But at a time when the phrase "steep-slope development" is enough to make local land conservationists' hair stand on end, this study marks the arrival of a significant new tool for assessing growth in Western North Carolina. Part of an ongoing project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and administered by Warren Wilson College's Environmental Leadership Center, the report uses GIS mapping and land-parcel data to track development in Buncombe, Haywood, Madison, Transylvania, Henderson and Yancey counties since 1991. Besides providing visual aids to guide land-use decisions, the maps can also give planners, land trusts and other stakeholders a clearer understanding of just how many large parcels have already been fragmented by commercial and residential growth.
For all the grumbling in some quarters about subdivisions springing up in these mountains, there was no readily available data pinpointing precisely where and how fast the region's landscape has transformed. To meet that need, this project tracks the rate at which large, rural parcels of land are being subdivided into smaller lots.
GIS -- an acronym for geographic information systems -- is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing any kind of data that can be tied to a specific geographic location. In this case, the technology is being used to build an up-to-date snapshot of the local landscape that can be continually revised to reflect the latest changes. It began several years ago, when principal researcher Neil Thomas and Mark Cantrell of the Fish and Wildlife Service were brainstorming and came up with the idea to "create and identify an index of development and look at it over time," Thomas explains, in order to determine two things: "First of all, how developed is an area? And second of all, how fast is it changing?" Resource Data, his Asheville-based company, specializes in GIS research.
In 2004, the pair teamed with the Environmental Leadership Center at Warren Wilson College to launch the project, which is funded by Fish and Wildlife. ELC staffers John Huie, Margo Flood, Paul Bartels and Ellen Querin provided the initial framework and developed the accompanying student-internship program. More recently, Phillip Gibson has taken on the role of project manager. Geography professor David Abernathy directs the lab efforts, and students from both UNCA and Warren Wilson do much of the information gathering and number crunching.
"The interns who have worked on this project have been heroic," notes Thomas. "Underpaid and overworked, they have collected parcel data from over 33 counties, processed more data than anyone cares to think about, and have actively experimented with the data and the GIS to see which methods best summarize the data."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the fastest-changing area in the six-county region is Asheville and its immediate environs, according to the research carried out so far. Between 1998 and 2006, an average of 2,000 acres of rural land in Buncombe County was lost to development each year. And the area's projected population growth augurs more of the same for the years ahead. The city of Asheville's population is expected to increase by 18 percent over the next 15 years, according to the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.
UNCA senior Carolyn Fryberger worked on the project as an intern from 2005 to '06, wading through heaps of data to create the GIS maps. "In Buncombe County, one of the things that struck me was that from 2004 to 2005, there was about 3,000 acres of land that moved into the high-use category," she notes. "That's about twice as fast as the yearly rate of change [from 1998 to 2005] -- giving some indication that development and rates of subdivision are increasing." In the overall study area, the most intense development took place in south Buncombe, the Black Mountain area and western Transylvania County.
College students often work tirelessly on reports only to see them end up collecting dust somewhere, but Fryberger got to present her findings in 10 separate venues, including the Land-of-Sky Regional Council's quarterly meeting for planners across the region. Fryberger will also make a presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in San Francisco this spring.
Thomas, meanwhile, is shifting the focus to making the data available. "The index itself can be closely related to all sorts of things," he notes, "from general growth patterns to economic growth, to water quality, to slope failure, to transportation, to ecological and species [data], and on and on and on."
The group is working on developing a Web site, which they hope to have up and running within the next month.
The data has already proved useful to Tandy Solomon of Asheville's Green, a fledgling nonprofit that works to protect land from development. Fryberger and the GIS team, says Solomon, "provided us materials so we could give presentations to potential donors." The group's current focus is preserving a substantial tract of land on Beaucatcher Mountain.
With Fryberger's help, Solomon was able to access very specific data about some parcels she'd been eyeing for conservation purposes. "If we had tried to do it on our own, it would have taken months," notes Solomon. But with the GIS information in hand, the task was accomplished in a day. "I could not overstate how useful this project has been," she says. "We couldn't even think to try to do what we are doing if [this project] didn't exist."