Precious Resources for the State

The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has secured 1,000 acres near the Green River Game Land and Columbus.

Land trusts have been invaluable in protecting open space in North Carolina. A recent acquisition in Polk County suggests they may play an even broader role in forging a better tomorrow.

More than 1,000 acres between the Green River Game Land and the town of Columbus has been purchased for $2.375 million by the Hendersonville-based Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. A major goal is to protect the scenic views, rare plant species and wildlife habitat. Nothing unusual there.

What is unusual is that 30 to 60 acres are to be conveyed to the Housing Assistance Corporation, a nonprofit Hendersonville-based developer of affordable housing. This land could be developed as residential workforce housing intended to help younger families and middle-income workers get a start with homeownership.

Rob Aldrich, director of community conservation for the national Land Trust Alliance based in Washington, D.C., said such projects constitute an up-and-coming trend across the country.

“Land trusts are becoming more open to inviting the community in and being more responsive to their needs, instead of just what the land trusts want to be done,” Aldrich said. “Saving land is great, but there are other challenges in the community, such as affordable housing and health.”

Affordable housing is one of the great challenges facing our state and our nation. As income inequality grows, and more and more skilled manufacturing jobs are replaced by lower-wage service jobs, the need gets greater. Assistance has proven more effective than mandates in producing affordable units, as shown by groups such as Mountain Housing Opportunities in Asheville.

The Polk County project would provide assistance in two ways. The first is by eliminating the problem of high land costs that often price housing beyond reach of many. The other is by “sweat equity,” with future tenants doing 65 percent of the construction work.

Some numbers make clear the need. About 23 percent of Polk County’s homeowners are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing, according to the Housing Assistance Council. The statistics are more dismal for renters, with 48.6 percent cost-burdened.

The new concept is growing. Discussions are under way in Asheville about formation of a community land trust.

Land conservation will continue to be the primary focus of land trusts. The work they have done thus far is nothing short of remarkable. The number of acres protected passed 30,000 a year ago and still is growing. The beauty that is preserved helps make the mountains a major tourist destination.

But times are changing and land trusts are changing with them. The tools of voluntary acquisition often can get results that attempts at coercion fail to achieve. Since the trusts pay for the land, there is no philosophical opposition from small-government people.

Today’s new issue is affordable housing. Tomorrow, there may be another issue regarding land use, one that is unforeseen today. Whatever that might be, land trusts have shown that they are willing and able to meet new challenges.

Our state is better off for their efforts.

The Asheville Citizen-Times

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