Friday, July 29, 2005

Highlands, NC

One of the people who I shared a table with at the Workforce & Affordable Housing workshop on Wednesday was a woman, Maureen, who was formerly a planner for the city of Highlands, NC. She told the group at large the story of Highlands. It came in the midst of a discussion of "intervention", one of the choices that a community can make when faced with the potential disintegration of a once-vibrant community by development. The point at discussion was, "what choices are available when such a situation is seen to be present?".

Highlands is situated atop a mountain in the Great Smokies in western North Carolina, a short distance from the border with Georgia. The permanent, year-round population is just over 1,000 people. For three months in the summer, population swells to as much as 20,000, a mixture of seasonal home-owners and tourists who come to stay in the upscale inns and guest houses, to dine in the fine restaurants that line the main street, and shop at one or more of the 226 businesses that call Highlands "home".

At some point in its past, Highlands reached the point where it needed to decide, to make a choice. As Maureen put it succinctly, "the voters decided to do nothing". Development continued unchecked by anything but appropriate environmental and land use regulation. No "growth management" barriers were put in place. The marketplace decided, and it decided that a 20 to 1 visitor/resident ratio was just about right. The permanent residents are the "caretakers" during the nine months of "off-season", and they and others brought in to help are the service providers in "season.

There are, of course, major differences between Key West and the Keys, and any place else. For one thing, we are under the care of the State of Florida, as an "area of critical concern", and we're subject to strict growth management rules driven by unique factors such as hurricane evacuation times, coral reef protection, fisheries management, and the like. Key West, in particular, is pretty much built out on the horizontal plane, and limited by regulation on the vertical to three story-heights (except for Watermark?).

Some heavy-hitters were at the workshop: three of the five County Commissioners, including the County Mayor; three City Commissioners; Monroe County's paid lobbyist in Tallahassee, who was recently the head of Florida's Department of Community Affairs; several members of Habitat for Humanity, which has been particularly active in the middle Keys. City and County planners, real estate people, and a few 'just plain residents' made up the remainder.

This is going to be an interesting development to watch, and to write about. More grist for the mill.

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