“Some projects come in front of us and you know right from the start, [we’re] all for this. Or you see it and you say, ‘This is not a great idea, and I’m definitely going to vote against it,’” said Brownie Newman, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, before the board’s vote on a proposed residential rezoning of just over 1 acre in Swannanoa. “I feel like this is one of these judgment calls.”
Commissioners ultimately chose to deny the project in a 4-3 split decision that crossed party lines. Republicans Mike Fryar and Robert Pressley, as well as Democrats Amanda Edwards and Al Whitesides, stood against the rezoning, while Democrats Newman and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, along with Republican Joe Belcher, gave their approval.
The vote marked the end of a contentious journey for the project, which aimed to convert the land from low-density residential zoning to the more intensive R-1 residential district. Applicants Robert and Laura Uherka had previously withdrawn a proposal to rezone all 14 acres of their property after county staff members expressed concerns over the potential development of steep slope areas and resulting stormwater runoff.
Although staff members recommended approval of the revised proposal after its scope was reduced to 1.05 acres of lower-elevation land, the Buncombe County Planning Board voted 3-3 to recommend denial at its July 15 meeting. (Tie votes of that body are considered not in favor of a project.) Pam Tegge, one of four residents who spoke against the rezoning during its public hearing, said Planning Board members Robert Martin, David Rittenberg and Nancy Waldrop remained worried about the property’s steep slopes.
Bryan Mumpower, who lives in the Grovemont neighborhood near the Uherkas’ property, said the proposal was emblematic of poor land-use decisions driven by the area’s booming real estate market. “I’ve seen these houses being built in Grovemont in the last little bit, and they’re building them in places that’s just weird — you’re building them in a swamp, you’re building them right next to a creek,” he said. “They’re taking [existing houses] and they’re basically cutting them up, selling off the properties and walking away with a pile of cash.”
In contrast, fellow Grovemont resident Robert Randolph argued that allowing the rezoning would support the county’s push to increase the supply of affordable housing. He said the significantly smaller lot size permitted by R-1 zoning — 8,000 square feet compared with 43,560 square feet under the low-density district — would allow the Uherkas to build small dwellings suitable for young families jumping into homeownership.
County resident and regular commission commenter Don Yelton, while not directly affected by the project, said he had “a dog in this fight” regarding the board’s approach to steep slope development. Citing his expertise in environmental systems engineering, he advised the commissioners to be wary of runoff from higher elevations.
“This is deja vu, Brownie,” Yelton told Newman. “I met [former commission Chair] David Gantt when he was first sworn in and I said, ‘David, look at the mountains. We’re going to be like California — houses washing off the mountains.’ We’re getting close to it, aren’t we?”