By Leslee Kulba-Centralized planning. It’s the practice that presumes to know better than the old adage that none of us is as smart as all of us. It comes with broad-brush regulations and restrictions, which necessarily infringe freedoms. Limits are set according to misapplied scientific formulae, or perhaps a group of involved citizens squinting at a map and throwing numbers around. In the past, it assumed homeostasis. In the present, it accepts change, but still harbors an air of omniscience. In the end, it suppresses the little guy while granting variances to convenience the moneyed and organized.
With little ado, the Buncombe County Commissioners approved the “Comprehensive Land Use Plan, 2013 Update.” The 104-page document was touted as the culmination of a lot of hard work, but the extracted text fit onto thirteen pages for a save-the-rainforest printout. To its credit, the update looked at old plans and made changes to correspond to current realities. As the commissioners expressed, it is a living document.
The first obstacle in digesting the plan was getting past the Synergese; that is, the glittering generalities used by politicians these days. The mission statement and objectives read like the typical mish-mosh of power verbs pulled off butcher paper from visioning sessions and congealed into meaningless, consensus-building conundrums. It is as if some of the objectives were meant to mollify both the planners and the mind-your-own-business farmers, whose spirit of rugged individualism persists in the backwoods and still resists infringement of property rights. For example, the county wants to regulate in such a manner as to allow flexible options, and expand existing policies to adjust for changes.
While news headlines have been proclaiming economic recovery for half a decade, this road plan for government mentions numerous times how the economic downturn underlies the changes it proposes. It notes, “Buncombe County remains one of the least affordable metropolitan areas in the nation, ranking 186 out of 226 in the National Association of Home Builders / Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index.” In addition, “We have the highest median value home in the region of nearly $180,000, and the highest median gross rental rate of $711.” The report cites market failure as the cause, along with a lack of “regional coordination and public awareness; discrimination in lending practices; and general [handicap] accessibility to housing.”
To right the wrong, the plan suggests, among other things, federal funding and, right after the housing bubble, “promoting homeownership.” Mobile homes remain anathema. While clamoring for affordable housing, progressive planners argue these affordable shelters bring down property values for wealthy citizens. Rather than letting a newlywed put a trailer on the family homestead, as the commissioners rejected in two isolated appeals, it is preferable to have the couple move to the city, to occupy tax-funded, infill cluster developments close to transit lines. The plan even suggests the county support rent controls to provide subsidized housing of equal quality to units rented at fair market value.
While property taxes must necessarily go up to pay for all this affordable housing, developers’ deep pockets are still on government’s radar. Following a construction slowdown, the plan indicates it would still be nice for developers to put up some or all of the money for public infrastructure, including parks and recreational facilities. The plan calls for “more cooperation between developers and local leaders.”
To actually help people with a right to life have a place to exercise it, the planners admit buffer requirements were too stringent. For example, home sites that cannot be connected to sewer lines need enough space for septic fields. The county will also be less restrictive in allowing people who choose to live affordably in cohousing or intentional community arrangements to do so. Perhaps most sensibly of all, the plan recommends changes in local ordinances to allow persons who suddenly need retrofits to accommodate a handicap to get a quick, staff-approved waiver. That way, a guy who can’t even get in his front door won’t have to jump through hoops for months on end.
A bragging point was all the land the county has preserved with conservation easements and other land-use tools. Whereas farm subsidies that pay farmers not to grow remain a poster child for government weirdness, the plan supports the state’s Present Use Value Program for agricultural land. Under the program, agriculturalists may defer the difference between market and present value for as long as the agriculturalist remains enrolled in the program.
The plan shares the fact that a lot of planning is undertaken in exchange for eligibility for federal grants. Waxing patriotic, its authors share the county’s “Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance” was penned “with the purpose of promoting public health, safety and general welfare.” At Tuesday’s meeting, shortly after giving a shout out for Constitution Day, Chair David Gantt explained, “We have a moral obligation to take care of the environment while balancing the rights of people to do [what they want] with their land.”
Some of the recommended modifications pertained to advances in technology, such as accommodations for cell towers, decommissioning of major utilities, and public safety buffers for wind farms. Others, like zonings proposed for the airport, were intended to bring existing facilities into compliance with state and federal regulations. Commentary on Complete Streets, by contrast, sought to bring state and federal activities in line with the latest planning fads. Least, but not last, the plan includes recommendations for education and outreach to be sure citizens embrace the latest fashions.