Woodfin annexation opponents turn out in force

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 a July 21 public hearing. The residents of the 3.5-square-mile slice of Erwin Hills and Leicester say they'll see higher taxes but few or no benefits if forced to join the town.

"We're in this to win": Anti-Woodfin annexation leader Betty Jackson gets a standing ovation as she declares Erwin Hills and Leicester residents' determination to fight the town's attempts to take them in. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Except for a few brief statements, the town's Board of Aldermen, mayor and town administrator remained silent throughout the hearing. Speaker after speaker — many sporting red shirts — denounced the annexation to raucous applause.

"We will not have this off our chests until you stop trying to forcibly annex us," Betty Jackson declared. "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." Jackson is co-founder of StopWoodfin.org.

The annexation would increase Woodfin's population by 3,360 people (about 50 percent) and its geographic area by 38 percent. The town has promised to add eight police officers, a new police substation and an additional town staffer.

Affected residents would see their taxes rise by 26.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Town officials have said that the step is necessary to keep Asheville from annexing the area. However, Asheville city staff have said no such move is planned.

Before the meeting, Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun announced that while the aldermen would be listening and not answering questions, he had a problem with some statements that "were in some editorials and [what was] said at [a July 7 question-and-answer session]. First, Woodfin is not broke. 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. Woodfin police ejected two annexation opponents from the gym for shouting. Just before the second ejection, VeHaun banged his gavel, rose up and declared: "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."

Some speakers harshly criticized the town's promised services, expressing doubt that Woodfin would serve them adequately. Area residents already receive law enforcement, fire protection and trash pickup, as well as water and sewer provided by Asheville.

"This is not the time to raise taxes — especially when I won't be receiving a fair return," asserted Eli Helbert. "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.

"Based on the documented corrupt history in the past 15 years I've lived here, by Woodfin police chiefs E.F. Rice, Darrell Rathburn and Pete Bradley, I know this is not a service I want to pay for."

Brandishing his hat, which featured an American flag, Ray Bailey told the asssembled aldermen and mayor that forced annexation should be unconstitutional. "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," he proclaimed.

Resident Megan Richardson, who also helped organize the anti-annexation movement, said the move amounts 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," she intoned. "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."

The Board of Aldermen could vote on the annexation at its Aug. 18 meeting. If approved, the annexation would take effect a year later unless it were successfully contested in court.
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.

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