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Word from the Smokies: What we can learn from wild turkeys

If you plan to travel around Western North Carolina or East Tennessee to visit friends or family and eat turkey for the coming Thanksgiving holiday, there is a good chance you’ll spot a few wild turkeys along the way.

Purging the pigs: Pilot program aims 
to knock back feral swine populations

When Europeans first began exploring North America, they knew precious little about the land toward which they traveled — or what they’d find to eat once they arrived.

When the levee breaks: A perfect storm steers WNC toward a judicial crisis

Some catastrophes happen in the blink of an eye, while others develop so slowly they’re imperceptible, like a crack in a levee propagating below the waterline.

Here it comes; we better be ready

“Both the median sales price ($325,000) and the average sales price ($379,003) rose 26.5 percent and 20.3 percent year-over-year respectively [in Haywood County], while the average list price rose 21.4 percent compared to last year, to $429,042.”

With a little help from hunters, wildlife officials hope to curb the exploding bear population in the mountains

out frNorth Carolina has a bear problem, and wildlife officials hope hunters can help.

The population of black bears has been on the rise for decades — it’s more than doubled in the past 20 years alone — and needs to be reined in, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The obvious solution is getting hunters to hunt more of them. The trick, however, is getting the formula right.

SEE ALSO: The bait battle: paw-lickin’ good

The case of Haywood’s missing students: a cause-and-effect story

coverHaywood County Schools have been losing students slowly but steadily over the past decade. Despite high academic performance, the school system has 500 fewer students.

Where did they go? Why? Will the decline continue?

Case #1: The homeschool factor
Case #2: Recession drives working families to leave Haywood
Case #3: Private schools only a minor league player
Case #4: New charter school makes a trial run in Haywood
Haywood Schools grapple with enrollment wildcard

Macon as a case study of the exurban population shift

Exurbanites are invading Macon County, and the rest of Appalachia for that matter. Don’t be alarmed, they’re generally docile, but the ramifications of their settlement could mark, and to an extent already have marked, a permanent change in the region’s social, natural and ecology landscape.

The exurbanites — a name coined by former Playboy editor A.C. Spectorsky and used as a title for his book — are a group of people who choose not to settle in the city but rather in the country.

The 500-pound gorilla

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when he came into the room. It was cool, so I had the small electric heater on and I had some coffee and a snack. I was doing some Internet research, so I had a few web pages open on my browser and I was trying to concentrate, but this thing was big. Big, dirty, smelly and obviously hungry as it lumbered over, slurped my coffee and gulped down three-fourths of my snack. Next, it turned the heater to where I was barely getting any heat at all and somehow plugged into my computer slowing everything down to a crawl.

“Okay, that’s it!” I shouted. “Who are you and what are you doing?”

It turned its big vacant eyes on me and half sneered, half grinned through crooked yellowing teeth and stated matter-of-factly, “I’m POPULATION GROWTH – get used to it.”

A big shout out to Wild South for recently posting this New York Times story (“Breaking a Long Silence on Population Control” by Mireya Navarro) on their website and Facebook page. The article appeared on Oct. 31, a day before baby number 7 billion was predicted to grace the planet.

The article highlights efforts by Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity to try and raise awareness regarding the connections between an increasing world population and an increase in carbon emissions and other environmental degradations such as extinction and loss of habitat. It’s a connection easy enough to see on nearly any level – more human beings on a planet with finite resources equals more resources consumed at a faster rate, which can lead to any number of outcomes like more competition; more conflict; a smaller share of the pie for everyone; less biological diversity; greater disparity between the haves and have-nots; more widespread hunger and/or famine or a combination of any/all of the above. But it’s a connection that requires strong will to broach.

Navarro states, “Major American environmental groups have dodged the subject of population control for decades, wary of getting caught up in the bruising politics of reproductive health.” I would amend that slightly to say the bruising politics and economics of reproductive health, because, face it, what most environmental organizations fear about broaching the over-population issue is losing supporters and donations. While even dyed-in-the-wool conservatives may be enticed to open their checkbook, with pictures of baby seals being clubbed; pictures like the one of author, Monica Drake passing out condoms at a Center for Biological Diversity rally that accompanied Navarro’s New York Times piece would slam those checkbooks shut faster than fruit fly cell division.

Navarro pointed out in her article how difficult it is to get mainstream environmental organizations to talk about population growth. She stated, “Groups contacted for this article generally declined to discuss the issue or did not return calls.” Navarro noted that the president of National Audubon “… declined an interview without explanation.” Other groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Green Group and more either danced around the issue or didn’t reply at all.

It’s an interesting article and can be found in its entirety at www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/science/earth/bringing-up-the-issue-of-population-growth.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all. There is also a related link – “Room For Debate: Can the Planet Support 10 Billion People?” where you can read some different perspectives regarding population growth from noted researchers – all are informative. You can access that link independently at www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/ 05/04/can-the-planet-support-10-billion-people/how-10-billion-can-survive.

I applaud the Center for Biological Diversity for having the political will to address the 500-pound gorilla.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Reading between the census lines

Although population in Western North Carolina increased only by a modest amount over the past decade, home construction grew at a much higher rate, according to 2010 census data released last week.

The census counts year-round residents. But much of the growth in WNC has come from second homes — and as a result isn’t reflected when looking at population numbers alone.  

Hard data on the number of second homes and the region’s summertime population can be difficult to ferret out. But the latest census shows the growth in housing units has outpaced population growth, confirming the second home dynamic that people who live here year-round witness.

ALSO: See the graphs

“You can definitely feel when summer season is coming back,” said David Francis, a Haywood County resident and the head of the county tax department. “You can just tell from the traffic on a Friday afternoon. Where I really see it is at Ingle’s.”

While long lines and empty shelves at the grocery store are a sure sign that the seasonal population has returned, the summer influx of residents is witnessed in every facet of society, from more trash at the landfill to more people at the emergency room.

Seasonal residents translate into a 15 to 20 percent increase in trash at the Haywood County landfill, Francis said.

The emergency room at MedWest Harris in Sylva sees a seasonal spike in patient volume of 10 to 15 percent during the summer and fall compared to winter, according to numbers provided by Lucretia Stargill, a MedWest spokesperson. Ambulance calls likewise increase in the summer, according to Jim Pressley, the EMS director for Haywood County.

In Maggie Valley, a town full of vacation homes, users at the town library go way up in summer, according to Town Manager Tim Barth. So does the need for police officers. It means the department is slightly overstaffed in the off-season.

“Right now there may not be a lot of people in the Valley. But you can’t just hire police officers for two or three months. That doesn’t work very well,” Barth said.

Running a community with such seasonal population swings isn’t easy. It must have adequate infrastructure to serve the larger population. In Maggie Valley, the sewer treatment plant has a much larger capacity than its year-round population of 1,100 would typically dictate.

“We have to assume that everybody will be in Maggie Valley all at one time, and that is what we have to plan for,” Barth said.

While thousands of seasonal Maggie residents make a wintertime exodus back to Florida, they continue paying a sewer bill of $15 a month while they’re gone, even if their water is completely shut off, Barth said. The minimum monthly bill allows the sewer treatment plant to be keep operating during those months and be in working order when the masses return.

The building surge of the past decade forced counties to grapple with all kinds of infrastructure issues. Ken Brown, Chairman of the Tuckasegee Community Alliance in Jackson County, pointed to the dispute between the Glenville Fire Department and second-home owners on an island in the middle of the lake. The second-home owners wanted the volunteer fire department to provide fire service, even if it meant taking a fire truck across the lake on a barge.

“I thought it was offensive actually they could buy an island then demand the county provide them fire service,” Brown said.

Second-home growth also takes its toll on natural resources, from construction-site erosion muddying the streams to view-obscuring smog from vehicles.

Public lands, which are home to the last remaining Appalachian ecosystems, are also feeling the squeeze. As development spreads across the landscape, it’s pushing up against the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests and encroaching on wildlife habitat. The National Forest Service ranked the Pisgah and Nantahala among the top five forests threatened by periphery development in a 2009 report called “National Forests on the Edge.”

Meanwhile, more people are recreating in the national forests, testing the carrying capacity of the public lands that make WNC such a desirable place to live, according to Brent Martin, the Southern Appalachian director of The Wilderness Society in Sylva.


How many second homes?

Mark Clasby has spent much of the past decade trying to quantify the second-home market in Haywood County.

“It is a very important part of our economy,” said Clasby, the county economic development director.

The potential buying power of Haywood County’s population can make or break whether a new business comes here. Clasby has been trying to pedal a mega commercial site once slated for a Home Depot that was cancelled after the recession took hold. Finding a retailer of that magnitude to fill the void has been tough.

“What they tend to look at when they pick a location is they want to know what the population is,” Clasby said. “We try to make an argument that we have more people here than what census numbers show. What I have to use is unscientific.”

One figure Clasby points to is the number of property tax bills mailed out of the county. In Haywood County, one-third of tax bills are mailed out of the county, indicating the property owner has a primary residence somewhere else. In Macon County — an even bigger second-home market — 54 percent of tax bills are mailed out of the county.

Five years ago, the Downtown Waynesville Association commissioned a study on where shoppers come from. Over 70 businesses throughout town recorded the zip codes of those making purchases, including those who were second-home owners. Second-home owners accounted for 12 percent of shoppers at participating shops the last week in July.

But second-home residents aren’t just here in the summer anymore.

“I think our seasonal folks increase starting in the spring and go into the fall and some all the way through the holidays,” said Linda Schlott, the director of the Main Street Program in Franklin.

And that’s good news for business owners.

“We can see an increase in people on the streets and merchants see an influx of customers when those seasonal visitors are here,” Schlott said.

Some second-home owners actually live here more months of the year than they do in their so-called primary residence. But the absence of income tax in Florida makes it advantageous to claim that state as their permanent residence.


Real numbers at last

The census offers a glimpse into just how many homes in our midst may be second homes or vacation rentals. To census workers, any house not occupied by a full-time resident was designated “vacant.”

In Haywood, 27 percent of homes were deemed “vacant.” In Swain, it was 35 percent. In Jackson, it was 37 percent. And in Macon it was a whopping 42 percent (see chart).

The numbers are even more staggering in quintessential vacation and second-home markets. In the town of Maggie Valley, two-thirds of the housing units were “vacant.” In the town of Highlands, “vacant” homes account for 78 percent of the housing stock.

A small portion of the housing units deemed “vacant” by the census are truly that. There’s a baseline of legitimately vacant houses, such as rentals that are between renters or empty houses where the owner has died.

Statewide, the average vacancy rate is only 13 percent. That average includes places like the beach and the mountains with a preponderance of vacation condos and second homes. For a typical city where these aren’t a factor, like Greensboro or Durham, the vacancy rate is 9 to 10 percent.

In Jackson County, student housing contributes to the high percentage of “vacant” housing units. Several apartment buildings have gone up over the past decade aimed at students attending Western Carolina University. Perhaps too many apartments, said Mark Jamison, a resident of nearby Webster. The university predicted exponential growth of students that hasn’t materialized completely.

“You have an inventory created on suppositions that probably aren’t going to come true,” Jamison said.

Another factor in the number of vacant homes on the census roster is speculative building. During the boom years, the line of prospective second-home buyers seemed endless, prompting developers to build spec houses rather than merely sell off lots. Some contractors would even buy lots to build spec homes of their own.

But when the stream of buyers dried up, those homes were left standing, explained Danny Wingate, the vice president of Haywood Builders.


Sitting idle

The 2010 Census reveled a high number of second homes not occupied by year-round residents. Here’s the percentage of “vacant” homes by county.

Haywood    27 percent

Jackson    37 percent

Macon    42 percent

Swain    35 percent

Total housing units by county:

Haywood    34,954

Jackson    25,948

Macon    25,245

Swain    8,723

Urban areas to steal more seats in Raleigh, leaving the mountains with less

Urban areas grew at a torrid pace over the past decade — so get ready, legislators in the mountains and on the coast, because your already large districts are about to expand.

Why? Because, as Christopher Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University explained, even though there are very few rules about exactly how voting lines are drawn, there are two guiding principles.

First, lines cannot be drawn with race as the predominant factor; and secondly, there should be approximately the same number of people in each district.

Since urban areas grew faster than rural ones, that must be represented when lines are redrawn, said Cooper, who oversees a university-sponsored blog focused on North Carolina politics.

The state, as a whole, grew more than 18 percent. Much of that population surge occurred in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, and in those counties abutting them. Northwest North Carolina also experienced strong growth. These places are entitled to more representation in Raleigh beginning in 2012, while rural counties in WNC will get less.

“Since we hold constant the number of representatives in Raleigh, then those additional seats (for urban areas) have to come from somewhere,” Cooper said.

Voting districts in the mountains will expand to take in larger geographic areas, freeing up legislative seats for faster-growing urban areas.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, serves on the House Redistricting Committee. He said it’s too early to know exactly how mountain and coastal districts will expand, but the shifts must take place. Western North Carolina is bounded by three states, so expansions must flow eastward: Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina are unlikely to look favorably on a land and population grab.

That, Rapp said, will setup an eastward district-redrawing cascade of sorts. The veteran legislator emphasized that he doesn’t expect mountain dwellers to experience nearly the redistricting changes eastern North Carolinians can anticipate. Some counties on and near the coast saw population declines.

WCU Professor Cooper said residents in the state’s westernmost counties aren’t likely to look on changes favorably.

“Folks in the west have long felt that their voices are not heard in Raleigh and any change in the number of representatives we receive will only further erode trust in state government,” he said. “This is not only a North Carolina phenomenon — the farther you get from the capital, the lower the information about state politics and the less trust people have in their state government.”

Jim Davis, R-Franklin, a newly elected member of the N.C. Senate, isn’t particularly worried, though his analysis of the 2010 census data indicates the 50th District he represents will grow larger, despite already spanning parts of eight counties.

“It will have to expand quite a bit,” Davis said.

The Franklin orthodontist said he doesn’t view a larger district as a hindrance. Additionally, Davis described the state’s eastern legislative delegation as “kindred spirits” to those who represent the west. Much of North Carolina is rural, Davis said, and that creates commonalities transcending simple geography.

U.S. congressional districts, too, must reflect the population shift in North Carolina. But, in that those districts are so large already, changes are unlikely to seem as profound. Andrew Whalen, senior advisor for U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, said prior to the census-data release he expected the congressman might pick up a few counties to the east.

Redistricting, required by federal law every 10 years when updated census data is released, comes as Republicans have grabbed control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Previous redistricting in North Carolina proved acrimonious, with Republicans accusing then-in-power Democrats of drawing the lines to their political advantage, or gerrymandering districts.

District maps were redrawn three times in as many years from 2001 to 2003 because of Republican-filed lawsuits; primary elections were delayed twice as a result, in 2002 and 2004.

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, the Senate Redistricting Committee’s chairman, says the GOP will draw districts correctly and fairly. Redistricting meetings get under way next week.


Time to redraw

The General Assembly is required to redraw voting districts for North Carolina after every census. Once adopted, a valid redistricting plan cannot be changed during that decade.

The 170 legislative districts for the N.C. Senate and House, and the 13 U.S. congressional districts, must be exactly or nearly equal in population — ensuring equal representation under the principle of one person, one vote. As the population grows, voting districts likewise must include more people.

Each representative in the N.C. House will represent about 79,500 people; state Senators about 191,000 people. Each congressional district must have 733,500 people. The redrawn districts take effect starting in 2012.

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