Satellite images tell the story

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
The “degreening” of Cabarrus and Rowan counties marches on.
A new study using satellite imagery shows that development in the two counties has increased dramatically over the past 30 years.
That’s not surprising news given population increases in the region, but the study also forecasts that Cabarrus County could be 68 percent urbanized by 2030; Rowan, 33 percent.
Said another way, a third of Rowan County could be considered “developed” in less than 25 years if urbanization goes unabated.
“Narrow country roads winding through pastoral scenes of small farms and rolling hills have been replaced by multi-lane expressways connecting countless subdivisions and strip centers,” says the 24-county study commissioned by the Open Space Protection Collaborative and conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute and its Center for Applied GIS.
The collaborative is a partnership of six conservancies and land trusts in the Carolinas Piedmont, including the Salisbury-based LandTrust for Central North Carolina.
The satellite images definitely show the land-use patterns over the past 30 years. The forecasts took the trends identified in the historical imagery and used something called “logistic regression modeling.”
“The models are pretty darn accurate looking at past trends,” Jeff Michael, director of the UNCC Urban Institute, said Wednesday.
Satellite imagery from Landsat MSS and TM sensors was first available in the 1970s and has been a continuous data source since then.
Rowan and Cabarrus counties were each considered 2 percent “developed” in 1976, using the satellite images. Ten years later, the counties were still minimally developed at 3 and 4 percent, respectively.
But Rowan County was losing 7 acres a day to development over the next 20 years and, by 2006, 20 percent of its land was considered developed.
The “footprint” of each person in the county translates to .48 acres, the study said.
The urbanization of Cabarrus County has been much more dramatic, looking at the satellite snapshots in time. Cabarrus was losing 9 acres a day to urbanization in 2006.
By then, 28 percent of Cabarrus’ land was developed. But projections say that will increase to 35 percent by 2010; 43 percent, in 2015; 51 percent, in 2020; 60 percent, in 2025; and 68 percent, in 2030.
With apologies to Scrooge and “The Christmas Carol,” are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be?
“Everything else being the same, that’s probably the pattern of development we’re going to see,” Michael said.
But he stressed that these forecasts don’t have to be the reality.
The extent of urbanization will depend a lot on public policy, he said, and what happens with land-use regulations and decisions about where to place infrastructure, such as new roads and water-sewer lines.
The study’s forecasts also don’t take into consideration the future work of land trusts, public and private farmland preservation and the open spaces saved by parks and recreation departments.
Development usually occurs in direct relation to roads, especially limited access roads, and employment centers.
Locally, what the study’s forecasts don’t factor in are the impacts of the N.C. Research Center under development in Kannapolis. You could see the urbanization percentages in Rowan and Cabarrus increase even more if employment balloons with the center’s development, Michael said.Should residents and public officials in Rowan and Cabarrus counties be alarmed by the development predictions?
“It’s really a matter of perspective and someone’s value system,” Michael said.
If they value open space for aesthetic reasons, natural resource protection and farmland conservation, yes, they should be worried, Michael said.
If they are looking for economic growth manifested through real estate development, probably not.
Michael, who shared some of this same development information with Salisbury City Council at its retreat in February, said he personally equates quality of life with preserving open space.
“I don’t think you can look at these maps without being somewhat alarmed,” he said.
The particularly troublesome thing, he added, is to consider the urbanization that will have taken place from 1976 to 2030, if the predictions hold true. Those 54 years are less than the average life span of a person, but most of man’s footprint on the land will have occurred in that time.
“If that doesn’t alarm folks, that’s fine,” Michael said. “But for many people, that will be kind of shocking.”
Jason Walser, executive director of the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, said he finds the satellite imagery especially instructive for showing the development patterns between 1976 and 2006.
It was worth the effort and “presents us with some interesting choices,” Walser said.
Walser also likes that it wasn’t “tree-huggers” or public officials doing the study, but researchers using objective satellite data that shows the actual land development.”It shows what’s happening,” Walser said. He added that what the satellite images reveal is not surprising, “but it’s dramatic.”
As for the forecasts, Walser finds it interesting that western Rowan County could still have some open space in 2030. He sees it as an opportunity to brand that part of Rowan County as an agricultural center and establish new markets for its products.
Walser agrees that the predicted development “doesn’t have to be that way,” but even if Rowan County is 33 percent developed by 2030, it will still fare better than other Piedmont counties in being more sustainable.
Walser, 36, says he has seen Mecklenburg, Union and southern Iredell counties change from rural to suburban and urban areas in his lifetime.
According to the study’s executive summary, only 1.8 percent of the land in the 24-county region was developed in 1976. Thirty years later, 29.7 percent of the land was developed รณ a loss of 2 million acres.From 1976 to 1985, the study says, the rate of development for the 24 counties was 30 acres a day. By 2006, the development rate had increased to 140 acres a day, and it’s expected to peak in 2010 at 150 acres a day.
The study says Mecklenburg County will be 100 percent developed by 2030.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or