In a meeting characterized as “historic” by more than one resident in attendance, Buncombe County took giant steps toward preserving viewsheds and watersheds on Nov. 21.
Most visibly, the commissioners unanimously agreed to buy conservation easements for five parcels totaling 1,200 acres, mostly in the mountains surrounding the Sandy Mush community in northwest Buncombe. The easements will preserve much of the current western mountain view from Asheville to Weaverville in perpetuity.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement that’s attached to the deed. Owners typically retain the right to continue such current uses of their property as agriculture, logging, hiking or hunting, but the land can’t be subdivided or developed. Participating landowners gain certain tax advantages, but they don’t come close to compensating for the loss of value, according to Chairman Albert Sneed of the Land Conservation Advisory Board.
“Suppose you own 100 acres worth $10,000 per acre, or $1 million,” Sneed told the commissioners. “When you put a conservation easement on your property, you give away in perpetuity your right to develop it, and the value may drop to $2,000 per acre, so your net worth drops by $800,000. If your income is high enough, you can get some tax benefits from it, but never enough to make up for the loss. It is a gift.”
Four of the five parcels lie along what Executive Director Carl Silverstein of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy described as “the Sandy Mush ridgeline”: the Bill and Mabel Duckett tract (168 acres), the Jayne family “Little Bald Cove” tract (392 acres), the Hearne family “Willow Cove” tract (500 acres) and the Ray Hearne tract (62 acres). The fifth parcel — 80 acres owned by Leslee Thornton — sits on Bearwallow Mountain along Buncombe County’s southern border, adjoining designated conservation land in Henderson County.
All of the owners have agreed to sell their development rights for less than the estimated market value of the easements, and private donors are kicking in $2 for every $1 ponied up by the county, said Sneed. The county’s share had already been approved as part of the current budget, and the commissioners were effusive in their support for the purchases.
“What you’re saying is that you care enough to save this land forever,” Commissioner David Gantt told the sellers. “You’re giving away a lot of land value … and it’s a win/win for everybody. It’s not a question of whether we can afford to do this: It is a question of how can we not afford to do this?”
Commissioner David Young observed: “It’s great to be able to say to our kids and our grandkids that you are going to have these views forever. You could easily make a lot more money selling this. For everything you are giving up, we really thank you.”
Commissioner Carol Peterson agreed, declaring: “This is the right thing at the right time. Thank you all for this.”
“I’m starting my 19th year [on the board],” chimed in Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, “and we’ve never spent any money better than this.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey concluded, “We certainly never imagined how well this would work out.”
Down in the valley
RiverLink Director Karen Cragnolin was up next, pitching the purchase of a waterfront parcel and buildings on Riverside Drive in Asheville for inclusion in the Wilma Dykeman Riverway.
Speaking about The Riverfront Plan, an official city planning document first formulated 20 years ago, Cragnolin said, “We’ve been pecking away at it.” She explained: “I’m here to ask you to participate in adding another missing link. We added the Edaco auto-salvage yard on Amboy Road a few weeks ago; the same thing is happening on Riverside Drive. We’ve worked with Progress Energy for 10 years to clean up a former manufactured-gas site. They’ve spent $3 million and removed thousands of tons of contaminated soil from that site. The last missing link includes buildings between 12 Bones barbecue restaurant and the Smith bridge.”
Amid general enthusiasm for the project, the lone complaint came from Weaverville resident Michael King, whose transmission-repair business at 115 Riverside Drive occupies one of the affected buildings. During public comment, King noted that he’s been in business since 1989 and will have to move when that section of the greenway is built.
“I talked to Ms. Cragnolin two years ago, when I was informed by city of Asheville that I would have to vacate the [property], and was told that I was going to be helped out with funding from the city to make the move. Now I understand that Buncombe County is going to go through with it. Karen told me that she had funds [to help with my move] at the time.” King added that moving his business is a particular hardship, because “I don’t advertise — all of my business is by word-of-mouth — and it will be difficult to get my customers to follow me to a new location.”
Following a unanimous vote to authorize purchase negotiations, Cragnolin thanked the commissioners, saying, “I am so thrilled, so excited — this is an enormous opportunity.”
Gantt responded, “I know that you will be able to leverage this money in a way that you couldn’t have without government participation.” He added, “This is one [project] that is user-friendly — one that the community will be able to use right away.”
The little town that time forgot
The commissioners gave final approval to a massive redevelopment plan for Woodfin, which will be funded via tax-increment financing (see “This Place Was a Dump,” Nov. 15 Xpress). The funding plan involves a $25 million loan to the town, to be repaid by the increased tax revenues generated by the project. Part of the property, which is destined to become the town’s new downtown district, is a former landfill; the remainder was a golf course. Although the plan required county approval, “The county has no ultimate liability for this debt,” said Ramsey.
Asked what effect the contents of the former landfill might have on the project, Woodfin Town Administrator Jason Young said: “It is precisely because these are former landfill properties that we need this assistance. We know what’s under there; it’s great land. If it is developed now, it will save our mountains and save undeveloped land.”
In other business, the commissioners approved amendments to two county ordinances. Some privately built roads are too narrow to accommodate emergency vehicles, Fire Marshall Mack Salley explained. Accordingly, the first amendment specifies minimum widths for all roads, including those in multifamily developments, and restricts parking to one side of roads 20 feet or more in width. The second amendment spells out that the fire ordinance applies to mobile-home parks, which the former wording didn’t mention.
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Harold Holcombe and Gregory Hutchins (Land Conservation Advisory Board); Keith Shipley (Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee); and Beth Burdick and Jane Gregory (Women’s Commission).