The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved an economic incentive package and expressed frustration with zoning during its meeting Tuesday, April 18. Commissioners also heard the case for $5.2 million in funding requests from the Asheville Housing Authority and the town of Woodfin.
Expanding jobs, creating concerns
Commissioners unanimously approved an $881,960 economic incentive package for Avadim Technologies Inc. However, the good news of job creation was slightly tempered by talks of where employees on the lower end of the company’s pay scale could afford to live.
Last September, Avadim Technologies Inc. announced it was expanding its Asheville operation to Black Mountain. The company says the move means an investment of at least $20 million and the creation of 551 full-time jobs with an average pay of $50,946. Avadim lists the breakdown of those positions as: 100 jobs paying $89,440 a year; 161 jobs paying $64,480 a year; and 290 jobs paying $30,160 a year for a total of just over $28 million in new salaries. The company says it will hit those benchmarks by 2021.
“I’m a lifelong resident here,” said Avadim CEO Steve Woody. “The way the community has come together to support us has been amazing. Jobs in our community don’t happen by accident. … It really is a public-private partnership.”
Commissioner Ellen Frost, whose district includes the area where Avadim is expanding, expressed concern about affordable housing. “Housing is at a premium, especially in the eastern part of the county. What are your thoughts on housing for folks? The average rent is about $1,200 a month,” she asked.
Woody replied that his company hopes to be a catalyst for more high-paying, medical-based jobs and, by doing so, increase the number of higher salaries in the county. “We want to be a nucleus of bringing back medical companies we lost. They offer a bit of a better wage. And as we do that, hopefully we can help alleviate some of the housing crunch,” he explained.
Frost recalled giving a ride to an Avadim employee who lived in one of Asheville’s public housing units but was hopeful his job would offer a way out. “I’m conflicted with this,” lamented Frost, noting the employees at the lowest end of the new positions could struggle financially. “I urge you to come up with a better answer for Buncombe County taxpayers … and search your heart. We have a wonderful workforce here, but they are struggling for a place to live.”
Commissioner Al Whitesides asked about the possibility of child care for Avadim’s workers, noting the barrier it can cause for potential employees.
Woody said discussions about potential logistics have taken place, but there are no concrete plans as of now.
Commission Chair Brownie Newman capped off the discussion by circling back to job creation. “This will create more good-paying jobs than any other project I’ve been involved with,” he said.
County staff said investment values, job creation numbers and salaries will be verified by the county’s Tax Department and N.C. Employment Security Commission, respectively. The $881,960 will be paid out over the course of five years, provided Avadim hits its projected benchmarks.
A rezoning request in the Bent Creek community highlighted frustrations some commissioners have with zoning. At issue was a request to change a 2.58-acre plot at 227 Bent Creek Ranch Road from R-1 to R-3. The applicant, James Hall, said he wanted to add a mobile home for his mother.
However, the property currently has two mobile homes, which is the maximum amount for the R-1 designation. Hall acknowledged he didn’t keep abreast of zoning changes implemented by the county in previous years. “This whole experience has been unpleasant. We don’t want to be at odds with our neighbors. But it has also brought us closer to some neighbors,” he said.
County staff and the Planning Board recommended denial of the request because it would create spot zoning, a doughnut hole at odds with the surrounding area’s zoning designation. The requested R-3 designation would allow for mobile home parks, and that’s what brought people out to speak against the rezoning.
Bent Creek resident Cassandra Childs said, “The change proposed is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. … Rezoning sets a dangerous precedent. I sympathize with them. I have been in the same situation.”
Other neighbors spoke against the rezoning while noting it has nothing to do with the Hall family but rather the fear of what the R-3 designation would do to the property.
Commissioner Joe Belcher expressed his frustration with the situation. “I’m inclined to approve this because I don’t think it would drastically change that community. It’s a difficult issue, and there should be another option other than R-3,” he said.
Commissioner Robert Pressley said he received a number of phone calls expressing concern about the potential rezoning. “Everyone is concerned about you,” he said, before stating it also opens up possibilities he’s not comfortable with.
“This is a tough issue. We’ve got to deal with the problem and we’ve got to be fair about this,” said Whitesides. “I hate to say it, but I agree with your neighbors. You have the best intentions, but 20 years from now it might be out of your control.”
“It’s a shame we can’t do something. [The residents of] Buncombe County voted against zoning, but commissioners put it in, and now we’re stuck with it,” said Commissioner Mike Fryar, referring to a 2009 decision by commissioners to implement countywide zoning. “We have a problem in Buncombe County and we need to figure out some way to fix it,” he said noting he’s always been against zoning.
The vote to approve the rezoning request was denied 5-2, with Belcher and Fryar voting in favor of it.
A second rezoning request brought people out to speak against it but ended with commissioners giving it the go-ahead.
The applicant requested that a 6.85-acre plot, adjacent to 220 Pine Hill Road in Swannanoa, be rezoned from R-LD to R-1. The move would allow for more homes to be built on the property.
Michael Hayes, speaking on behalf of the applicant, said, “We intend to make the stormwater problem better. We are good neighbors when we develop. We intend to deliver a good product.” He also noted the development would not look to maximize the additional density.
However, not all surrounding property owners were convinced Hayes could deliver on his stormwater runoff assurance.
Jeff Stanford, owner of the property below the proposed development, noted his time working in the Army Corps of Engineers and asserted the area can’t handle additional runoff. “It’s about the type of soil in the area. It’s what drives drainage and runoff. Also vegetation, it slows that runoff. And you’re going to lose all your vegetation,” he said.
County staff assured commissioners that the stormwater department would ensure that post-development runoff would not be greater than the current conditions.
Newman asked how the county can guarantee the development would not add problems.
County staff said all stormwater complaints receive attention and once stormwater systems are installed, there is a bond to ensure they operate correctly, noting that the money could be used to mitigate any problems.
With that, commissioners approved the rezoning by a 6-1 vote, with Frost dissenting.
Public housing, public money
Commissioners heard an expanded presentation concerning the Asheville Housing Authority’s request for $4.2 million for redevelopment of Lee Walker Heights.
AHA Chief Operating Officer David Nash told commissioners plans reflect input from current residents. Those plans include replacing “96 obsolete public housing units with a new 212-unit mixed-income development.”
Lee Walker Heights resident Crystal Reed told commissioners, “I understand it’s hard to go through the process of creating affordable housing and quality living space, but when they asked residents what we want, it was a window of opportunity.”
Reed has been involved in the planning process and ultimately said, “My hopes are this process goes through. Of course, we’ll have bumps in the road, but nothing lasts forever, not the good, bad or ugly.”
After the brief presentation, commissioners did not discuss the project or take action regarding the funding request. A decision about the money will come as commissioners work on next fiscal year’s budget, which is slated for a vote in June. Asheville City Council has already pledged $4.2 million to the project.
Officials from the town of Woodfin also made a presentation concerning a request for $1 million (down from the original ask of $2 million) for its greenway project.
“This will create a legacy by building a generational investment for not just Woodfin, but Buncombe County as a whole,” said Town Administrator Jason Young. “People come here to play in the river and that’s what this project is all about for us,” he said of the trail that would hug the French Broad and its tributaries. Young also highlighted that the greenway would provide access to a planned whitewater feature that will allow “kayaks, paddleboards and surfers to be on the river and enjoy an underdeveloped resource.”
Overall, the project will cost $13.9 million and would be completed about 2020. Woodfin voters already approved a $4.5 bond package for the project, and the county has already invested $132,000.
Frost noted that, while the project is intriguing, she’s worried about overlooking other communities seeking to invest in similar initiatives. She specifically noted Black Mountain has been trying to increase its greenway infrastructure for years.
“That’s a great point,” said Newman. “There are other projects other people are passionate about. We should think about other parts of our community as well.”
Commissioners took no action regarding the request and will discuss it further as the budget process continues.
Commissioners will next meet Tuesday, May 2.