work with landowners who are willing to preserve open space and farmland voluntarily. The non-profit would be an extension of the community-based planning approach by having representatives from each community in the county. The non-profit could hold conservation easements or accept donations of land from owners who want to see their tracts preserved.

The idea is moving forward and received unanimous support from the rest of the commissioners, but some critics think a county-backed non-profit would compete with other non-profit land conservancies that are already on the ground working toward the same aim.


You go first

Meanwhile, Bill Noland, a county commissioner who lost re-election two years ago, and Skeeter Curtis, who works for the state insurance department, are unconvinced the county should play a role in jumpstarting discussions on growth and development. They like the idea of letting communities work on their own land use plans if they want to, but don’t think the county should initiate the discussion.

“Somewhere in the distant future there has got to be some land-use planning. You should start in a community that wants to address or look at land-use ordinances,” Curtis said. “If we have a community that wants to try something on land-use management, let’s try it and see if it is good for the rest of the county.”

Curtis said it is not the county’s role to schedule meetings in various communities to generate such discussion, however. Instead the ball is in their court to come to the commissioners if they want to.

“It should come from the people. The community needs to come forward,” Curtis said. “I would listen to what they have to say and see if it is good for the community and people of Haywood County.”

Noland was of the same mind-set.

“I would love to see our community development clubs come up with some initiative,” Noland said. “I don’t know if we can legislate that from the commissioners stand point. You will need a lot of community and property owner input.”

Noland does not think the county should schedule meetings or roundtable discussions at the community centers to solicit that input, however.

“We tried that on several on occasions and it didn’t work,” Noland said, referring to an effort about eight years ago. “There was totally resistance to it. If they are interested in some help, I think it has to initiate with them.”

Noland said the county could put the word out that if anyone wants to talk about it, the commissioners are willing to participate.

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