Declaring that they’re ready for a fight, about 400 opponents of a massive annexation proposed by the town of Woodfin packed the Woodfin Elementary gym for Tuesday night’s public hearing. The residents of the 3.5 square mile slice of Erwin Hills and Leicester argued that they’ll see higher taxes but little or no benefits if forced to join the town.
The town’s Board of Aldermen, mayor and town administrator, except for a few brief statements, remained silent throughout the meeting. Speaker after speaker — many of them sporting red shirts — received often raucous applause as they denounced Woodfin’s effort to take them in.
“It’s the people that are supposed to be running the government, not the government running the people,” Betty Jackson, one of the founders of StopWoodfin.org, told the assembled board.
“Just because all of us are here with our red shirts, standing up airing our grievances, doesn’t mean we’re going to go home feeling like we’re all fulfilled and we’ve gotten it off our chests. We will not have this off our chests until you stop trying to forcibly annex us. I ask you, I beg you, I implore you, just walk away from this. Otherwise, if you give us no choice, we’ve hired the law firm of Adams, Hendon, Carson, Crow & Saenger to fight you — and we’re in this to win.”
Woodfin is looking to take in 3,360 people — about half its current population — if it annexes the area, and increase its size by 38 percent. The town has promised to provide eight new police officers to augment the 13 it already employs. It will also add an additional staffer and build a police substation off New Leicester Highway. Area residents would see their taxes rise by 26.5 cents per $100 of property value. The town’s officials have said that the step is necessary to keep Asheville from annexing the area and cutting into the West Buncombe Fire District. However, Asheville city staff and council have said they have no intentions of making such a move.
Before the meeting, Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun announced that while the aldermen would be listening and not answering questions, he had issue with some statements that “were in some editorials and said at the last meeting [a July 7 question and answer session]. First, Woodfin is not broke. We don’t have $20 million in debt, we have $150,000. That’s all the debt Woodfin has. We won’t be taking in millions and only expending $100,000 on the annexation. And one thing that’s stuck in my craw — Woodfin does not have a corrupt police department and quite frankly, I resent that.”
The audience laughed, and VeHaun continued.
“Some of you made reference to things that happened in the past before I was even associated with the town of Woodfin. If you’re going to use that kind of rationale, I guess you don’t want anyone from the Sheriff’s department coming either.”
The hearing grew tense at some points. Two annexation opponents were ejected from the gym by Woodfin police after shouting during statements by the mayor or the public. Just before the second ejection, VeHaun banged his mayor’s gavel, rose up and declared that “we went through this the last time we had a meeting. Maintain order in here or you people that are continuing to interrupt this meeting will be put out. That’s the bottom line.”
The Woodfin police and the town’s services weren’t spared from sometimes harsh criticism, with some speakers stating that they don’t have faith in Woodfin’s police department or government to adequately serve them. Residents of the area already receive law enforcement, fire protection and trash pickup, as well as water and sewer provided by the city.
“This is not the time to raise taxes, especially when I won’t be receiving a fair return,” resident Eli Helbert said. “Annexation is supposed to provide the same level of services to everyone. As I drive around this charming town, it is obvious that is not the case. When I drive along Woodfin Avenue, I’m struck by the loose gravel on the turns.”
“Jerry, I’m sorry, but based on the documented corrupt history in the past 15 years I’ve lived here, by Woodfin Police Chiefs E.F. Rice, Darrel Rathburn and Pete Bradley, I know this is not a service I want to pay for. I am happy with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and I see them patrolling my neighborhood.”
Town Administrator Jason Young responded that some of the roads Helbert mentioned are maintained by the state, not the town.
Resident Ray Bailey brandished his hat, featuring an American flag, at the aldermen and mayor and to the crowd.
“Folks, I’m sure you’re fine people and do a great job at what you do, but we don’t need you to do it for us,” Bailey said. “I’d like you to look at the symbol on my hat. There are 50 states, 34 of those do not have forced annexation. Unfortunately our state has not realized how unconstitutional this should be.”
Resident Megan Richardson, also an organizer of the anti-annexation movement, said that the move amounted to a hostile takeover.
“You are attempting to force your ordinances, your police force, your government and your taxes on a community which did not elect you,” Richardson said. “I am shocked you would increase our property taxes by hundreds and even thousands of dollars. In my home we’re working very hard to make ends meet. We grow food in our backyard and we have a compost pile, which I don’t intend to get rid of.”
Resident Marianne Morley said residents’ anger won’t end.
“Not everyone here has a red shirt, but we all feel the same way: we’re all scared and we’re angry,” she said. “Our lives are tremendously affected by this, and it wasn’t well thought out or well planned. I’d like to know how many people here are against annexation?”
The vast majority of the room raised their hands.
“We’re a big group and we’re all angry and afraid,” Morley continued.
The board could vote on the annexation at their next regular meeting, on Aug. 18. If approved, the annexation would take effect a year later.
Proposed legislation in the North Carolina House would allow residents of annexed areas a vote if they could gather signatures of 15 percent of registered voters in the affected area.
— David Forbes, staff writer
— Photo by Jonathan Welch