Buncombe County could become the first local government in Western North Carolina to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, pending the outcome of discussions by the county Board of Commissioners. The board will hold the first public reading of the proposal at its regular meeting Tuesday, March 16, with a final vote currently scheduled for Tuesday, April 6.
Counties and municipalities had been forbidden from passing such ordinances by a provision in House Bill 142, a North Carolina law that also repealed House Bill 2 — popularly known as the “bathroom bill” for its requirement that transgender people use facilities corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth. However, the relevant HB 142 provision expired on Dec. 1; Orange County and several municipalities have since approved nondiscrimination ordinances.
Buncombe’s proposed language, added to the county board’s agenda by Democratic Chair Brownie Newman and Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Parker Sloan, would ban discrimination in employment based on “race, natural hair or hairstyles, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ancestry, marital or familial status, pregnancy, veteran status, religious belief or non-belief, age or disability.” The rules would also apply to public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels and homeless shelters (but not bars, which in North Carolina are classified as private clubs.)
The potential penalty for violating the ordinance, a $100-per-day civil fine, has been weakened from the $500-per-day fine included in a draft floated by Beach-Ferrara on March 2. If approved, the rules would not go into effect until Thursday, July 1, giving county staff time to develop a process for receiving and investigating discrimination complaints.
In other news
A controversial Pratt & Whitney manufacturing plant returns to the board for a rezoning request. The move would reclassify 11.57 acres of the 100-acre Biltmore Farms parcel slated for the project from R-3 residential to EMP employment, thereby matching the rest of the property. Both Buncombe staff and the county planning board support the zoning change.
Commissioners will also hear presentations regarding Agriculture Awareness Day and the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency. Another presentation regarding facilities at the Asheville City Schools is scheduled, but no documents were linked to the board’s agenda as of press time.
One aspect of the school district’s facilities planning has already drawn questions. ACS has requested $920,000 from Buncombe’s Early Childhood Education and Development Fund to establish four preschool classrooms at Asheville Housing Authority locations after closing existing classrooms at the Asheville Primary School.
In their response to that proposal, members of the county’s Early Childhood and Development Committee pointed to the divide between the district’s worst-in-state racial achievement gaps and claims that its preschool programs were making a difference. “The ACS have operated child care/early childhood programs for many years, but in reality they do not seem to be having the result promoted here,” a question from the committee read. “If funded, how will the results from this grant be different and actually impact the achievement gap through early childhood education?”
Consent agenda and public comment
The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains seven items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Highlights include the following resolutions:
- Reallocating nearly $17,000 from a Dogwood Health Trust grant in support of expanded internet access at county libraries. The money had originally been earmarked for promotion of the 2020 census but was not spent due to COVID-19.
- Authorizing all county departments to participate in the N.C. Local Government Debt Setoff program, which allows state tax refunds and lottery winnings to be claimed in settlement of debts $50 or more. Buncombe’s tax department has participated in the program since 2002 to recover unpaid taxes.
- Permitting a fireworks show to be conducted at the Biltmore Estate on Saturday, April 10. The display, valued at nearly $7,200, is tied to a wedding on the property and will not be open to the public.
The commissioners will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m. to discuss the county’s COVID-19 response and other topics. The full agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.
Public comment will only be permitted through live telephone calls at the start of the meeting; no in-person comments, emails or voicemails will be accepted. Those planning to comment must sign up online or call 828-250-4001 by Monday, March 15, at 3 p.m. All commenters will receive three minutes to address the board.