Climate Migration in Buncombe County

Climate Migration in Buncombe County

Eat Your View

By Robert Turner

Describing why some people relocate to Western North Carolina, John Haynes, owner of Retreat Realty had this to say: “It’s not crackpots, preppers or survivalists. It’s normal people looking for some kind of safe haven in a time of uncertainty.”

People have been moving to this region for decades because of the climate—not too hot and not too cold. But are we starting to see the early signs of a more ominous, long-term migration into Buncombe County?

Environmental and social scientists are looking very closely at the potential societal effects of climate change. Many now believe that the greatest single consequence of climate change could be mass migration, with millions of people displaced by sea level rise, shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, severe drought or the risk of wildfires.

Regardless of whether or not you personally believe in climate change, the question remains: Is simply the perceived threat enough to make some people start moving, even now? Are the perceived threats of more frequent hurricanes, floods or drought already causing some early signs of ‘climate migration’ into Buncombe County? And whom would I ask to find out?

Your friendly neighborhood real estate professional, of course. I wanted to find out what they’ve been hearing from their clients as reasons for moving here. I hunkered down for a few days and spoke to about 50 brokers and agents. I emailed hundreds more. I figured they might be our early warning system.

I asked them all this question: “Have you had a client say that they are moving here from Florida, Houston or New Orleans because of concern over hurricanes or flooding?” The answer, almost unanimously, was yes. And it was the client’s belief or perception of risk that was driving the move.

Binford Jennings from Keller Williams Realty says she has sold second homes to people from Naples and Miami just as an ‘escape house’, a place to stay when they need to bug out of Florida because of an approaching hurricane. “It’s their ‘higher ground’ for ‘when’, not ‘if’,” she says.

Binford also had a client from California that lost not one, but two, homes to wildfire. Many more move from the West because of concerns over water shortages (L.A. and Phoenix). Ernie Martinez says many of his clients are worried about rising sea levels, and “want to get out now while they can still sell at a decent price.”

Christie Melear says some of her clients couldn’t take the risk of power outages for an extended period of time after another hurricane. “The Florida heat without air conditioning can be unbearable and even life-threatening for some people with certain health conditions.” Having to boil water for weeks was another concern.

“Mother Nature didn’t intend for millions of people to live in the desert, but people still move to Phoenix, even though huge battles are now raging out West over water rights,” says Josh Smith, broker and sales manager for Walnut Cove Realty.

Josh was talking my language. I often write about community and regional “resilience,” and it’s a subject I discuss at length in my recent book. Resilience means a community can take a hit and get back up. It means it can take a hit and doesn’t shatter into a million pieces. It’s a community that’s able to fend for itself for some period of time if something bad happens. Phoenix is not a very resilient place. It’s difficult to grow food in an arid desert, and there are very limited water resources with extreme heat.

Ann Skoglund from Beverly-Hanks, who sold several homes to buyers from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, had one client tell her, “I’m done. I fixed up the house for the last time.” Ann also said that Charleston is now experiencing 60 to 70 flooding days in a year, and “that’s the new norm on the river and in the harbor with higher tides.”

Matt Jernigan with Mountain Oak saw his sales increase also after Katrina. “It’s a common real estate industry practice to do a mail drop to areas recently affected by a climate disaster, like Houston after Hurricane Harvey. It’s more effective marketing and a call to action,” says Matt. That call to action is “get out now!” Matt says Houston is now considered a “feeder market” for other higher and drier regions in the country, like Denver or Asheville.

Agent Alina Goldman (and others) had clients that cited the rising cost of property insurance as one of the major reasons for moving from an at-risk coastal region. “Property insurance is astronomical in many coastal areas now, and harder to get,” Alina says.

Haynes’ Retreat Realty specializes in taking security to the next level. He says many of his clients are concerned about the power grid, food and fuel shortages or other threats that could result from a serious natural disaster, and many want to relocate away from larger population centers. Many of his clients are looking for a strategic “safe haven” for their families.

“Many of my clients are very well educated with PhDs,” says John. “I’ve sold to several CEO’s, hedge fund managers, ex-military and law enforcement. But all have the same needs—land for crops, maybe some livestock and access to good water. It’s not about some big conspiracy theory. It’s more like the Boy Scout motto—‘Be Prepared.’ Our great-grandparents were all ‘preppers’ around here, by the way, who grew, canned and stored food for winter. That’s prudent behavior.”

The Asheville region is fairly resilient compared to other cities and regions. We’re growing more food locally and so retain some of the knowledge and capacity to grow our own food, which makes us less dependent on food from faraway places. And the mountains protect us and give us the first drink of water. It’s a good place to hunker down.

Robert Turner is the Director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit


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