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Blue Ridge Parkway Pegs Value of Vistas

As vacation homes erode the view, researchers ask park visitors how much it's worth to keep it pristine. 'Priceless,' one says.

September 14, 2003|Tim Whitmire | Associated Press Writer

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY, N.C. — With a picnic at their feet and glasses of wine in their hands, Rick and Judi Harper gazed at the mountains and valleys in the twilight and pondered a question: What's a view like this worth?

"It's kind of priceless," she said.

That wistful response is no longer enough at a time when the Blue Ridge Parkway's famous vistas are under assault by a building boom of vacation homes and subdivisions that has turned this 470-mile stretch of western North Carolina and Virginia into one of the nation's fastest-growing regions.

Parkway stewards say they need hard facts, not warm feelings, to protect the rolling landscapes that have inspired drivers for generations. That's why they're backing a project that's part economics, part public relations: assigning a dollar value to the pleasure derived from the parkway views.

"It was taking something that was very qualitative and emotional, and taking it apart and making it scientific," said Susan Kask, an economics professor at Asheville's Warren Wilson College, one of the three area colleges involved.

In the first part of the project, released last year, researchers surveyed 860 visitors to the southwest Virginia section of the parkway about the scenery and their willingness to pay to preserve it.

The researchers found travelers valued the quality of existing roadside views-- the main attraction on that stretch of the road -- at an average of $240 per person.

With more than 7 million people estimated to drive that stretch of road each year, the survey placed the total value of scenic experiences along the parkway's Virginia section at $1.7 billion to $2.5 billion per year.

That's over and above the parkway's direct economic impact -- an estimated $1.8 billion that parkway visitors spend every year in counties adjoining the parkway.

Researchers will finish work on a second installment, due out this fall, that will assign values to overlooks, views, trails and activity centers along the 170-mile stretch between the Virginia border and Asheville. That drive includes the famous Linn Cove Viaduct and spectacular overlooks such as Craggy Gardens, Bow Valley and Tanbark Ridge, the spot the Harpers chose for their picnic.

Rick Harper has noticed how the views have deteriorated in the six years he and his wife have been visiting since they moved from Upstate New York to Rock Hill, S.C.

"Unfortunately, you see the mountains getting built on," he said. "If this whole hillside turned into condos, would we still come? No."

That worries parkway officials such as management assistant Laura Rotegard.

"What I don't want to see ever happen," she said, "is that we lose the loyalty of the people who have given us their lifetimes."

That anxiety is real because, unlike self-contained parks that can control how land is used within their borders, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a "linear park" often at the mercy of local officials to control development.

Janet Scheid, chief planner in Roanoke County, Va., said building along the parkway has been an increasingly hot issue during her 15 years there. A pending lawsuit by county citizens seeks to block a 44-lot subdivision on farmland next to the parkway.

"One of the problems we have always had with making the argument for view-shed protection is in quantifying it," Scheid said. "Some people say they don't mind seeing subdivisions on the parkway. Those are generally builders who are saying that, but I take them at their word."

With more than 200 homebuilders in the Asheville area alone, many projects end up within view of the parkway.

"As builders and developers here, we don't want to pave all our mountains and end up with nothing," said Rick Fornoff, executive officer of the Asheville Home Builders Assn.

However, Fornoff said he believes campaigns for "view-shed protection" are sometimes fronts for groups that oppose all development.

Rotegard, the parkway official, said the study isn't intended to stifle development but to spur a conversation about its different costs.

"We want this data to force the political folks to say, 'Do it better,' " she said. "These values don't say, 'Don't do it.' They say, 'Recognize that there's a tradeoff.' "

In the $120,000 study, funded in part by the National Park Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, researchers assigned dollar values to intangible assets, using methods that helped calibrate damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Parkway visitors volunteered to take the survey on laptop computers set up at popular stops in the summer and fall of 2000 and 2001. The questionnaire, which took up to 40 minutes to complete, asked respondents to set priorities.

Did they want more overlooks or better views from those overlooks? Better roadside scenery or more trails? Photographs exhibited views that had been graded as high, moderate or low quality.

Respondents also were asked how much they personally would pay for improvements or to avoid a decrease in quality.

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