Workshop touts low-impact, conservation development
The rolling hills of the Cullowhee River Club unfold beneath a heaven of blue sky as the Tuckasegee River rifles by. The property long belonged to the Battle family, it was known as the Battle farm.
That’s before Ken Newell stumbled into God’s backyard.
“I wasn’t driving around here in this area looking for property,” said Newell.
The Battle family approached the developer. They were ready to sell and had zeroed in on Newell.
“He knew my philosophy about development,” Newell explained. “I’ve done a lot of conservation development.”
The Battle family wanted to sell their slice of heaven, but also wanted the land developed respectfully. Newell understood why when he got a look at the property.
“I just dropped my jaw and couldn’t believe this,” the developer said, motioning around to the future home of the River Club.
Newell ended up purchasing 133 acres of the property, with the Battles holding onto 8 acres. The developer has placed more than 70 acres of the property into a conservation easement.
“We don’t get anything for that, we just want to do a conservation easement because we want to protect it,” Newell explained, standing on the dirt road leading into the development.
Gathered around the developer is a collective of visitors. They are on the field trip portion of a conservation development workshop. The visitors enjoy the sweeping view and listen as Newell points out various features on a large map of the planned development on site.
“You can tell looking at the map it’s a clustered development. We’re leaving the steep areas alone,” Newell said. “You’re here in the very early stages. We poured our first footer yesterday for the first cabin.”
Jackson County Planner Gerald Green had arranged the visit in order to show off the Cullowhee River Club as somewhat of a case study, a tangible example of some of the philosophies covered in the workshop.
“Gerald and I have talked about this,” Newell tells the visitors. “We’re hoping this is a model project, kind of raising the bar in Jackson County.”
The visitors — a mix of local government planners and conservationists — take it in. It’s a working example of the type of development they have been learning about during their North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission workshop.
The houses in the development will be clustered together, allowing for more open space. Slopes have been left alone and old, existing logging roads have been incorporated into the layout to avoid cutting new routes. For the day’s purposes, it serves as a living example of thoughtful development, of development done with the natural environment in mind.
This type of development is not mandated by any state or county regulations. But Green attempts to guide developers down this path, the low-impact path, when they approach Jackson County.
“We give’em that option, and tell them the advantages of it,” the planner explained later.
Diving into the toolbox
The recent Wildlife Resources Commission workshop in Jackson focused on the agency’s Green Growth Toolbox, a technical assistance tool aimed at guiding conservation development.
From around the region, municipal and county planners joined with representatives from a variety of conservation organizations to learn about the toolbox. They came to learn how best to encourage development that embraces the natural surroundings.
“Everybody needs a place to live, a place to work. We’re not anti-development, we’re not trying to stop it,” Kacy Cook, a land conservation biologist with the commission explained to the group. “But there is a way to do it better, in conserving our water quality and wildlife.”
Cook laid out the landscape of the toolbox. She explained that it didn’t involve mandatory measures, but was rather designed to foster voluntary actions. It is a resource that offers the necessary information needed for a development to better accommodate nature.
“Proactive is a good word to use,” Cook said.
The biologist walked attendees through the toolbox. She discussed how it can aid planners and developers by providing conservation data and habitat data, as well as making green-planning recommendations.
What the Commission is hoping for is that planners and developers will plow into available data and invite on-site surveys in an effort to learn about environmentally sensitive areas involved in a particular development. Once they are armed with such information, decisions can be made about how best to accommodate an environmentally friendly development.
“Nothing we provide is regulatory,” Cook said, explaining that resources offered via the Commission’s Green Growth Toolbox are not tethered to mandatory development requirements, but are voluntary. “Communities take it and do what they want with it.”
Workshop attendees appeared enthusiastic about encouraging greener growth in their respective homes.
“These mountains are our home and we need to balance our lives and our natural resources,” said Ronald Story, a member of the Jackson County Planning Board.
Story’s motivations were inline with the overall message of the workshop: to realize both a healthy economy and environment.
“I honestly believe we can help our residents and businesses grow and also maintain our beautiful natural resources through better management practices,” Story said.
Success in such a mission, Cook explained, is rooted in education. The public and government officials, she said, must be made aware of the options for conservation development, as well as the reasons for pursuing a low-impact model.
“Public education is one of the most important things,” Cook said, “because you can’t do anything without the public.”
Give and take
The idea of working with nature in development projects is not exactly new.
“This approach to planning has been around ever since the 1970s,” Cook said. “In terms of wildlife biologists getting involved in planning, that is somewhat recent.”
In Western North Carolina, local governments have waded into these waters already. While not necessarily taking advantage of the offerings in the Commission’s Green Growth Toolbox, efforts have been made to encourage conservation development.
In Macon County, developers were offered the option to build low-impact subdivision, much like the model of development proposed by Green Growth philosophy.
“They call it a Conservation Community, it’s basically the same thing, low-impact development, cluster design,” said Macon County Planner Matt Mason.
In exchange for employing a low-impact design, developers were offered a deal on permit fees. While fees normally cost $10 per lot in a development, the conservation developments would only be charged $1 total for permit applications.
Macon’s low-impact development venture didn’t exactly take off.
“We never really had anyone really biting on it,” said Mason.
Haywood County too has dabbled in conservation development. It partnered with Haywood Waterways and Haywood Community College a while back to work with a couple of developers in identifying low-impact plans for their projects.
“The idea was to look at soil types and slopes,” said Haywood Planner Kris Boyd. “We attempted to show how you could manage and stay away from sensitive areas.”
Since then, there hasn’t been too much low-impact development, or any other type of development, in Haywood.
“Development in this county is kind of slow and has been for some time,” Boyd said. “As things pick back up maybe we will see more.”
Even then, though, it’s sometimes tough to sell a developer on the concept of conservation development.
“Developers, they have a plan in mind that says ‘I want to do this.’ They don’t tend to want to approach a plan from that style, as opposed to cookie-cutter style,” Boyd said.
Potential barriers to conservation development were touched on during the Green Growth workshop. Why would a property owner not choose to develop their property in a low-impact manner?
“What would some naysayers say?” Cook asked workshop attendees.
“‘Don’t tell me what to do with my land,’” offered Green.
Green has experienced such sentiment in Jackson County. He’s hearing it now, during a planning process aimed at regulating growth in Cullowhee.
But then there are the successes. Like Cullowhee River Club, where a development is designed with the natural surroundings in mind, where houses are clustered, slopes are spared and habitat is valued.
But even in such conservation-minded ventures, developers may have some unbendable plans. This is borne out during the workshop’s field trip to Cullowhee River Club.
As the class stood on an observation deck — perched on a hill with rocking chairs overlooking the Tuckasegee — Newell motioned to the riverfront lots down below. The people who purchase those prized lots will not be able to develop within 30 feet of the riverbank.
“Everybody understands that when they buy a lot here, they can’t disturb that,” Newell said.
The developer considers the setback a selling point to the conservation crowd. But there are a few flinches circulating among the workshop attendees.
Thirty feet back is still pretty close. The setback prescribed in the currently proposed Cullowhee development standards is 50 feet.
Cook can’t resist asking Newell if perhaps he should consider locating the riverfront lots on the other side of the road that separates them from the rest of the development. That would allow for much more green space, much more of a buffer for the river.
The developer doesn’t flinch.
“If it doesn’t touch water it’s not there,” Newell said, explaining that there was no give on such a front. “It devalues it. An appraiser will tell you the same thing. People, they want to be on the water.”
Even in a conservation-minded development such as the Cullowhee River Club, the bottom line can remain the bottom line. Even when attempting to work with the natural environment, a developer is ultimately beholden to market forces — and the market likes riverfront lots.
“It’s always going to be a give and take,” Green said later.
Inside the box
The Green Growth Toolbox was developed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and is a non-regulatory tool that provides environmental data and recommendations for conserving environmentally sensitive areas.
The Green Growth Toolbox can be explored at www.ncwildlife.org/greengrowth.