Buncombe proposes land conservation goal

Buncombe County seal

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners recently set a series of affordable housing targets, seeking to expand the places where county residents can live. By contrast, a new land conservation target to be considered by the board Thursday, May 19, seeks to expand the places where people can’t set down roots.

At the recommendation of the board’s Environment & Energy Stewardship Subcommittee, which includes board Chair Brownie Newman along with Commissioners Parker Sloan and Terri Wells, members will vote on whether to commit to conserving 20% of Buncombe’s total acreage by 2030. That figure would include all land where further development isn’t allowed, such as county parks, national forests and private farmland under conservation easements.

About 18% of the county’s more than 420,000 acres is already protected in this way, and another 0.5% is in the process of being conserved. The remaining 1.5% of Buncombe land that would need to be preserved to meet the goal equates to about 6,000 acres; county staffers estimate achieving the target would cost about $9.5 million over current spending levels.

The board identified land preservation as a goal in its 2025 Strategic Plan. “Farmland and environmentally sensitive tracts in the county are important to both the economy as well as the quality of life of our citizens,” the plan states, further noting that Buncombe lost nearly 23,000 acres of farmland between 1997 and 2017.

Funding for both conservation and affordable housing projects could come from $70 million in bond issues that Buncombe voters will vote on in November. Also at their May 19 meeting, commissioners are likely to set public hearings on the bond referendums for Tuesday, June 7.

In other news

Commissioners will hear a presentation on County Manager Avril Pinder’s recommended budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year. Although no budget documents were attached to the board’s May 19 agenda as of press time, the budget as discussed during a May 10 work session included about $382.4 million in general fund revenues — primarily property and sales taxes — and $394.7 million in spending. (The county would allocate about $12.3 million of its fiscal reserves to make up the difference.)

While that budget won’t go into effect until the start of the new fiscal year in July, the board will also consider a more immediate boost in spending to fund salary increases recommended by a recent compensation study. Of Buncombe’s nearly 1,200 employees, about 650 would get a pay bump; minimum compensation would be set at $17 per hour, below the $17.70 hourly living wage identified by Just Economics of Western North Carolina.

A presentation on the compensation study says the raises can be funded through June by lapsed salaries from vacant positions. The annual cost of the increases is estimated at about $5 million.

The last item on the board’s agenda is a resolution calling for the N.C. General Assembly to increase the portion of the county’s occupancy tax that can be spent on “tourism-related expenditures” such as community infrastructure. During a May 2 board meeting, Newman called the current distribution formula “outrageous” and a “disservice to this community.”

Consent agenda and public comment

The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains five items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. In addition to the routine approval of previous meeting minutes, the agenda includes approval of an amended application from Asheville City Schools to use about $316,000 in state lottery funds to conduct mold remediation.

The commissioners will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m. to discuss items on future agendas. The full agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.

In-person public comment will be taken at the start of the regular meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in Room 326 at 200 College St. in Asheville; no voicemail or email comments will be permitted. Both the briefing and regular meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page and will subsequently be available via YouTube.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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