The Catawba River generates electricity, fuels the Charlotte-area economy and provides a place to play and drinking water for most of Charlotte, Mount Holly and Belmont — all with little fanfare.
Even the land surrounding the river has yet to experience the expansive development that’s enveloped the rest of the Charlotte metro region, thought that’s expected to change soon.
Because the river’s water is constantly being recycled to sustain the next downstream town, it’s important that the water residents are flushing into it is as clean as possible. That’s often a difficult goal to reach when developers scrape land to the clay, making sediment — the river’s No. 1 pollutant — readily available to be washed away by rain, carrying with it fertilizer, oil, trash and other waste.
That’s where the Catawba River District comes in. It’s the brainchild of Edna Chirico, a native of Oregon — though she’d likely share credit with the district’s 42 advisers and executive committee members.
That list includes business and environmental leaders as well as representatives from Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, including real estate consultant Bill Daleure; David Fogarty, director of the Gaston County Cooperative Extension; Dale Stewart, Charlotte-based president of urban design firm LandDesign; and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts.
Chirico, a former Mecklenburg County Commissioner, has a vision to create a go-to area for people interested in living an environmentally friendly and small-town life, an idea seeded before the national real estate collapse.
Four years ago, the nonprofit focused on new development. The plan was, and still is, to offer an environmental certification program to residential and commercial developers to use as a show of their concern for the environment. In return for certification fees, the district offers expert eco-evaluations and advice for builders to help them build energy-efficient structures that incorporate sustainable watering practices while making a minimal impact on the environment, especially the river.
Ultimately, the certification is a marketing tool to attract environmentally minded home and commercial real estate buyers who, if all goes well, will realize increased property values. So far, however, only ReVenture Park has committed to the certification process, though Chirico said others, including a couple of yet-to-be-developed residential neighborhoods, have expressed interest.
Today, the district isn’t only focused on new construction. It’s also focused on community development.
From the beginning, organizers realized they had to garner the support of the people who already live within the district, support they first felt as they worked to define the district’s boundaries, which include nearly 16,000 acres on both sides of the river from Rozzelle’s Ferry Bridge in Charlotte to Belmont in Gaston County, including, thanks to requests from townspeople, the downtown districts of Belmont and Mount Holly.
The district also includes a large chunk of Mecklenburg County, from Mountain Island Lake to Paw Creek, near the airport, and will envelop the U.S. National Whitewater Center and ReVenture Park.
To become certified, participants start by paying a registration fee, which is determined by the type of property to be certified. That includes consultations with environmentally minded water, land and building experts who create an action plan that property owners have three years to complete.
In addition to sometimes-pricey improvements, such as the installation of stormwater-management systems, there’s another $180 certification fee once the plan is complete and a $60 annual review fee. During and after the certification process, which is self-paced, properties are listed on the organization’s website to track their progress.
But will the certification make a difference when it comes time to sell?
That’s the gamble.
‘Different shades of green’
Daniel Kelly, a partner at Charlotte-based Kelly McArdle Construction and past president of the Homebuilders Association of Charlotte’s Green Building Council, said it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much eco-friendly improvements could cost or how much money they can save.
“There are different shades of green,” he said.
He said the district encourages “high-performance homes” that are built to last, easier to maintain and healthier — especially for those with allergies — and claims they can make the average home 40 to 50 percent more energy-efficient with only a couple thousand dollars in improvements, potentially saving homeowners money on utility bills.
“The motivation may be different for different owners, but green building is definitely starting to get popular,” he said.
Ginnie Poole, who has lived in Mount Holly her entire life, says she’s ready to embrace the river district, especially since she’s watched Charlotte’s ever-broadening metropolitan area reach toward her hometown for years.
However, she admits that there are “a few old fogies” who may never adapt to change.
Broadening its reach
The district aims to be about more than green certifications. The larger goal is to spark community involvement and encourage residents to continue making environmentally conscious changes to their lives and properties.
While the economic downturn left many in a lurch, it’s given the district’s organizers an opportunity to broaden their reach by finding ways to include long-time residents. It’s also allowed time to seek out millions of dollars in grants to help residents weatherize older homes within the district.
Municipalities are also taking advantage of the slowdown to institute regulations that they hope will attract eco-minded developers and residents, in part, by strengthening environmental oversight.
However, the district isn’t without its detractors.
“There are a number of recognized green-building standards accepted by the industry, so we’re really not clear on how the Catawba River District certification provides any additional value,” said Bill Gupton, chairman of the Central Piedmont Sierra Club.
“We have concerns about any marketing or endorsement for any new residential projects located within the 3-mile radius of the (ReVenture) incinerator,” he said, referring to the proposed biomass incinerator at ReVenture Park, which is in the heart of the district.