The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved an increase in room occupancy taxes for visitors to the area at its Tuesday, Sept. 1 meeting.
The increase, from 4 to 6 percent, applies only to those paying for rooms in county hotels and does not affect residents. This rate coincides with rates currently implemented in 31 other North Carolina counties, including Durham and Catawba.
Many hoteliers spoke in favor of the increase, saying that the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has done a great job of attracting visitors to our county.
Under state mandate, the revenue from the increased rate is no longer allowed to benefit for-profit organizations and would be used to market the region for a continued thriving tourism base. Local governments and nonprofits could apply for grants for projects like infrastructure improvements that benefit both residents and visitors to the city and county.
However, there’s no guarantee of these grants — and that’s where the issue caused controversy that transcended the usual party-line split.
Commissioner Brownie Newman explained that, while he is all for increasing the room occupancy tax rate, he doesn’t agree with this unequal split. “This is not the right balance,” he said during the meeting.
Commissioner Ellen Frost agreed, but explained that she feels that, “Unfortunately, this is the best we’re going to get. It’s a sad reality,” she said. But working with state legislature to allow an equal division of funds could prove futile.
After lengthy debate, Commissioner Holly Jones said, “Wow! I’m biting my nails! I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Then, she asked the county staff, “If this proposal should fail, when could it be brought back?”
This question caused plenty of confusion across the board, as the Commissioners against the resolution wanted to be able to ask the state to revise the ratio and bring it back to a vote in a timely manner.
“Those of us prepared to vote against this resolution” want to make sure we’re not killing the idea, explained Newman.
After debate, the Commissioners voted to go into brief closed session to look over the rules on bringing a topic back before the board. After coming out, it was decided that the county would be able to hear the resolution again after revision.
But those for the idea still outnumbered those against, bringing in a 4-3 vote, with Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl, Jones and Newman opposing.
Combining the fire service districts
Following this discussion, the Board heard a resolution to hold public hearings to decrease the number of fire service districts in the county and expand the reach of EMS services within those districts.
As County Attorney Michael Frue explained, these changes are at the request of the Fire Chiefs Association and would consolidate adjacent fire districts with the same tax rates. The proposal would bring the number of fire service districts in Buncombe County from 35 down to 19, cleaning up a “60-year mess” of confusing boundary lines.
Riceville Fire Chief Thad Lewis stood up and explained, “This resolution gives us the opportunity to serve the community the best we possibly can,” and getting the many chiefs in the county to agree on a resolution is “something to be proud of,” he said.
The Commissioners voted 7-0 to approve the resolution to schedule public hearings, which will be held at the regular Board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20.
Blue Ridge Parkway restrictions
Next, the Commissioners decided to add additional restrictions to the Blue Ridge Parkway overlay district.
In May, Buncombe County agreed to work with the National Park Service to come up with additional rules for development along the parkway’s viewshed. And after this collaborative effort, the county planning staff came up with a few extra rules.
While, under current requirements, the rules imposed in the overlay apply only to non-single family development, the new proposition insists that these restrictions should apply to all development. And while the current ordinance states that the property must be adjacent to NPS property, the changes would apply to any property visible from the road. As an additional requirement, trees must be planted between the building and the parkway to help keep the parkway’s views as natural as possible.
Commissioners Mike Fryar and Joe Belcher expressed their distaste for restricting what a property owner can or cannot do on their own property.
Buying trees to shield their structure from the road will get expensive, explained Belcher. Nobody wants an apartment complex built next to the parkway, and we’re not going to do that. But this resolution is far too intrusive on property owners’ rights, he said.
Commissioner DeBruhl agreed and pointed out that the NPS is happy with our current level of restrictions.
But Chairman David Gantt, though he agreed about being hesitant to restrict owners’ rights, said the parkway is such a value to our county and must be protected for future generations.
The resolution was approved 4-3, with Fryar, DeBruhl and Belcher against.
Traveling Vietnam wall in Buncombe
Following this decision, the Board heard from a group of veterans on bringing the traveling Vietnam memorial wall to our county.
Though many veterans travel to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial there, many others cannot travel this far. This would be a good way to both teach younger generations and celebrate the generation that fought in this war, said one veteran.
So far, the group has raised $12,000 of the $25,000 required. The group asked Buncombe County match funds raised from each of its six municipalities, not exceeding more than $6,000.
The Commissioners voted 7-0 to match funds from the municipalities to bring the memorial to Buncombe County.
The next Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 4:30 p.m. on the third floor of 200 College St.