Lawmakers Consider Catawba Regional Growth Plan

Fri August 29, 2003 - Southeast Edition

GASTONIA, NC (AP) Spurred by growing interest in a proposed national whitewater center, governments in the region are considering whether to create a district that would control development along the Catawba River.

Elected officials from across the region plan to meet this month to discuss forming a district, the first of its kind for the river and possibly the state, according to river authorities and regional officials.

It also would mark a new era of cooperation among regional governments, officials said.

“I can’t tell you how positive this would be to finally break out of these very provincial ideas and to break out of these individual fiefdoms,” Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby said.

The district would end the piecemeal approach to zoning, land use, water quality and erosion policies along largely undeveloped land on both sides of the river from the Mountain Island Lake dam to the South Carolina border.

Lisenby said the biggest obstacle to a comprehensive plan for the river has been smaller cities’ fear of losing political power to larger governments.

“The feeling has been for years that anytime you deal with the Charlotte crew, it’s Charlotte first and everybody else is supposed to fall in line,” said Belmont Mayor Billy Joye Jr., who supports the proposal. “But we really need to get past that. The Catawba River is the lifeblood of this area. It affects us all and we all need to work together.”

The likely players would be Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, as well as the cities of Charlotte, Belmont, Gastonia and Mount Holly. There’s talk of expanding north to include Lincoln and Iredell counties, and south to York County, SC.

Officials on both sides of the river are eyeing the economic benefits of the proposed $21.5-million whitewater park, which would be built on the eastern edge of the Catawba just north of Interstate 85.

Charlotte Whitewater Park Inc. — the nonprofit group that would design, build and operate the potential Olympic training center — estimates the park would generate $37 million in annual revenues and local economic impact.

The group also predicts it would create 690 jobs to operate the whitewater course, biking trails, adventure center, conference facility and the offices of USA Canoe and Kayak. In addition, the project would create 250 construction jobs.

There’s been growing concern about the need to manage the 222-mi. Catawba basin, which runs through two states, 14 counties and 22 cities.

An April 2001 conference in Hickory found a need for better coordination of the river and its resources across the Carolinas, but a bill that would create a two-state board is stalled in a North Carolina House committee.

Other states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Virginia, have formed similar river commissions.

Serious discussions about regional control over development on the Catawba River have never come up, officials said.

But Charlotte-area governments are beginning to develop stronger relationships outside their borders, talking about regional issues such as air pollution and water quality, said Tom Cox, Mecklenburg County commissioners chairman.

“Two years ago, we weren’t talking about those kinds of things,” Cox said. “Now we’re talking about it because it’s kind of like a regional switch has been thrown. It begins to dawn on people that we share a common future.”