County Commissioners address Zeugner Center concerns, approve large contract for various projects

G-MEN LOOKING AT GREENE: The FBI is investigating former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene for reasons it hasn't yet disclosed. Xpress will continue to update the story as more details are available. Photo by Hayley Benton

At the March 3 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting, row after row of young attendees equipped with swim goggles waited to hear news on the Zeugner Center pool and the promise of a new aquatic facility.

And they didn’t have to wait long for their questions to be answered.

Board chair David Gantt reorganized the meeting to move the pool issue to the top of the meeting, prior to public comment, and turned it over to County Manager Wanda Greene.

This wasn’t the first meeting filled with a passionate, goggled following. A January decision to close the 50-year-old pool sparked concern among local school swim teams and coaches that rely on the pool for practice and competitions.

Short-term, Greene explained, the county will work with swim coaches to figure out how to keep Zeugner open for another season. But the pool is in serious need of repair — the initial reason for its intended closure, she said. However, with the outpouring of support to keep the facility open, the county will leave the pool’s care in the hands of the affected schools, with reimbursements for expenses from the county.

After Greene’s spiel on the state of Zeugner, Commissioner Joe Belcher asked for clarity, “So Zeugner pool is not closing until we have a replacement, is that correct?”

Greene replied that the statement was “mostly” correct, as long as no major system failure occurs. A new aquatic facility, which was discussed later on in the public hearings, would take about 18 months to construct.

Greene also announced that detailed discussion on the future of a new indoor pool would take place later in the meeting, and then the room opened to public comment.

Swimmer Camille Long approached the podium and spoke about the benefits a new aquatic facility would bring to the residents and students of Buncombe County. Many others followed, expressing the same sentiments. One commenter mentioned that she believes estimates to fix the Zeugner Center’s pool were grossly miscalculated, saying the leaks needing repair were far less serious than believed. “The pool does not leak!” she asserted.

After residents expressed varying concerns, the meeting then moved on to talk about livestock, with good news about the Western North Carolina Regional Livestock Center’s accomplishments over the past year, and an amendment to an animal control ordinance to redefine and reword living conditions for livestock, further preventing animal neglect.

L.T. Ward, vice president of WNC Communities, reported that the livestock center helped put $7 million more into the pockets of local farmers and producers in 2014. Ward explained that this is far more than could be made in the open market.

The board moved on to the animal ordinance, which underwent another change in language, rephrasing the document to continue protecting animals as well as keeping livestock handlers in mind.

The ultimate goal of the board, explained Commissioner Ellen Frost, is to stop the neglect of all animals in Buncombe County. But previous changes to the ordinance were not as beneficial as the board had hoped, which caused some push-back from livestock handlers. The newest amendment sparked discussion on why input from the community is a detrimental aspect of a thriving government.

“We don’t want to make mistakes,” said Commissioner Holly Jones, but mistakes are bound to happen. “But what is more important in life is that we listen to each other,” listen to members of our community, and strive to “make things better.”

Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl said she hopes the board continues to revisit this and other ordinances in an ongoing effort to improve the conditions of local animals — with the bigger picture of facilitating communication to create a stronger Buncombe County.

“I promise two things to you,” Jones said. “We will listen to you, and we will make mistakes. … But we will make them right” in the end.

Gantt added, specifically to the livestock advocates who showed up to comment, that “we love farmers” in Buncombe County. “Farmers have always been a critical part of our economy in our region, and we will take care of you,” he said.

The amendment to the ordinance passed 7-0, gaining the approval of animal advocates in the room, who expressed gratitude for the changes that were made.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, three of four rezoning requests were approved unanimously, with little or no push-back from the public.

Those three requests were all part of the former Weaverville Extraterritorial Jurisdiction, which was transferred over to Buncombe County jurisdiction in summer 2014.

For clarity, it’s worth noting the different residential zones, as defined by Buncombe County Planning and Zoning:

  • An R-1 residential district is strictly for single-family homes.
  • An R-2 residential district allows for both single- and multi-family homes, with up to 12 units per acre. This means single-family homes, two-family duplexes and one-building multi-family units. Larger apartment units are permitted under conditional use.
  • An R-3 residential district allows all of thee above, as well as manufactured homes and manufactured home parks. This district allows for uses more commercial in nature (beyond what is listed in the chart), and is therefore not entirely residential.

(For a full list of zones and what they permit, view The Zoning Ordinance of Buncombe County).

The first request, involving an area along Dogwood Drive to Hamburg Mountain Road and ending just a bit north of Reems Creek, was rezoned from R-2 to R-1. The next request focused on a section along the short, 10-property curve on Hope Road. James A. White, one of the property’s owners, applied to rezone the road from R-3 to an R-1 single-family district. White explained he had the support of 100 percent of the owners in the affected area. The next space, a 1.45-acre property off of Monticello Road, gained approval from the board for switching from an R-3 residential district to a commercial service district. The property already sits adjacent to a commercial district.

The last of the four requests, an 8-acre space along the Swannanoa River, proved controversial, with members of Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa arguing that changing the property from a commercial district to an R-3 zone would thwart progress in revitalizing Swannanoa.

While several commissioners expressed an understanding of the concerns brought forth by FANS, the area’s need for affordable housing took a front seat in the debate. The revitalization of Swannanoa is a wonderful cause, Belcher said, “but to give two families that opportunity — I don’t want to deny those families the opportunity to see that beautiful river.” Those families deserve to enjoy that view just like anyone else, he explained.

Zoning Administrator Josh O’Conner explained that construction of a commercial building in the space could obstruct views of the river just as much, if not more, than a few mobile homes — which was part of the problem for the FANS advocates. The final rezoning application was approved 5-2, with Gantt and Frost opposing.

Last on the public hearing list, Greene’s presentation on the $141 million, eight-project bundle contract with Buncombe Financing Corporation lasted longer than 90 minutes, with intense debate and plenty of questions and skepticism from both the public and commissioners.

The proposal intends to enter an installed purchase contract in order to fund the following:

  • an addition to the County’s Health & Human Services Campus, including a parking deck adjacent to the addition
  • the construction of Enka Intermediate School in Candler
  • a new indoor firearms training facility
  • a new swimming pool in Woodfin
  • the renovation of the Sheriff Detention Center
  • the relocation of the evidence room to 339 New Leicester Highway
  • the renovation of the facility housing the Permits and Inspections Department
  • new election systems, software and equipment

Greene explained that the reason for tackling all of these issues at once is to save money and be efficient, “the more things we package and approve at once, the more savings we get,” she explained.

Gantt spoke up, saying he has watched so many good causes get “kicked down the road” and put off until an undecided, future date. “The swimming pool? It’s been kicked down the road. The gun range? Kicked down the road. At some point, you need the political guts to do what needs to be done for the community. Otherwise it’s just going to kick down the road again,” Gantt said.

Belcher admitted, “This is a heavy lift.”

And Commissioner Mike Fryar strongly opposed the location of the gun range, saying it would be a better fit for another location. Gantt retorted that the location Fryar suggested would be problematic due to prior agreements with the area’s residents.

DeBruhl asked if the funding for the pool, to be used in part for student swim teams, would come out of funding for county schools, and Greene replied that it would not.

After much deliberation and public comment on serious concerns for approving multiple, expensive projects under one umbrella, the board approved the installment purchase contract 6-1, with Fryar against.

The next board meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 17, at 8 a.m. for a special budget workshop. The next regularly scheduled meeting is set for Tuesday, April 7.

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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] gmail.com. Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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