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More Room for Personal Innovation Might Help the Economy

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By Leslee Kulba- The newly-elected, re-elected, and returning Buncombe County Commissioners attended an all-day retreat Tuesday. The purpose was to acquaint newcomers with the role of commissioners as limited by the state, get acclimated to the groundwork past commissions have laid, and discuss emerging trends and issues. Of interest was the packet of old documents posted online with the retreat agenda; particularly, the county’s 2012 Sustainability Plan. It was adopted with the intention of revising it about every five years, and the time has now arrived.

Overall, one must simply shrug. The battle against an ever-growing nanny state has been futile. In a classically liberal sense, the document would appear replete with government overreach, not all of which can be passed off as state-mandated. On a positive note, the document does address crime abatement as one of fourteen goals. Then again, it doesn’t call for the swift removal from the streets of clear and present dangers. It instead speaks of community engagement and partnering, neighborhood watches, and “fostering a sense of neighborhood pride and civic responsibility.” While these goals are good, one can’t help but ask government, “Who are you to legislate my sense of neighborhood pride, and what if I fall short of your nebulosity?”

Another appropriate role for county government is preparation against hazards with proactive response plans. A concrete objective is to locate critical hazard-response facilities outside of danger zones. Another is to ensure preparedness against natural disasters, now commonplace fuel shortages, trendy pandemics, and, of course, climate change. Overreach comes in with “expanding training on emergency response plans to include institutional administrators, religious institutions, and the community at large.” Efforts are also underway to create emergency shelters equipped to receive families with pets.

Since the state requires the county to provide for public and mental health, the county has latched onto the wellness craze, accepting prevention is the best cure and a good investment of tax dollars. But is it the proper role of government to determine whether one has a right to enjoy mass quantities of potato chips? A stated goal is to “decrease rates of childhood and adult obesity.” If you don’t like your vegetables, the county has an objective of “increasing demand for locally produced foods,” anyway. It is also out to increase the number of community gardens, incentivize farming, and allow farmers’ markets to accept food stamps. The latter objective has been attained. As for exercise, the plan calls for “increasing the percentage of Buncombe County adults who get moderate exercise more than one day per week.” Rest assured, the commission has not yet calendared consideration of a 5:00 a.m. call to calisthenics – yet.

In addition to the humans, the plan sets out to protect the air, water, flora, and fauna. The county has made tracks with its plan to conserve land. Chair David Gantt reported one-third of the county’s land will “never, ever be developed,” due to conservation easements, parkland preservation, and steep slopes and ridgetop ordinances. The plan calls for managing the four endangered and one threatened species known to live in the area, as well as the classification of more watercourses as trout streams so they may be regulated. After noting water quality standards do not allow trout streams to exceed 10 nephelometric turbidity units, the plan states, “None of the sites currently sampled in Buncombe County are considered trout waters.” Protecting wildlife will depend on procuring additional state and federal funding and conducting more education and outreach programs. So, just as the plan recommends greater participation in Earth Day celebrations, it also wants to control your thermostat and decide what air exchange rate suits your needs as we come together to “reduce average household energy use.”

As for human habitat, how has that been working for you since government increased its meddling? When the plan was designed, just four years after the nadir of the protracted recession, one of its overarching goals was to provide “affordable, green, and livable housing.” And one of the objectives listed thereunder was to “promote home ownership while also supporting quality rental developments that are required to remain affordable and safe.” As a reminder, the housing bubble was caused as government programs forced lenders to extend mortgages to people with traditionally unqualified, high-risk income profiles.

Rent controls provide housing at discounts normally subsidized by raising rents elsewhere or raising rates on taxpayers across the board. The addition of the word “safe” likely refers to another option landlords take to subsidize rent controls: deferred maintenance. Voters in the City of Asheville recently passed an affordable housing referendum that could possibly tax those who provide substantial amounts of affordable housing out of business. The county agrees with this resolution-by-exacerbation strategy in its ambition to “provide affordable and workforce housing assistance funding ….” At least stakeholders’ warnings about excess regulation were heeded, but they were taken overboard to recommend incentives.

The idea of government redistributing wealth to incentivize a thriving economy is another policy begging a, “How has that been working for you?” At least popular rhetoric has now accepted that insurance rates may be kept low if made available across state lines. But, in defiance of the definition of economies as trade and the corollary that the broader the spectrum of goods exchanged, the more vibrant the economy, Buncombe County wants you to buy local. They want to tax dollars out of the economy to bestow subsidies on local favorite-son businesses and ensure a diverse economy. Again on the bright side, stakeholders were heard in their request that the county “encourage a ‘business-friendly’ regulatory environment.”

Then, what would a plan be without the multimodal transportation element? More recent versions of the plan have added the need to “support the development of the County Greenways and Trails Master Plan” and a nod to Safe Routes to School. Persisting through the years were the other objectives with potential outcomes listed as, reducing the percent growth in vehicle miles traveled within the county, increasing the footprint of routes for nonmotorized vehicles, and “increasing the number of individuals using alternative transportation options.”

Other items in the report include an emphasis on developing educational programs to meet the needs of twenty-first century employers, expanding access to government programs like healthcare, and building capacity for the county’s recreational needs. Like all good plans these days, this one came with the recommendation to form a pursuit group to build community buy-in.

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