Clean Air or Else

02/05/04 by Salisbury Post

By Mark Wineka, February 5, 2004, issue of the Salisbury Post

Fresh from his trip to the Super Bowl to pull for his home team, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said don’t go there -- Houston, that is.

The only land-use planning Houston employs is to make sure strip clubs are at least 500 feet away from schools. Otherwise, it’s a development free- for-all, a sprawling city congested with traffic, McCrory said.

He and a friend drove from one side of the city to the other, and it took an hour-and-a-half. McCrory said forget Charlotte’s age-old concerns of not wanting to become another Atlanta. “I don’t want us to become Houston.” he said.

McCrory gave his description of Houston as a reminder for his Salisbury audience at Catawba College Wednesday night. Salisbury and Rowan County, whether residents here like it or not, are part of the Charlotte region.

“We are in this together,” he said. The Environmental Protection Agency, in particular, says so.

In this region, Rowan, Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Iredell, Union, Gaston, Catawba, Lincoln, Davie and Davidson counties are among 32 counties state-wide that the EPA has recommended for a non-attainment area in relation to air quality.

What that means, in simple terms, is that if those counties don’t find a way to clean up their act and reduce hazardous levels of ozone pollution -- much of it coming from cars -- federal funds for building roads and transit alternatives will stop.

McCrory said that will mean this area, Rowan included, won’t be able to recruit new jobs, because businesses looking to locate their headquarters in this region or wanting to build manufacturing plants will go elsewhere -- most likely competing counties and states that don’t have our air quality issues.
Forget political boundaries, McCrory said. Government, private and academic sectors in this region will have to work together to solve the problems of so many bad air days.

McCrory kicked off a Clean Air Lecture Series being sponsored by the Catawba College Center for the Environment. A large crowd from several counties attended this first lecture. McCrory, a 1978 Catawba graduate, has played a key role in establishing a 15-county, Charlotte metro region approach now dubbed Sustainable Environment for Quality of Life.

SEQL is trying to address air, water and land-use issues in the region, all of which are connected and important to economic development and the quality of life here, McCrory said.

McCrory has testified before Congress on environmental issues and received high praise for his regional efforts Wednesday night from Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz, who gave him a key to the city.

The American Lung Association tabbed Rowan County as having the worst air in North Carolina last year and the 16th worst in the country. The Charlotte mayor acknowledged that much of the bad ozone is imported, coming from places such as Charlotte.

But that’s all the more reason for the regional approach, he said.

Dr. John E. Wear, director for the Center for Environment, credited Rowan County commissioners, city leaders, the business community, individuals and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation for putting their weight behind a three-year clean air initiative in Rowan.

In giving his talk Wednesday night, McCrory quickly stepped from behind the podium and spoke the rest of the night without any notes, showing a passion for the subject. He connected air quality to things such as cul-de-sacs, shopping centers and SUVs.

On the federal level, the EPA will be requiring stricter pollution standards on vehicles such as SUVs and trucks. Complex utility plant emission standards, over the long haul, will lead to cleaner air, McCrory predicted.

On the state front, the biggest thing happening, beyond the recently passed Clean Smokestacks legislation, is more stringent inspection standards in many counties for air emissions, including Rowan.

McCrory predicts local governments will take harder looks at emissions from construction equipment and steps to make their own fleets of trucks more environmental friendly.

But McCrory contends land-use planning will have the biggest impact on air quality. In that respect, he thinks communities must do at least three things: develop a grid system of roads, provide pedestrian-friendly access and have an overall transit plan to complement road building.

The problem with many developers is they build subdivisions with only one way in and one way out to a country road, McCrory said. There’s no grid system in place to disperse traffic and connect that subdivision to other developments.

Every street ends in a cul-de-sac, forcing all the traffic from one development onto the same ill-equipped road at the same spot, eventually leading to a traffic light.

Similar traffic lights spring up along the same road as other developments are built, leading to congestion, idling cars and the worst kind of pollution.

The most efficient neighborhoods have a grid system of roads, such as the older areas of Charlotte’s Myers Park or Salisbury’s West Square, McCrory noted.

Salisbury’s older section probably has 16 different and quick ways to leave, he said.

Communities have to have a long-range vision for how their road system will develop with connectivity, he said.
“I’m for roads, just build them right to begin with,” McCrory said.

Cities need more sidewalks and bike trails, alternatives for having to get in cars to make trips that are less than a mile, McCrory said.

Woodlawn Road, a main thoroughfare in Charlotte, has a dirt path for pedestrians, he said. People staying in Woodlawn Road hotels have to get in their cars to go one block to a restaurant because it’s not safe to walk.
Charlotte is putting bikeways on every new road that is built, and McCrory believes it will increase property values.

Building transit alternatives is something for the next generation, but leaders should be working on a vision of how Salisbury and Charlotte will connect, McCrory said. Rock Hill, S.C., is already making plans on how to get its residents to Charlotte and its airport by light rail.

McCrory reminded Salisbury that Rock Hill is one of its competitors in business recruiting.

McCrory also spoke strongly against the clear-cutting of trees and described how his city put tree ordinances in place to prevent it. He’s not anti-development, McCrory said, he just thinks growth should be designed for the future.

McCrory warned against no-growth policies, believing that they encourage sprawl, as developers skip over areas and go where they can build. The mayor said he favors traffic calming techniques over stop signs and traffic lights. It’s better for air quality, he said, to keep traffic moving rather than bring it to a complete halt.

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