At the Tuesday, Dec. 1 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Brownie Newman was elected vice chair of the board by a 4-3 vote.
Newman, who has served on the county board since 2012 and previously served on Asheville City Council, announced earlier this year that he intends to run for chair of the board in 2016. The current chair, David Gantt, announced that he plans to retire from the commission in July after serving 20 years on the board. Commissioner Joe Belcher, from district three, served as vice chair for the past year.
The other candidate nominated that evening was district two Commissioner Mike Fryar, who garnered the votes of republican commissioners Belcher, Miranda DeBruhl and himself. Newman landed the votes of commissioners Gantt, Holly Jones, Ellen Frost and himself.
The new vice chair of the board is elected every year on the first Tuesday in December, which means, if Newman were to win the vote for chair in fall of 2016, a new vice chair would be appointed by the board around that same time (likely at the same meeting that the new chair is sworn in).
Zoning the unzoned
The only topic discussed at length that evening, however, was the county’s decision to zone a currently unzoned and unincorporated county territory bordering Woodfin.
The first set of properties on the list were suggested as an R-3 residential zone, with a steep slope overlay in parts of these properties. The largest chunk of the zonings lies along Baird Cove Road, with two smaller sites bordering Leisure Mountain Road and north of Alta Citta Lane.
R-3 is the least restrictive residential zone, allowing for single-family and multifamily units, duplexes and mobile or manufactured housing — with manufactured home parks allowed under conditional use.
The steep slope/high elevation overlay is used, in this case, in areas having a natural slope of 35 percent or greater. This overlay involves special consideration for development and is intended to limit the intensity of development, preserve the viewshed and protect the county’s natural resources.
The top two properties, the smaller of the bunch, are already adjacent to an R-3 zone.
County Zoning Administrator Debbie Truempy explained that the county Planning Board had split the vote into two separate areas: one vote for the larger section along Baird Cove and one vote for the two smaller sections at the north end of the map.
While the Planning Board recommended the approval of R-3 zoning on the larger segment, the board also recommended that the county deny zoning the northernmost properties R-3, in a 4-1 vote.
Commissioner DeBruhl asked Truempy why the Planning Board had recommended the county deny the request, and Truempy responded that there was concern from neighbors that R-3 zoning in the uppermost properties would allow mobile and manufactured homes at the location. However, manufactured homes are already “sprinkled throughout” the lower area of the map, she said.
“But keep in mind,” Truempy continued, “that these properties are not currently zoned” at all — and therefore currently allow mobile and manufactured homes anyway. And with the steep slope overlay, which covers most of the two northernmost sections, property owners would have to abide by stricter development restrictions anyway.
If the commissioners voted to deny the zoning resolution in favor of a more restrictive district, the entire process would start over. Meanwhile, the areas would be left unzoned and open to any kind of development.
During the public hearing for the zonings, area resident Mike Parish told commissioners that he wished he had more time to prepare his opposition to the changes — explaining that, with more time, he likely could have rounded up 100 of his neighbors’ signatures against the zoning addition.
The county is supposed to vote with the will of the people, Parish said, and the will of the people is to not downgrade the neighborhood by allowing mobile and manufactured homes.
At least 10 more residents stepped up to the podium expressing those same thoughts, along with the additional concerns of extra traffic. Mark Parsons requested that the commissioners instead vote to zone the property R-1, which cannot be done without first going through the Planning Board and county staff.
“We’re seeing the consequences of no zoning, and now we’re trying to make sense of it all and figure it out,” Commissioner Jones explained to both the board and the residents. “In these situations, where we’re trying to determine zoning, you’re going to have nonconforming properties — and that doesn’t bother me. It was basically the Wild Wild West out there.”
Gantt asked Truempy if any current residents would be displaced by this zoning, and Truempy explained that they would not. All current property owners would be “grandfathered in,” and zoning restrictions would only apply to new development in the area.
Newman then added that he was ready to vote in favor of the new zoning, despite the opposition of the residents, because the steep slope overlay would protect these areas from haphazard development while both the county and residents sort through the options.
Given the residents’ concerns about unwanted development, approving the steep slope overlay “is the best thing we can do about overdevelopment on these parcels,” he said.
Gantt then asked Truempy: If the board were to approve the new zoning, what could the residents do to change the area to an R-1 zone in the future? To which Truempy responded that the residents would have to apply to rezone the area — a $250 application fee per resident.
I hear what the neighborhood is saying, said Gantt, but without zoning, anything can go on these properties — and it might take a while to restart the process. “As Commissioner Jones said, it’s [currently] like the Wild Wild West,” he added.
Fryar pointed out his reluctance to make residents pay application fees to rezone these properties, should the R-3 zoning be approved. Gantt responded by asking if there was a way to waive the fees for these residents for an entire year following their decision — and was answered that, yes, the board has the authority to waive the fees with a vote.
DeBruhl then motioned to postpone the vote until the next meeting, in January, to have more time to think about the residents’ requests.
Frost responded that “we can table [decisions] until the cows come home,” but ultimately, the county needs to vote on important issues. It’s unlikely that any more information will come to light in that time, and delaying the decision would be unproductive, she continued.
The motion to postpone the vote failed 3-4, with Frost, Newman, Gantt and Jones against.
An amendment to the resolution was then added to waive the application fees, should the residents apply to rezone the property over the next year.
After a bit more back-and-forth, Jones explained that, while the neighbors made a great case against the R-3 zoning, that ultimately they would be much more protected than they are currently.
The commissioners then approved the zoning 5-2, with DeBruhl and Fryar against.
The second two area zonings went much smoother, though still bringing in mixed votes from the board.
The first of which being several small properties, recommended to be zoned R-1 residential with areas of steep slope overlay. One section straddles between the borders of Weaverville and Woodfin at Leisure Mountain Road. The next few properties lie along Dry Ridge Road, Beaverbrook Court and Robinhood Road, near the Country Club of Asheville. And the last zoning lies on Hillview Road, in the Haw Creek area of Northeast Asheville.
Though nobody spoke up against this bunch, John Court, who lives on Windsor Creek Road, pointed out some bizarre border and zoning issues along the Woodfin-Asheville-Buncombe County line — a matter he would take up with the zoning administrator at a later date. Another resident chimed in that she noticed this as well, mentioning that half of her home is unincorporated, while the other half lies in Woodfin.
The board voted to approve the zoning 4-3, with Belcher, DeBruhl and Fryar against.
The last of the zoning considerations was to add an employment district on the border of Asheville, across Interstate 26 from the Asheville Regional Airport.
According to the county’s zoning ordinance, an employment district is “intended to provide appropriately located sites for employment concentrations, primarily for office uses, industrial uses, storage and warehousing and wholesale trade.”
Both the Planning Board and staff recommended these zonings be approved, and the commissioners also approved the zoning, 4-3, with Belcher, DeBruhl and Fryar against.
A-B Tech renovation reimbursement
The commissioners then approved, in a unanimous vote, a resolution to reimburse the county for the money spent on improvements to A-B Tech’s Rhododendron Building.
“The County presently intends … to finance all or a portion of the costs of the project with proceeds of tax-exempt obligations,” reads the resolution. “And [the county] reasonably expects to execute and deliver its tax-exempt obligations to finance or to reimburse itself for all or a portion of the costs.”
The project total is expected to cost $7 million.
Conservation easement at an N.C. Century Farm
Also on the table was a resolution to allocate $37,500 for the preservation of an Alexander farm.
Ridgeview Farms, a designated North Carolina Century Farm, has been owned by a single family for at least 100 years, giving it the “century” title. The 115-acre farm consists of 84 acres of pasture, 20 acres of cropland and 7 acres of woodland.
The decision that night was to either approve or deny a request for a conservation easement on the property, which would permanently protect the farm from development — but also allow the family to still own and operate the farm as normal. Various environmental organizations had already donated or granted $870,000 for the farm’s protection, and the $37,500 in county money would cover transaction fees for the deal.
A conservation easement “is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization or public agency,” reads a handout from buncombecounty.org. “In the agreement, the landowner promises to keep the land in its natural condition without extensive disturbance, and the conservation organization or public agency is granted the right to enforce the covenants of the agreement and to monitor the property.”
The commissioners, however, divided over the issue.
Funding for the easement would come from the county’s fund balance in the general fund, which was cause for concern for DeBruhl and Fryar.
DeBruhl explained that, while she isn’t against the overall request, she feels that the county should be exploring ways to add money to the fund balance — not take more away.
Both commissioners agreed that the request is a great opportunity to preserve historic farmland — however, in light of recent legal expenses, it’s just not the right time to be spending more money.
Newman argued that the budget created earlier this year allows for these types of expenses — and that it’s impossible to know what kinds of opportunities will come up when drafting the next year’s budget.
When the county voted to allocate $6,000 to bring a traveling Vietnam War memorial to the county, we all approved, Newman continued.
Commissioner Belcher added that, going forward, the county needs to have some sort of safety net in place — so that, in these instances, the decision isn’t a final and binding yes or no.
Ultimately, the expense was approved 4-3, with Belcher, DeBruhl and Fryar dissenting.
For a resolution not on the agenda, the commissioners voted 4-3, down party lines, to support a resolution supporting Connect NC, a statewide initiative “investing in North Carolina’s future.”
Locally, that means nearly $5.5 million in funding for improvements to A-B Tech. While the three dissenting commissioners agreed that the initiative was positive, Fryar pointed out that the entire board doesn’t need to write a letter to the governor in support of it.
The board then went into closed session to discuss an economic development issue.
The next Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 5, at 4:30 p.m.