What’s new on the plateau

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Patrick Taylor – Highlands Mayor

I got up late on Labor Day, had my cup of coffee, and perused the morning news.

I noticed Southern California continues to battle wildfires, and has set a record 120 degree temperature.  I thought, how can anyone live there?  I also read about the ravages of COVID -19 and the impending budget shortfalls facing large cities.

I also caught up on my email and saw the Highlands Chamber announcement that Highlands had made the Southern Living list of the most desirable small towns for retirement.   

I was again jolted that people will be coming to Highlands.  Realtors already see the trend.  Affluent  professionals want to escape crowded, hot, and perilous metropolitan areas.  Broadband and Zoom have created lifestyle options. Our cool climate and small town appearance make us a desirable community.

In this year of community, comprehensive planning, critical decisions lie ahead.  The town board and community stakeholders will have to make critical decisions about growth and development.

Water and sewer policy will be key. Certain types of development depend on access to these utilities. Highlands has built a water and sewer system for the past 90 years.  Over the decades policies governing these resources have evolved.

Some six decades ago, when there were subdivisions being built outside the town limits, the Highlands Town Board decided to allow these projects to connect to town water.  The rationale was that more customers would be beneficial.  In some cases the town actually took possession of the waterlines leading to and into the subdivisions.  Others subdivisions, like Queen Mountain, were allowed to connect to the town water system, but the residents owned the line going down NC 28 and in the development.

Fifty years later, those decisions still impact the town.  For Queen Mountain, their homeowners have had to fund the replacement of the waterline from the town limits to the subdivision.  Other subdivisions, like Satulah Falls, have fared differently since the town long ago agreed to own their subdivision waterlines.  Two years ago the aging galvanized lines in Satulah Falls were replaced by the town for around $200,000.  The town had previously upgraded the water system for Buena Vista. This year, the replacement of aging lines for subdivision outside town limits, Valentine, will again be done at town expense. These projects involved small numbers of residences for rather high price tags.

I cited these projects because the town board some three decades ago changed the policy to prohibit new water and sewer service beyond the town limits.  Given this policy, OEI [Old Edwards Inn] recently voluntarily annexed the Farm on Arnold Road.  The OEI Farm now pays town taxes, follows town ordinances, therefore is now able to attach to town sewer.  

There is a growing feeling among some that Highlands should once again allow water and sewer beyond the town limits.  Proponents might argue it would generate additional water and sewer revenue, but it is not that simple.  New sewer and water connections outside the town limits could trigger widespread growth with the town having no control since there is no equivalent county zoning. Additional expansion might also generate additional costs for expanding our water and sewer facilities, not to mention future maintenance upgrades like previously cited.  The town is also facing major waterline replacements within the town.  There is also the reality that the sewer system has not been built out to the entire town.  Town taxpayers may see these needs as priorities.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do see the pressures of growth coming. Our utility decisions have to be carefully reviewed in the coming months.  They will impact potential growth and development. How and to what extent should Highlands grow? Or, should we grow at all?  Those are some of the questions facing Highlands.

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