Residents: Black Mountain must protect its identity as Buncombe grows
BLACK MOUNTAIN - When Libba Tracy moved to Black Mountain 20 years ago, she says the town essentially shut down during winter months "because it was that quiet."
"Things have changed a lot, just like Asheville," she said. "... I think the biggest fear is that we get washed into — that we become an outcropping of Asheville and our identity is just lost without taking care of the things that make us special."
Tracy was one of about 30 Black Mountain residents who gathered Feb. 17 at Meadowbrook Free Will Baptist Church for the town's second Workshop for Our Future — a public information and input session for a 30-year comprehensive plan.
Many shared Tracy's concerns, citing the historic, small-town nature of Black Mountain and its green spaces as things that must be preserved as Buncombe County develops.
"As Black Mountain continues to grow, I hope to see a town that retains its identity," said resident Michael Hettich.
Consultant Sealy Chipley told input session participants that, through the comprehensive plan, they can help determine how Black Mountain will handle that growth.
30 years: a 'typical development horizon'
The town began work updating its comprehensive plan — a project called "Elevate 2050" — in fall 2019. Black Mountain planning director Jessica Trotman said the first public input session, held in January, was filled to capacity.
"It was a wonderful response," she said. "That's why we're having another one. ... We were really excited by the turnout."
Thirty years may seem like a long time for which to plan, but Trotman said it's a "typical development horizon for a municipality to consider."
Black Mountain has hired Chapel Hill land-use consulting firm Clarion Associates and Asheville firm Chipley Consulting, which provides services in economics, planning and communications, to assist in Elevate 2050. The town's comprehensive plan was last updated 2014.
The updated plan will provide a “decision-making tool for the future” but is not a binding document, Trotman said.
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Chipley said Elevate 2050 is like a "blueprint" or “compass” that will help guide town officials in making decisions on capital investments, new programs and initiatives in the future.
Like much of Buncombe County, Black Mountain has seen a population increase in recent years. The highest levels of employment in the town are in retail and food service — an indication that it is strongly impacted by the county's tourism industry.
Chipley said many people who work in the town live elsewhere, due to a lack of affordable housing.
Black Mountain is an older community. The median age, 51.7, is higher than the rest of the county. Just over half of residents are in the labor force; many are retired.
After meeting with stakeholders, Chipley said it was already clear how important the historic downtown, the beauty of the surrounding mountains and Black Mountain's green spaces are to those who live and work in the area.
Attendees in the Feb. 17 input session concurred. In a digital survey, the majority of them selected "protect(ing) open space" as the most important thing to focus on as the community grows and changes.
The second most important thing was to "continue to make downtown Black Mountain a destination."
Input from residents
In that process, Tracy said she hopes developers work to maintain the "historic look of downtown" and the "small-town feel."
She would like to see more emphasis on recreation and outdoors, which she said have already felt the impact from development pressure. She'd love a "gorgeous, long greenway, (and) lots of safe biking opportunities" in the town.
For Black Mountain native Lisa Milton, it's important that officials balance protecting the mountains and forests with a need for more affordable housing.
"We've seen change, lots of it good," she said of her 60-plus years in the town. "I think probably what I worry the most about is the numbers of the demographics that we see in terms of the age of the community. We don't have — we've lost our young people, because they can't afford to live here."
Hettich said he hopes the town "maintains its sense of itself as something other than a suburb of Asheville," but that he welcomes a balanced growth as well.
"I do want to make sure that Black Mountain recognizes the primary importance of the access to wild places and trails and the lack of restriction: We don't have to go anywhere to be in the hills and the mountains here," he said. "That's great in Asheville, but it's better here."
Hettich said his concern about natural spaces goes beyond aesthetics. He worries that development will have negative impacts on the environment. He said it's important that officials keep that in mind as they approve land-use and construction.
Mackenzie Wicker covers Buncombe County for the Asheville Citizen Times. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @MackWick.
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