On retainers

Never again: Concerns about the massive 88-foot-high retaining wall along Highway 74 in Reynolds spurred commissioners to pass an ordinance to improve the safety and appearance of any large new retaining walls in Buncombe County. photo by Jonathan Welch
Never again: Concerns about the massive 88-foot-high retaining wall along Highway 74 in Reynolds spurred commissioners to pass an ordinance to improve the safety and appearance of any large new retaining walls in Buncombe County. photo by Jonathan Welch

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners June 21, 2001 meeting

  • $303 million budget approved
  • Emma Elementary gets sidewalk

New rules triggered by the “Great Wall of Reynolds” aim to improve the safety and appearance of large retaining walls. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted the rules at their June 21 meeting.

The changes had been in the works since last winter, when the commissioners instructed county staff to draft regulations prohibiting structures such as the 88-foot-high retaining wall along Highway 74 in Reynolds, which board Chair David Gantt has repeatedly called "a monstrosity." The giant wall is part of the Berrington Village apartment complex being developed by the Greensboro-based Carroll Investment Properties.

On Jan. 4, the county issued a stop-work order for the affected portions of the project, citing visible cracks in the retaining wall. At the time, Engineering Inspections Coordinator Matt Stone said an in-depth analysis was needed to determine whether the wall was safe. Nearly six months later, that stop-work order remains in place, and the developer continues to discuss the problems and possible corrective measures with its engineers; it’s unclear when the analysis will be completed, Planning Director Jon Creighton reported.

Meanwhile, he assured the commissioners that the new rules will prevent more such walls from being built in the future. Terraces at least 10 feet deep will now be required for all walls higher than 20 feet, unless the wall system is a structural support for a connected building, or soil-nailing techniques are used. Another terrace is required for every additional 15 feet of wall height.

The terraces, said Creighton, will allow for proper maintenance of the structures, while accommodating new landscaping requirements. But they’ll also "use up a lot of land," he continued. "The purpose there was to make the developer stop and think, 'Is there another way I can do this, rather than build a very large wall?'"

In most cases, trees will now have to be planted in the foreground and bushes along the terraces. The ordinance also mandates stricter engineering oversight for walls more than 10 feet tall. For those over 40 feet, owners will now be required to provide a survey showing the locations of permanent markers on the site that will help inspectors detect any movement or undulations.

After Creighton's presentation, Gantt praised the measures, saying he believes Buncombe County is the first in Western North Carolina to adopt a comprehensive retaining-wall policy.

"Buncombe County is blazing a new trail," he proclaimed, adding, "I think we all know this [wall] was wrong."

Budget nailed

After several weeks of debate, the commissioners unanimously approved a $303 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The plan calls for a 1.7 percent increase in general-fund spending, due mostly to rising human-service and health-insurance costs, plus the planned opening of two new intermediate schools. But it dodges any tax increases, instead relying on a mix of spending cuts and a $7.63 million infusion from reserve funds — about $270,000 less than had originally been proposed, County Manager Wanda Greene explained. She credited "the great work of county department heads" in further shaving expenditures that they’d already trimmed by $7.9 million, compared with the current year — primarily by eliminating 93 staff positions. Only five of those employees will be left without jobs, said Greene. Some will now work for private contractors taking over jobs the county once did; others chose early retirement.

Before voting for the budget, Commissioner Holly Jones implored Greene to make sure that Western North Carolina Community Health Services, which will now handle the county's prenatal care, provides regular benchmark updates as required. She asked for the same level of scrutiny for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council and a private provider, McDonald Transit Associates, when they take over the county's Mountain Mobility service later this year.

"These are really important services for our citizens," noted Jones.

Greene assured her that the county would provide plenty of oversight, saying, "We absolutely feel passionate about that. … We watch those things on a monthly basis."

The commissioners also applauded the budget's $48.8 million allocation for the Buncombe County Schools — a 5.6 percent increase over this year's amount.

"I think that says that we get up every day thinking about our citizens’ education," Commissioner Carol Peterson declared.

"They've laid education out in a lot of places, and we didn't do that," added Gantt. "I'm proud, and I'm real impressed with the community's understanding that education is a core service."

Other business

On other fronts, the commissioners:
• Unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with the city of Asheville, paving the way for a new 0.4-mile stretch of sidewalk near Emma Elementary School. Construction of the sidewalk, which will flank North Louisiana Avenue from Emma Road to Mosswood Road, will be funded by $240,000 in federal funds secured by the city; the county will be responsible for maintenance.
• Instructed County Attorney Michael Frue to research whether the commissioners can legally condemn a building on the contaminated CTS property that neighboring residents say has fallen into severe disrepair. During the public-comment period, a group of residents who are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to get the site cleaned up asked the county to condemn the building; the commissioners seemed open to the idea and promised to take prompt action if it proves feasible.
• Instructed Greene to make a forthcoming report by the state auditor on the county's funding of public-access station URTV available to the public as soon as possible. During public comment, former URTV producers charged that the county was illegally withholding state funds; in response, Greene reported, "We've been told by the state auditor that we don't owe URTV any more money."
• Unanimously approved a change in the way their compensation is configured. Their biweekly travel stipends ($320) and technology allowances ($25) will now be combined with their salaries (currently $26,019 for the board chair, $21,762 for the vice chair and $17,505 for the other commissioners). Beginning July 1, the chair will get $34,989, the vice chair $30,732 and the other commissioners $26,475. In addition to the travel stipend, however, they can now be reimbursed for official travel at 51 cents a mile, as county employees are. Tucked into the budget ordinance, these changes weren’t publicly discussed during the meeting.

— 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 writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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