Preserve Crab Creek
Every 20 years or so, Henderson County creates a "comprehensive plan" — a blueprint for future growth and development. This fall is the last chance for input on the county's 2045 plan, which should be approved by December. Either citizens urge the county now to protect rural areas from overdevelopment, or we wait another 20 years for an opportunity with this much potential.
THE CURRENT RULES
First, some background. Development in Henderson County is governed by dated rules that allow the low price of rural land to drive new development into the countryside. This sprawling development unnecessarily sacrifices farms, orchards, forests, and open space. It also unnecessarily pollutes the air, pollutes the water, impairs biodiversity, and squanders taxpayer dollars.
Between 1976 and 2006, the county’s developed land area grew eight times faster than our population, according to a UNC Charlotte study. In other words, as our population slowly grew 92% during these years, our developed land area exploded by 730%. Unfortunately, county rules that facilitate this sprawling growth pattern are still in effect today.
IMPACTS OF SPRAWL
Here are the casualties of sprawling development:
Rural Communities: Subdivisions eat into farms, orchards, and forests. Commercial development follows. Rural roads are widened into four-lane highways. Longtime residents start moving farther out, and community landmarks like produce stands and rural churches vanish. That's how sprawl happens nationwide, and it's already started here. Between 2002 and 2017, Henderson County lost one third of it's apple orchards, according to a county planning consultant. If this trend continues, the consultant added, within a few decades there won't be a single commercial orchard left in Henderson County.
Clean Air + Clean Water: Sprawling development also forces residents to drive more miles, increasing air pollution and exacerbating climate change. Sprawl threatens clean water, too. When asphalt, roofs, and manicured lawns spread into the countryside, they dump polluted storm water directly into creeks, rather than allowing it to be filtered naturally through the soil. As "impervious surfaces" take over a watershed, lakes and rivers are polluted as well.
Biodiversity: The Southern Appalachians are a global biodiversity hotspot. Yet Western North Carolina's national parks and forests aren't large enough to sustain the astonishing variety of plants and animals native to this region. We also need to protect private land — including pastures and open spaces that serve as indispensable habitat for various birds and insects — in order to sustain the full biodiversity of the region.
THE BURDEN ON TAXPAYERS
One final note about sprawl: it burdens taxpayers. There's lots of research on this nationally, but here's one nearby example. In 2017, researchers calculated the return on investment, or ROI, from four possible development scenarios in the Greenville-Spartanburg area. Projecting 25 years ahead, the "trend" development scenario — meaning uncontrolled sprawl — would cost taxpayers way more than it could ever recoup in tax revenues. See below in dark red: a negative return on investment means lost money for taxpayers.
But if that same 25 years of new development occurred in or near Greenville-Spartanburg's existing urban areas, it would make money. See below in dark green, representing three different non-sprawl scenarios — each of which would benefit taxpayers.
Why is sprawl such a loser financially? In the "trend" scenario, Greenville-Spartanburg spends a fortune building new infrastructure and funding more police and fire services to serve far-flung development. The other three scenarios accommodate just as many new residents, but they maximize the use of existing sewer, schools, public services, etc. (For more information about this particular study, download these graphics. Other cost-of-sprawl studies are linked below.)
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So how can Henderson County limit sprawl before it empties taxpayers' pockets and spoils our natural and cultural resources? Smart communities encourage clean, green, walkable, affordable new neighborhoods in and near urban areas. They also take three precautions to protect their rural areas:
LIMIT RURAL GROWTH: Smart communities lower housing densities and limit commercial development in rural areas. First, they calculate how many new residents are expected. Then, they plan for just that number of people. Here in Henderson County, the number of new residents expected by 2045 could easily fit in and near our existing urban areas. So there's no justification for spoiling the rural landscape to house our expanding population. (For more on accommodating the county's future population, see County Plan.)
RESTRICT SERVICES: Smart communities also use an "urban services boundary" to keep water and sewer lines close to town. This discourages subdivisions and large commercial development in rural areas. Henderson County has an urban services boundary, but it's larger than it needs to be to accommodate the expected population growth.
BUY EASEMENTS: Finally, smart communities buy conservation easements. This means paying people who own key pieces of rural land not to develop. Easements can be used to protect anything, including farmland, historic sites, community landmarks, sensitive ecosystems, or scenic views. When a community creates a local fund to protect its special places, that local money can be used to leverage state and federal grants and other funding. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, $1.30 is donated by other sources for every dollar spent by the local land conservation fund.
So ... population growth in Henderson County is a given. But destruction of our rural areas is a choice. Learn more about rural protection nationwide via the links below. For next steps here in Henderson County, learn more about the County Plan, then visit Who to Contact.
SPRAWL IN HENDERSON COUNTY
Mapping Historical Development Patterns and Forecasting Urban Growth in Western North Carolina
10 August 2010, UNC Charlotte Urban Institute
(From 1976 - 2006, Henderson County's developed land area grew 730% while population grew 92%.)
IMPACTS OF SPRAWL
(Look toward the middle of the page for a simple, comprehensive list of the effects of urban sprawl.)
2013, Nature Education Knowledge Project
(Simple, comprehensive examination of what sprawl is and what it does.)
22 August 2021, The Guardian
(Stopping sprawl and building more infill development would slow climate change.)
2 September 2017, The Guardian
(Urban sprawl is exacerbating our recent increase in flooding.)
CHANGING THE RULES
Smart Growth Online
(Adhering to ten principles limits sprawl. Click to open "Preserve Open Space, Farmland, etc.")
Congress of the New Urbanism
(Development based on traditional principles creates clean, green, walkable, affordable communities.)
2017 TED Talk
(Denser, smarter city design saves rural land, protects clean air, and mitigates climate change.)
BUYING CONSERVATION EASEMENTS
Planning Implementation Tools: Purchase of Development Rights
Center for Land Use Education
(How communities protect what they value by buying conservation easements on key pieces of land.)
American Farmland Trust
(Conservation easements are one tool that can be used to conserve farmland.)
Charleston County Greenbelt Program
(Charleston voters approved $200M to protect 40,000 acres, and just approved another $210M.)
Beaufort County Rural + Critical Land Preservation Program
(Beaufort voters approved $160M in five referenda over 20 years, and have protected 26,000 acres.)
COST / BENEFIT ANALYSIS
24 March 2015, Bloomberg News
(Sprawl costs more than $1T per year in gasoline, pollution, accidents, utilities, first responders, etc.)
2011 Series, Strong Towns
(Quick financial return from sprawling development is dwarfed by long-term liability for taxpayers.)
1 May 2019, Upstate Forever + Urban3
(Greenville County gains much less tax revenue from sprawling development)
The New York Times
(Zoom in on WNC and Henderson County.)
Southern Environmental Law Center
(WNC is a global biodiversity hotspot, but there's a relatively low level of land protection here.)
17 March 2015, Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(Same as above, with more detail about how exactly WNC is a global biodiversity hotspot.)
Audubon North Carolina
(Western Hendo County can shelter a wide range of birds as climate changes, if habitat is protected.)