The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners celebrated an anniversary this week under a thick, gray cloud.
“Since our last County Commission meeting, our community witnessed the release of one of the most disturbing incidents that has been captured on video in our community,” Chair Brownie Newman said in a statement at the beginning of the board’s meeting on March 6.
Newman was referencing police body camera footage released on Feb. 28 by the Asheville Citizen Times that shows a violent incident involving former Asheville Police Senior Officer Chris Hickman, who is white, and Asheville resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush, who is African-American. Police had stopped Rush on Aug. 24 for jaywalking and passing through the parking lot of a business that was closed.
“This incident is disturbing because of the level of violence inflicted on Mr. Rush,” Newman said. “It is also disturbing because of the corrosion of trust that it creates between law enforcement and citizens and the community and local government as a whole.”
The meeting marked approximately one year since the Board of Commissioners voted to create the Isaac Coleman Community Investment Grants, a program intended to help level the outcomes associated with black and white residents of Buncombe County through targeted investment in local grassroots organizations.
“I looked forward to this evening with great enthusiasm,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “And then last week we all witnessed that horrible video. Dr. [Martin Luther] King said we all die a little bit when we become silent about things that matter. And we can’t be silent. We have to go forward with hope and drive and push.”
For Commissioner Al Whitesides, the video conjured the memory of being pulled over by an officer in November 1988 while he was driving with his family. “That’s when I was reminded [of] what I went through in the ’60s — how it’s like to be driving being a black man,” he said.
Twenty years later, he said he sees the same thing going on, and he worries about his grandkids “It’s not all law enforcement officers,” Whitesides said. “But it’s like cancer. If you don’t take it out, it’ll just get worse.”
Mind the gap
Data paints a vivid picture of the disparity between white and black residents of Buncombe County. According to a presentation compiled in early 2017 by SYNEVA Economics, the life expectancy for babies born in Buncombe County between 2013 and 2015 is 5.9 years lower for black residents than white residents, a difference of 73.4 years compared to 79.3 years. White residents also typically have higher educational attainment, with 37.3 percent of white residents having a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 16.3 percent of black residents. The same goes for income. In 2015, black workers earned on average $1,135 less per month than white workers, a gap of about 32.8 percent.
“What this historical data also enforces for us is it demonstrates clearly that previous attempts to close these gaps have not worked,” Lisa Eby, the county’s human resources director , told commissioners. “We must do something different. … We must invest in the leadership that exists in our community already.”
In June 2017, the county distributed a total of $635,426 to seven local organizations. The organizations have so far submitted two quarterly reports to the county detailing updates to their budgets and project outcomes. On March 6, the Board of Commissioners heard from representatives of those organizations about how they’ve been spending the money they received.
Each spent a couple of minutes talking about their work. The YTL training program, for example, has been able to start an advocacy program, hiring two advocates to help students who are struggling academically. It has also been able to train its staff in mindfulness. “One of the things that we recognize is that the students we work with live with trauma on a daily basis,” Libby Kyle, the program’s executive director, told commissioners.
This also extends to the parents. “So what we’ve tried to do is create an environment where we’re supporting the family. Not just the students, but the family,” Kyle added.
United Community Development, another recipient of grant funding, has started a weatherization training program for low-income residents after hitting a bump with its planned masonry program. It has weatherized six homes since starting the program two months ago.
Commissioners unanimously denied a request to rezone a parcel at 1648 Brevard Road from residential low-density to commercial service, a move that was recommended by both county staff and members of the county Planning Board.
Zen Tubing uses the property on a seasonal basis and wanted the rezoning so it could seasonally locate a shipping container on the land to act as a bar for alcohol sales, according to an analysis put together by Buncombe County’s planning and development department.
“Staff’s main concerns with the rezoning request are that it represents a potential spot zoning and that the alcohol sales would represent an intensification of a commercial use surrounded by a rural, undeveloped area zoned exclusively residentially,” interim Planning Director Nathan Pennington said.
The board conducted a public hearing on the rezoning request, which was originally scheduled for Feb. 20 but had to be rescheduled because Heath White, the petitioner and owner of Zen Tubing, was dealing with a personal matter. Traffic was one of the overarching concerns expressed by citizens who stepped up to the microphone.
Judith Lyons-Picard, who owns the Lyons Mane Salon in Canton, lives close to the property. Her business is just several miles from her home. “On a good day it takes me 15 minutes to go door to door,” she said. “When this business is in operation, along with the traffic that we already discussed … it takes me an hour to get home. It takes me an hour to get to my salon. That poses a very big, significant problem for all of us that live along 191.”
White told the board that the traffic issues along Highway 191 have nothing to do with Zen Tubing. “This is just an extension of what we’ve already been doing,” White said. “The bar area will be a completely separate business … but this will be a seasonal-type thing, I just want to make that clear, we’ll be open from April 1 through the end of October and then we will move the equipment out during the wintertime.”
“We live in that area as well and deal with the traffic as well,” said Jen Ditzler, who is married to White and is the president of Zen Tubing. She told the board that the business already has shipping containers on the property. “In regard to spot zoning, we have had that existing business since 2012, using shipping containers on the FEMA floodway property there,” she said. “We go by all the rules and regulations that have been brought up by Buncombe County.”
County resident Jerry Rice expressed concern about amount of crime in the area, a point that commissioner Robert Pressley, who lives close the property, considered noteworthy. “What Zen Tubing’s done is a great business model … of letting people enjoy the river,” Pressley said. “But I’ve never seen where alcohol and water mix real good together.”
Commissioner Joe Belcher also expressed concern about the addition of alcohol and referenced a recent article in the News and Observer that dubbed Buncombe County the No. 1 county in the state for the number of intoxications. “I know it’s not the intent of this business to add to that, but I can’t support adding alcohol to the business, even for a short period of time,” Belcher said.
In other business
Commissioners approved an amendment expanding the size of the newly created Library Board, increasing the number of members from five to nine. They also appointed William Newman to the Asheville Board of Adjustment.
Commissioners scheduled a joint meeting with Asheville City Council at 3 p.m. March 13 in the downstairs conference room at 200 College St. in downtown Asheville.
The board will not hold a meeting on Tuesday, March 20, but will hold a workshop to discuss budget and affordable housing issues at around noon in room 326 at 200 College St.