The past few years have been busy ones for the Buncombe County Planning Board, as the county’s seen the advent of zoning, record growth and more than one controversial development-related issue.
During that time, four board members simply stayed on after their three-year terms had ended, despite not being formally reappointed (members can serve up to two terms). Clerk to the Board [of Commissioners] Kathy Hughes admits the situation “probably isn’t the best for clear record keeping.” But now it’s time for a new round of appointments, and the commissioners are slated to publicly question 12 new candidates for the nine positions before their Sept. 2 and Sept. 16 meetings.
The last time the commissioners made Planning Board appointments, in 2005, those four members continued to serve for “continuity’s sake: The county had zoning coming, they kept three and replaced the rest of the board,” Hughes explained.
Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey said the Planning Board’s role is “really more that of technical advisers. They don’t set policy—that’s the commissioners’ job. Things like the steep-slope rules, for example, are really more the sort of issues [the commissioners] need to handle.”
But the Planning Board does have final approval over subdivisions and some developments in the county. Its recommendations also carry weight on such hot-button issues as rewriting development rules or interpreting them in connection with things like steep-slope development.
Some residents have criticized the board’s composition over the years, saying there are too many developers. The lack of reappointments has also been an issue. At a Board of Commissioners meeting in July of last year, Asheville activist Elaine Lite criticized the commissioners for not having made the reappointments. At the time, David Gantt (who’s now vice chairman) said he expected the board to take up those appointments that August—a year ago.
Ramsey acknowledged that Planning Board members’ terms “have gotten confusing: You’ve had reappointments, people getting appointed to [fill] vacancies.” But he added: “The terms are supposed to last three years, and everyone who’s on there was either appointed in 2005 or 2002. They all serve at the pleasure of the commissioners, and we can dismiss them if we don’t think they’re doing a good job.”
Asheville Oil Co. owner Karl Koon, board Chair Bill Newman, trailer-park owner Roy Chapman and landscape architect Jay Marino were all appointed in 2002.
The commissioners, said Hughes, “had to look at the situation of the whole board,” adding that they were within their authority to keep the four on. “Zoning was coming; there was a lot of expertise that was needed to deal with that. For record-keeping purposes, it might not be the easiest thing to deal with, but it’s still legal—it’s still within [the commissioners’] rights. Now it’s time to get some new faces in.”
The remaining five Planning Board members were first appointed in 2005 and thus could apply for a second term, but none have.
The short list
Those who feel the Planning Board is weighted too heavily toward developers and the construction industry might not be reassured by the latest crop of potential members.
At least nine of the 12 applicants have similar ties. Three—Lucy Crown, Darcy Wilson and Dave McMahon—are all real-estate agents. Michelle Pace Wood is a developer and real-estate agent focusing on second homes and retirees, according to her Web site. Greg Phillips is a mortgage broker, Robert Spear is a contractor and Tom Alexander runs business and development for Taylor & Murphy Construction Co.
The other applicants are: surveyor Beth Gilliam, small-projects engineer Jeff Foster, A-B Tech instructor Alan Turco, landscape architect Scott Melrose and retired Progress Energy account executive Vernon Dover.
Among the criteria that Ramsey says he’s looking for in potential board members is “some technical knowledge—though not everyone has to be an engineer or a surveyor. We’re looking for people that can apply the policies the Board [of Commissioners] sets down.”
Gantt, who’s challenging Ramsey for the chairmanship this fall, sees the question of reappointments somewhat differently.
“I’ve thought for a while that it’s an issue we need to deal with,” Gantt told Xpress. “But we’ve got a results-oriented board. It’s not a formal rule, but we don’t generally bring something up unless there’s enough support from the other board members to do something about it. Simply put, the majority of the board didn’t feel there was a need to do anything about [formally reappointing the Planning Board members].”
Gantt also said the reasons for keeping those members on had changed over time. “First it was zoning: We wanted to wait until that died down a bit,” he said. “Then it was about steep-slope development [rules], then the number of applicants—that’s always a problem with boards—though we seem to have enough now.”
For his part, Gantt said he’s looking for balance on the board.
“It doesn’t need to be all developers or contractors: We need everyone at the table,” he said. “If someone’s concerned about these issues and they’re willing to go to a few conferences, they can learn the technical side.”
Asked about the number of current applicants with ties to development interests, Gantt said, “Well, that’s natural: After all, this is their livelihood.”