This year’s annual joint meeting of Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on March 13 in downtown Asheville highlighted similarities and contrasts between the two elected bodies’ approaches to myriad issues affecting city and county residents alike.
While city and county officials found common ground on joint efforts to address epidemic levels of opioid abuse and overdose, early childhood education and affordable housing, the conversation inevitably turned to issues of racial equity — specifically the controversy sparked by the recent leak of Asheville Police Department body camera video that showed a white officer beating a black city resident — as well as differing visions of how to address growth in the city and surrounding communities.
Buncombe Commission Chair Brownie Newman summarized six priorities County Commissioners laid out in December. Those include efforts to increase the supply of regional affordable housing by partnering with the city on projects like the redevelopment of the Lee Walker Heights public housing neighborhood, which he said was the county’s biggest single investment in an affordable housing project.
“We made it a goal to ensure comprehensive opportunities for affordable and safe housing as a foundation for healthy and thriving families and neighborhoods,” Newman said. “We’re excited to be co-investing to help make that happen.”
Other priorities include providing support to small businesses to expand opportunity for those in under-represented or marginalized communities; investing in early childhood education; supporting justice program reforms; combating the opioid epidemic and advancing a transition to renewable energy sources.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer provided an overview of the city’s eight strategic priorities, which include promoting affordable housing, closing the gap in racial and economic equity among residents, devising sensible land-use policies, investing in environmentally friendly infrastructure and creating a resilient, diverse economy.
“A connected and engaged community can mean a lot of things,” Manheimer noted. “We know that alone, we cannot do nearly as much as we need to. To be able to leverage more opportunities, we need to seek out partners to make those possibilities happen.”
County Manager Mandy Stone and Assistant County Manager Jim Holland presented a brief rundown of shared initiatives, detailing recent efforts to increase parking options, as well as a collaborative project to establish a library branch and community meeting space in East Asheville.
Stone called attention to attempts to address the burgeoning opioid crisis, calling it “the primary health challenge at this point” for county Health and Human Services. Buncombe County is establishing a painkiller task force and a drug court to reduce criminal charges for drug-related offenses, Stone said.
Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson said public housing and school resource officers, in addition to all members of the Asheville Fire and Police departments, are now equipped and trained to use the overdose reversal drug Narcan.
Buncombe District 3 Commissioner Joe Belcher lauded fellow commissioners Ellen Frost and Mike Fryar for their efforts to engage community members in discussions around opioid addiction and recommended that City Council consider doing the same.
Fryar added that letting constituents who are struggling through the recovery process know their elected officials care goes a long way. “If you can talk to even five people, it helps,” Fryar said. “These are good people struggling to get off drugs.”
Racial equity and community relations between the APD and the city’s African-American population took center stage as Stone discussed programs to address discrepancies in equity and access highlighted in the annual State of Black Asheville report.
The county partners with Asheville to support minority-owned businesses and community initiatives, educational programs like the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy and the African American Heritage Commission, Stone said.
Al Whitesides, Buncombe’s only African-American commissioner, said that while he is pleased to see such efforts, progress has been negated by recurring controversies around the Asheville Police Department’s relationship to the city’s black population. The most recent of those was touched off by the publication of a video showing former Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman (who is white) beating Johnnie Jermaine Rush, an African-American resident, after stopping him for jaywalking in August.
“It seems like we take five steps forward and 10 steps backwards,” Whitesides said. “This is something we’ve got to talk about and deal with.”
Whitesides shared his own experiences with racial profiling at the hands of the APD. Morale is low in the police ranks and around the community, he noted, urging City Council to take a more proactive stance on the issue.
“If we don’t solve this problem, it’s going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Whitesides added, referring to possible effects on the tourism industry. “This is uncovering what is going on in Asheville. I voted for all of you on Council, and I expect you all to solve this problem.”
Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Frost and Fryar also called on city and county officials to take action to address tensions between police and the African-American population.
“This is a crisis,” said Frost. “We’re losing a whole community.”
Promoting clean energy alternatives is a common goal between the city and county, and Newman touted investments in solar that aim to reduce the county’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield noted that the Energy Innovation Task Force, which is a collaborative effort of the city, county and Duke Energy, will roll out a new website for its Blue Horizons project next week. Residents can connect to energy assistance programs and resources through the site.
“The community was presented with a threat, in my mind, of an additional fossil fuel plant,” Mayfield said, speaking of a proposed natural gas-fired electricity plant to meet increases in energy demand at peak periods. “I appreciate the resources that our fellow Council members and commissioners have put toward addressing this threat.”
In response to a question from Belcher about residents’ struggles to heat poorly insulated homes using inefficient heating systems, Mayfield noted that Duke Energy will upgrade 2,000 homes in the Deaverview neighborhood through the Energy Savers program.
Elected officials also discussed the implications of zoning differences between the city and unincorporated areas.
Recently elected city Council member Vijay Kapoor said zoning discrepancies hamper cohesive development in rapidly growing areas like South Asheville.
Fryar responded bluntly, noting that municipalities like Weaverville and Black Mountain deal with the same issues as Asheville; zoning is a countywide issue that shouldn’t center on Asheville’s concerns, he said.
“We are Buncombe County, not Asheville,” Fryar added.
Other commissioners, however, seemed open to Kapoor’s call for more cohesive planning. Newman spoke in support of coordinating zoning efforts, while Frost noted that “if the problem is in South Asheville today, it will be a problem in Black Mountain and Weaverville tomorrow.”
Kapoor said South Asheville citizens expect the city and county to coordinate on development. Areas around Mills Gap Road, Sweeten Creek and other southern thoroughfares are “set to explode” in the coming years, he said.
Manheimer noted that other cities she’s visited have been proactive in coordinating infrastructure with county officials and other municipalities to facilitate responsible growth.
“We’re offering to do it jointly with you, whatever that looks like,” the mayor told commissioners.
Talk on development segued into discussion of other issues related to the region’s growth. Both Newman and Mayfield touched on the importance of expanding transit options into the county.
“Enabling people to live here without either driving a car […] or even having to have a car at all, makes this city much more affordable,” Mayfield said. “The cost of housing and transportation costs are intricately linked.”
Asheville Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, meanwhile, raised questions about county real estate taxes paid by city taxpayers and the fairness of the taxation structure. And why, she continued, is Asheville required to share 25 percent of the tax proceeds for its alcohol sales with the county when other Buncombe municipalities aren’t obliged to do the same?
Stone responded that Black Mountain also pays 25 percent of alcohol sales taxes to the county, while towns like Woodfin and Weaverville have benefited from a change in state law that allows municipalities to negotiate alcohol taxes paid to the county.
Whitesides praised the efforts of the African American Heritage Commission to establish an African-American heritage district to spotlight and connect Asheville’s historic black communities.
As the meeting wound down, Belcher advised the city to reconsider its zoning regulations around mobile and manufactured homes within city limits, noting that tiny homes are a rising trend. Factory-built housing should be an option within the city, he said.
The meeting adjourned following a group photo of members the two governmental bodies. County commissioners retreated upstairs for a closed session regarding an economic development issue, while City Council headed across the street to Asheville City Hall to conduct its regular scheduled meeting.