Voters gain, lose ground in planning proposal

The balance of power shifted from landowners back to voters in a proposal on community-based planning adopted by the Buncombe County Planning Board this month.

The change, however, came about in a surprising way.

On March 3, County Attorney Joe Connolly told the group he sees no legal problem with letting only landowners sign petitions to establish community-based planning in their area. As long as the petitions serve only an advisory function, with the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners having the final say, the restriction doesn’t violate the legal doctrine of “one man, one vote,” reported Connolly.

That advice, however, meant the Planning Board had to revisit the wording of its Feb. 3 proposal — which led to a policy switch. After some discussion, the board voted 4-3 to require that 20 percent of registered voters in a given area — rather than landowners — sign such petitions. Those voters, however, must include a third of the landowners within the local planning district (which could follow either township or fire-service-district lines). Chairman Jim McElduff and Planning Board members Julie Combs, Jay Marino and David Summey supported the change, with Ann Cross, Karl Koon and Bill Newman opposed.

The vote reversed the Planning Board’s 5-2 vote on Feb. 3, which had given only landowners the right to sign such petitions (a move that Combs had found both undemocratic and legally questionable).

The whole issue was revisited after Connolly detected an entirely separate legal problem. The February proposal had called for voters to approve those land-use regulations. But letting zoning decisions be made by referendum, said Connolly, would require special permission from the legislature.

So in a separate vote, the Planning Board voted 6-1 (with Koon opposed) to delete the reference to a vote — leaving it up to the county commissioners to approve such regulations.

That change, however, may introduce still more confusion. Unlike the clear-cut majority required by a vote of the people, the proposal now merely calls for such land-use plans to represent a “consensus of community opinion.”

In any case, the commissioners will now have to decide (by majority vote, presumably) what to do with the Planning Board’s recommendation. And with zoning such a volatile issue in Buncombe County, the outcome of that one is anybody’s guess.

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