Archived Opinion

Watershed decision was right on target

Bryson City leaders avoided the temptation to sell off their watershed land for development, instead opting to follow through with an earlier commitment to conserve the pristine property. It was the right decision and one that will pay a long-term benefit for town residents and all of Swain County.

What’s most interesting about this Bryson City deal is that it provides a tangible example of the kind of challenges facing communities, families and individuals throughout these mountains. Land is at a premium, and the profits from selling to deep-pocketed investors are often astronomical. Conserving large tracts of land is going to get more and more difficult.

Sticking to its guns meant aldermen would abide by a promise made by the town board. Nearly two years ago the town was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to help pay for the nearly 900-acre Lands Creek tract. Another $500,000 was donated by the Fred Stanback Foundation, which often steps in to help with conservation efforts in the mountain region.

The offer to sell the land for development rather than conservation came late in the game. A few months ago residents attended a town board meeting and asked aldermen to consider selling the land. Then in November, Swain County Chamber of Commerce President Brad Walker appeared at a board meeting with a check for $100,000, earnest money from Atlanta developers who were offering $2.5 million for the land.

“Swain County is booming and people are looking for land. As people move in, they eat in restaurants and add to the economy. So it is economic development,” said Walker.

He’s absolutely right. And in a county where 87 percent of the land is tied up in national forests or is part of a national park, there are many who probably agree with Walker’s assessment.

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But the other side of the argument is, perhaps, stronger. Development is not free. More people does translate into more business activity and more tax money, but it also requires more services. Those families will need police, fire and emergency services protection, roads will have to be built and maintained, schools and health departments will have more people to serve.

And conserved land is there for generations. Right now many people use the Lands Creek area, which is surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for hunting and hiking. It will remain available for that use forever.

Finally, clean water is an increasingly valuable resource. Bryson City will retain the opportunity to tap into this supply should it need it to meet future growth. In many ways that’s like money in the bank.

Bryson City leaders have made a decision that will benefit their taxpayers, one that should be applauded. They have also reiterated the point that development is not always the highest and best use for land. That’s a truth we in the mountains need to keep in mind.

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