When attorney Martin Moore first joined the Buncombe County Board of Adjustment about three years ago, he said, the body mostly helped “everyday people with everyday problems.” Those coming before the all-volunteer board, its chair recalls, were primarily “neighbors” looking for relatively small tweaks to county zoning regulations.
But over time, Moore told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners during a Feb. 2 meeting, the Board of Adjustment has become a battleground for some of the county’s most contentious developments. Projects such as the 660-unit 20 South Bear Creek complex and 852-unit Busbee apartments have faced marathon hearings — some over nine hours — fiercely debated by opposing legal teams.
As previously reported by Xpress (see “Best laid plans,” Dec. 2), Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman has named revisions to Buncombe land use policy as one of the top three priorities for his new term. Moore’s presentation, as well as a subsequent report from Buncombe County Planning Board Chair Nancy Waldrop, indicated that the county remains interested in changing its approach to development.
Although Moore assured commissioners that his board was up to the challenge of hearing complicated legal arguments over big projects, both Newman and Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara suggested that the county should reconsider its duties. “It behooves us, when we see a volunteer board taking on a workload this substantial and complex, to really take a fresh look at how that’s going for those volunteers, and also maybe questions we should be asking from a policy standpoint,” she said.
Similarly, Waldrop said the Planning Board had reviewed applications for more and larger major subdivisions in 2020 than in any previous year. She expressed some frustration over the board’s legal role, which only involves ensuring that developers have complied with county ordinances and provides little discretion over project design.
“We’re really — I don’t want to say a rubber stamp, but that’s what it feels like at some times,” Waldrop explained. “It sometimes makes us feel like we don’t really have a role to play. We’re just sort of filling in a spot, that we’re being checked off as a box.”
Waldrop said the board recommended an audit of the county subdivision ordinance with an eye toward protecting open space and ensuring adequate infrastructure, as well as an audit of the Community-Oriented Development program designed to bolster affordable housing. And the county’s upcoming comprehensive land use plan, she continued, should reconsider zoning in anticipation of climate-change impacts such as landslides and flooding.
Nathan Pennington, Buncombe’s planning and development director, emphasized that the county’s land use challenges are only expected to continue as time goes on. “We’ll see what 2021 turns out, but we do not see an abatement to the development boom,” he said.