Driving out the Leicester Highway from Patton Avenue, it narrows from five lanes to two, and the strip malls and fast-food joints give way to old-school mechanics and busted-up portable signs. Later on, that same highway continues up the mountains and around sharp curves into miles of old farmland that eventually lead up to Sandy Mush and what could reasonably be called “the sticks.” Before that point, however, in a home in a relatively new subdivision, a group of interim Town Council members are plotting their next move.
They are “interim” because, as yet, they don’t have a town—but they’re aiming to change that.
Currently a Buncombe County township, Leicester comprises 68 square miles of mostly rural ground just northwest of Asheville. Many city residents’ familiarity with the area is probably limited to the densely developed gateway where Leicester Highway hits Patton Avenue, flanked by a long strip of recently appearing stores and restaurants.
Controlling that development, say these folks, may as well be exhibit A in the push to incorporate Leicester into a town. They also want to take charge of local government services and take advantage of revenues the state makes available to municipalities.
But some Asheville City Council members have concerns of their own. Many suspect that this is primarily a defensive move to fend off annexation, and they fear that this new neighbor would just be too big and too close. (Asheville itself covers just 44 square miles.) However, Pat Cothran—a major force behind the incorporation drive—patently denies this. “Annexation is the last part of our concern,” she says.
And while this may be uncharted ground for the Asheville City Council, for Leicester, incorporation is old news. Advocates note that the area has already been a separate town twice: in 1859 and 1874. The first time, the town’s status dissolved in the chaos following the Civil War; the second time, it was repealed in 1905.
Even the current incorporation effort, says longtime resident Peggy Bennett, has been simmering a good while. “I’d say 10 to 12 years, and nothing ever got done,” reports Bennett.
But that began to change as a core group of activists started lining up community support, mounting a petition drive, holding meetings and chipping away at the steps needed to win consideration by the N.C. General Assembly.
Incorporation requires the General Assembly’s approval, or else their call for a referendum. But before that, a recommendation by the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporations is needed. Among other things, the commission looks for a formal endorsement by any municipality within five miles that has a population of 50,000 or more—in this case, Asheville. And despite a pair of votes over the past year, Asheville hasn’t granted that approval.
Mills River, in northern Henderson County, successfully incorporated in 2003, and Mayor Roger Snyder has been advising the Leicester group. “He began telling us things we need to do,” says Bennett. The list is extensive: gathering petition signatures, drafting a charter, accumulating tax records for population and economic figures, and determining the proposed boundaries.
Another key step is establishing an interim government. Elected in a loose process by people attending an incorporation meeting, Leicester’s Town Council meets regularly to discuss the next moves.
“Being a town gives people more of a local voice,” says Snyder, “whether it’s 10 square miles or 60.”
The ties that bind
Leicester is not alone in its push to become an independent town, notes professor David Lawrence, who teaches public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill. Often consulted for his knowledge of the incorporation process, Lawrence is currently advising Swannanoa in its campaign. And the trend is not isolated to Western North Carolina.
“It’s true of anywhere you have growth,” he says. Last year alone, three Tar Heel communities incorporated, he points out.
Lawrence says he’s seen commonalities among communities’ reasons for seeking to incorporate. And while staving off annexation is sometimes a factor, there is plenty of “positive” motivation as well, he says.
“They want something that they need a town in order to do. They want to control land use more locally,” Lawrence explains. “The other thing people want is to regulate services, [such as having] greater police protection.”
There’s also, he says, a near-universal desire to secure a community’s identity. “These are areas where you know where you are. Leicester’s like that; Swannanoa’s like that. They want to cement that location by making it a town.”
All these considerations have come up in the Leicester discussion, but Asheville’s biggest beef has been the size of the proposed town and its likely impact on the city’s future. Perched just beyond Asheville’s northwest border and 55 percent bigger than the city itself, the incorporation would block further annexation in that direction. So the two sides are holding discussions to figure out if common ground can be found.
During a Jan. 23 meeting involving Council members and city staff, Council member Robin Cape brought up another angle on Leicester’s incorporation attempt: the “z-word.” “It’s no secret that Leicester has never been big on zoning,” Cothran agreed, noting that planning and zoning is one of the four services the town would take on.
But Cape also made it clear where she stands on Leicester’s bid for independence, saying, “I’ll be honest with you: I won’t be able to support an incorporation this large.”
Both times Leicester representatives appeared before City Council, they were promptly turned away, notes Vice Mayor Jan Davis, who has pushed for more engagement with them.
“These people are well-intentioned and have nothing but the good of the community at heart,” says Davis, who admits to having a “soft spot” in his heart for the community where he lived as a younger man. But the proximity of the proposed town means City Council can’t just rubber-stamp the request. “Anything that affects our northern boundary to that extent, we owe it to our citizens to ask some questions,” Davis maintains.
Already, the incorporation group has met with the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee and several Council members to discuss whittling down the area in question.
Most City Council members have said they would support a smaller Leicester. But they’ve also asked the town to consider backing away from Asheville’s northwest border.
“It’s hard to make them see that we want to keep our township whole,” Bennett told Xpress. The initial proposal, she explained, was based on the size of the historic towns and the current township boundaries. “We’re cutting it down, but we’re not cutting it to where they want it—we’re cutting it 15 miles or so.”
In the end, Leicester may not need Asheville’s approval to suceed. Without it, the commission would be required to make a negative recommendation to the General Assembly. “That’s a fatal flaw in the commission’s recommendation to allow the incorporation,” conceded Gail Moses, the commission’s attorney. But that wouldn’t necessarily doom an incorporation effort: The Legislature can still approve it with a supermajority vote in both houses, or direct the township to hold a referendum.
The commission recommended against Mills River, for example, because of its sparse population density, notes Mayor Snyder. And while that required a supermajority vote to gain approval, Mills River won out in the end.
Nonetheless, Leicester has not given up on winning over Asheville. At the Jan. 23 meeting Cothran and her team proposed new town boundaries, shrunken by about one-third. And although nothing was decided, both sides agreed to meet again in two weeks to continue the dialogue.
“We have a lot of hurdles to cross in Raleigh,” Cothran told the Asheville representatives. “We may never be incorporated, even if you gave your blessing. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”