28 Sep WNC Prepares for Growth
Western North Carolina (WNC) region may have bragging rights as a top travel, retiree, and living destination, but that reputation has certainly come at a cost. Today, most people in the area are focused on discussing how to sustain the current growth and determine the best approaches for land usage, infrastructure development, and essential community services and amenities. In today’s blog, we want to share what growth plans are already in motion and how these efforts will allow WNC to maintain its appeal for generations to come.
But first, let’s back up and provide some context. WNC is a primarily rural, mountainous Appalachian region with a population of fewer than 800,000 people across 16 counties. The communities vary in size, with Buncombe County as the most densely populated and home to Asheville, the region’s largest city. As of 2022, the US Census estimated that 273,589 people lived in this county alone, representing 34% of the total population across the region and 93,000 of them within Asheville city limits.
So, let’s start in Buncombe County to understand how it is responding to growth, given its presence and influence over the 16-county region. In May 2023, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the Buncombe 2043 Comprehensive Plan. What is a Comprehensive Plan? It’s a document created by local governments and residents to determine the community’s focus and vision over 20 years. It’s not just a strategic plan for budgeting and policy decisions, but it is required by the state for Zoning regulations. According to a Citizen-Times news article, the county has never tackled such a plan before in its 230-year history, so approval and execution of a plan of this magnitude are significant, as it will guide future development, conservation, and transportation in the county for the next 20 years. According to the county’s Planning Director, this plan represents a “recognition of changing times”.
Legacy is located in Mills River, which is in Henderson County, just south of Buncombe. Henderson County is the 2nd most populated county in the region and like its neighbor to the north, has both benefited and been burdened by area growth. The biggest burden these two counties bear together is congestion on the interstate crossing through their counties called I-26. This is not only a key travel route for daily commuters, but also serves as a vital connector for interstate traffic traveling north-south. Studies to widen 16.9 miles of I-26 from Hendersonville to Asheville date back to 2001, but construction did not begin until the fall of 2019. Today, the project is underway and upon completion, will improve overall roadway capacity to handle existing and future traffic volume. The project will also improve permanent structures including bridges. The project is under the direction of the NC Department of Transportation and is estimated to cost a total of $531 million. The project is over halfway completed and is on track to finish in 2024.
While it may seem that air travel would be limited in an area known as the “rural, mountainous Appalachian region”, that’s far from the truth. The Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) has consistently ranked as one of the country’s fastest-growing airports in the country, based on passenger utilization. Just last year, it became the third busiest airport in North Carolina, the airport’s record year with approximately 1.8 million annual passengers. This past June, they had a record number of travelers with over 200,000, which was a 29% increase over the previous year’s record number of 182,000. In a news release from the airport, they called this achievement “a testament to the region’s growing popularity as a premier travel destination.” A $400 Million “Expansion Project” is now underway to keep up with this explosive growth. The 62-year-old airport terminal is currently under construction in a multiple-phase construction project to ultimately be 150% larger than the current airport; growing from seven gates to twelve, with room for further expansion. The airport is served by six airlines that provide nonstop service to 26 destinations at this time.