On April 2, after a grueling five-hour public hearing, when the Woodfin Planning and Zoning Board voted 7-0 to reject a Conditional Use Permit for Progress Energy’s proposed oil-burning “peaking” power plant, a new era began in environmental activism. The political shock waves created by this decision are still extending.
As a result of this solid, undeniable grassroots victory, the Buncombe County Commissioners learned that public participation is more than an unpleasant formality required by law on the way to creating policy for the benefit of large corporations. They woke up to discover themselves as a few naked, exposed bodies surrounded by a sea of discontented and angry citizens, angry over the blatant disregard for due process, democratic principles and responsibility for guarding the interests of Buncombe County residents.
As a result of the victory at Woodfin the progressive members of the Asheville City Council were emboldened to press forward with an aggressive environmental agenda including setting a goal of reaching an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas production from city facilities, plans for a more comprehensive public transportation system, plans for better road accommodations for bicycles and pedestrians.
As a result of this resounding public rejection, Progress Energy, in shock, retreated, shrinking back from the public eye like a wounded animal, not sure which direction to turn or how to proceed. Their public relations personnel weren’t answering phone calls or emails. In desperation, suddenly realizing a massive public relations problem, Progress announced, in early June, the formation of an “Advisory Council” composed of people from the community felt (by Progress Energy) to be a representative cross-section. Progress wrote the charter for the group and appointed all the members, with no public input. But, the point is they felt compelled to at least appear as if they were involving the community in decisions about western North Carolina’s future energy plans.
Most importantly, as a result of the Woodfin rebellion an entire community was awakened to its own empowerment as citizens. The Woodfin Planning and Zoning Board decision did not happen spontaneously or by accident or in a vacuum. It happened as a result of hard work and organizing by grassroots groups and individuals like the Canary Coalition, the Clean Air Task Force of Mountain Voices Alliance, the Western North Carolina Alliance, Caring for Creation, Southern Environmental Law Center and others. There was a community education and information campaign. There was an investigation of the Buncombe County land-lease deal, with hundreds of pages to review. There were op-eds and letters to the editor to write. There were strategy sessions. There were rallies and meetings and more meetings and phone calls and emails and faxes and door-to-door canvassing and printing and posting flyers. Expert witnesses had to be contacted and persuaded to speak in Woodfin. There was organizing to secure a strong turnout at the hearing…
…and then, we won. Do people really have power in this bureaucratic, corrupt system of governing we live under? Yes, we do. If we choose to exercise it.
To be continued.