First fruits: Buncombe commissioners get to work

Second in command: The board’s four Democrats and three Republicans unanimously appointed Democrat Holly Jones to serve as vice chair. Photo by Max Cooper

The politically divided, seven-member Buncombe County Board of Commissioners met for the first time Feb. 5 — and proceeded to make a series of unanimous votes that set the stage for how they’ll conduct business this year.

First off, the board’s four Democrats and three Republicans unanimously appointed Democrat Holly Jones to serve as vice chair. Both Jones and Republican Joe Belcher had been lobbying their colleagues for the largely ceremonial post, but on Feb. 5, no one nominated Belcher. He’d argued that appointing him would help establish a bipartisan spirit. Jones, the only board member other than Chair David Gantt who’d previously served as a commissioner, has said her experience made her the best candidate.

The board also implemented various procedural changes that could loom large in how the commissioners conduct their business in the coming months.

Agendas and public comment

For years, County Manager Wanda Greene (who was absent due to illness) has decided which issues are included in the agendas for the board's meetings. In another unanimous vote, however, the board empowered Gantt to place items on the agenda without Greene's consent. Other commissioners can now also do so, but they’d need the support of two additional board members.

The board also unanimously approved moving the public-comment period from the end of meetings to the beginning. Before the vote, Gantt asked for a show of hands from the audience. Most favored holding public-comment sessions at both the beginning and end of meetings. No one showed support for having them only at the beginning.

Belcher, however, said: "I thought it would be good for the public to speak prior to the things we discuss, so they would have input. This gives them the option to go ahead and leave if they don't want to sit here" for the rest of the meeting.

Gantt, meanwhile, said, "I see both sides, and both sides are valid."

But Candler resident Jerry Rice, a frequent speaker during public comment, gave the commissioners an earful for not allowing comment at both ends of the meetings.

"The voters put you in here, and they need a voice," he declared. "The county is trying to shut us up and shut us down."

Summey granted zoning postponement

A zoning issue yielded the meeting’s only disagreement, as commissioners voted 6-1 to delay zoning roughly 16 acres adjacent to the Asheville Regional Airport until Oct. 1. The land was previously under city zoning, but when the N.C. General Assembly established a new airport authority last year, state lawmakers transferred zoning jurisdiction for those parcels to Buncombe County. Since then, airport officials have worried that the unzoned land could be inappropriately developed, Michael Reisman, the facility’s deputy director, told the board.

One of those parcels, however, belongs to influential local developer Mike Summey, who urged the commissioners not to zone his 3.5 acre property. Summey, who co-founded the Council of Independent Business Owners, said he's had tentative plans since 2007 to build an office high-rise there, but they’ve been stalled due to the sluggish economy. The proposed zoning, said Summey, could hinder the project.

The commissioners hailed the development plans but were divided about the fairness of honoring Summey’s request. "We have countywide zoning, and it applies to every other property," noted Commissioner Brownie Newman. But he added that he didn't want to unduly burden the project, saying, "I've definitely got mixed feelings about it tonight."

County Planning & Development Director Jon Creighton reminded the commissioners that his department had unanimously recommended “employment district” zoning for those parcels. Without zoning, he warned, Summey could sell the land for incompatible development, such as a smokestack operation.

Commissioner Mike Fryar, a longtime zoning opponent, said, "When this total county wasn't zoned, not that long ago, it wasn't a problem."

After a lengthy discussion, the commissioners opted to postpone zoning all the parcels in question. “It's OK to take our time to make sure we get it right,” noted Newman.

Commissioner Ellen Frost cast the lone vote opposing the delay, questioning the fairness of acting on Summey's request when other developers have had to conform to zoning rules for several years.

"If everything else in Buncombe County is zoned, I think it's pretty tough to make an exception because somebody had a plan," she observed.

This was Frost's first meeting as a commissioner; disputes over the election results delayed her swearing in.

Other business

The commissioners also unanimously appointed one another to serve on various boards and committees.

Frost will serve on the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, Land-of-Sky Regional Council, and the boards of Smart Start and Crime Stoppers. Commissioner David King will serve on the Economic Development Coalition and the Health and Human Services board. Jones and Newman will serve on the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee. And Belcher will serve on the Tourism Development Authority.

Positions on the Riverfront Redevelopment Commission and the Business Improvement District board remain open.

Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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