Editorial: Growth and development – One region, many concerns

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2006

When UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute asked residents of the Charlotte region to rank the growth and development issues likely to have the greatest impact on their future, the top concern wasn’t air pollution, access to water or rising tax rates.

It was education, followed by economic development and transportation.

If you hadn’t thought of education as a growth and development issue, you haven’t connected the dots on how many of the school debates occurring in Rowan and other counties, from funding struggles to mobile classrooms, are a result of rapid growth. The same could be said of crime, public health and the local economy. Growth and development affect practically every niche of our lives, and public officials are increasingly embracing regional approaches to growth-related planning and problem-solving. Planning requires setting priorities, which is one of the reasons the Urban Institute periodically surveys regional residents about growth issues. The 2006 survey, released this week, encompassed 3,874 residents in 14 Piedmont counties, including Rowan.

While the 14 counties in the survey make up a single region, they’re also diverse. Mecklenburg, for instance, is the buttoned-down urban banking giant, while outlying areas such as Anson and Rowan retain sturdy clumps of their rural roots. Because of those differences, the overall findings can obscure important distinctions. Among Rowan respondents, for instance, economic development was the most important issue for the future, ahead of education or roads/traffic. Given the trauma of the shutdown of Pillowtex and other textile operations here, that isn’t surprising, and it validates the county’s emphasis on business recruitment and expansion. It also validates the emphasis on school improvement as a key component of the economic engine.

Overall, however, as the region becomes more urban, it’s becoming more homogenous, with counties facing similar problems related to growth. Elected officials and planners who want to be in tune with the larger public sentiment would do well to consider the survey results. For instance, among the region’s residents as a whole, the survey indicates that:

* 75 percent support purchasing land to set aside for open space, and 82 percent would require developers to set aside open space.

* 71 percent support zoning to restrict what can be built on undeveloped land.

* 80 percent support zoning to protect farmland.

* 82 percent support requiring developers to pay impact fees.

* 80 percent believe local governments can have strong environmental regulations without harming growth.

Local officials who advocate such measures often face a backlash of criticism from developers, the real estate industry or those who cite property rights as the first, last and only consideration. Around the region, however, growth is shifting priorities and reshaping the debate. People are connecting the dots on development and recognizing the need for new strategies to manage it.

The Urban Institute’s 2006 Regional Growth and Open Space Survey is available through the institute’s Web site, www.ui.-uncc.edu.