Commissioners give unified push for Big Ivy wilderness, set public hearing for proposed tax schedule

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners heard from more than 30 people over the course of 90 minutes during a public hearing on designating 3,000 acres of land in Big Ivy as wilderness. Photo by Dan Hesse

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners started its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20, with its usual public comment session concerning any issues the public wishes to discuss.

The session began with three people speaking out against having refugees from Middle East countries come to Buncombe County. One speaker, citing security and budget issues, stated they would be a “drain on county resources.”

Jane Bilello, chair of the Buncombe County Tea Party, also spoke in favor of keeping refugees out of the county. She said, “Security risks are way too high to accept security from terrorist nations. … It’s reckless to accept refugees at this time.” Bilello added, “It’s more practical to send resources to their country of origin.”

David Brown, identified as having lived in the county most of his life, said he hadn’t planned on speaking but wanted to offer a different opinion on the refugee issue. “I appreciate the people who are concerned about health issues and the budget, but I would like to see our county embrace people who need a home, especially from people suffering from war.”

After Brown’s comments, the packed chambers erupted into a round of applause that Chairman David Gantt admonished against and then stated, “If you could not clap, I think the meetings go better. We are very tolerant, and everyone has the right to their opinion. If we could just listen.”

Another speaker also offered support for refugees and stated she would “be very happy to put up a bedroom for anyone in need.”

A final speaker added that he understands both sides of the issue, noting that he’s part Cherokee and his ancestors “didn’t have the best immigration policies,” but the other part of his ancestry benefited from immigration.

Some surrounding counties have approved resolutions stating opposition to accepting refugees, and some of the speakers asked that Buncombe County commissioners adopt a similar stance. No such resolution is currently on any future agenda.

Pay up: Economic incentives approved
STF Precision, a manufacturer of diamond-tipped cutting tools located in south Buncombe, was eligible for $54,180 in economic incentives if it met benchmarks of investing $4.5 million in capital expansions and creating 25 jobs with an average salary of $34,860 per year. That arrangement was approved by commissioners in 2013. Jim Creighton, the county’s planning director, said, “We verified all positions were created and sent out a tax assessor to verify they spent the investment money.”

“I’m happy to say that instead of creating 25 jobs, they created 32 jobs with an average salary of $38,181 per year … and invested over $5 million,” said Creighton.

David Novak, vice president of STF Precision said, “I’m grateful for the consideration. Running a business is difficult and running a manufacturing business is even more so. The incentives provided to us make a difference. We spent a tremendous amount of money and we borrowed most of it. What you’re doing makes a difference to small businesses like us.”

Commissioners approved the incentives unanimously.

Proponents of protecting some 3,000 acres of land, known as Big Ivy, showed up to urge commissioners to recommend the federal government designate it as a wilderness area. Such a designation would allow for recreational activities, but would prohibit logging. Photo by Dan Hesse
Proponents of protecting some 3,000 acres known as Big Ivy showed up to urge commissioners to recommend the federal government designate it as a wilderness area. Such a designation would allow for recreational activities but would prohibit logging. Photo by Dan Hesse

This land is our land: Wilderness conservation resolution approved
About 80 people, many wearing green shirts with the slogan “Friends of Big Ivy” on the front and “Don’t cut Big Ivy” on the back, filled up the chamber to show support for a measure to designate some 3,000 acres as wilderness in the Big Ivy area. Gantt noted there were also upward of 50 people downstairs in an overflow space.

Matt McCombs, a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, started the hearing by stating no permanent decisions had been made and said, “I’m here in listening mode. The Forest Service is thrilled about the amount of enthusiasm here.”

McCombs said that while his organization is in the process of drafting a plan that will manage Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, the Forest Service wants to hear input from the residents of Buncombe County. He ended by stating, “There is no current proposal to log Big Ivy.”

Will Harlan, leader of Friends Of Big Ivy, told Xpress the group organized the gathering because of concerns over the U.S. Forest Service’s current land management draft that he said would have 70 percent of the Big Ivy area designated as being open for logging. Harlan later addressed the board and emphasized the area’s importance and biodiversity, explaining that it “shelters over 40 rare and endangered species and provides drinking water for Weaverville.” Harlan also noted that some property values “depend on those rich, scenic vistas.”

Harlan said designating the land as wilderness would not impact the area’s recreational use and would only prohibit logging. “Republicans and Democrats, horseback riders and mountain bikers, young and old — we are all joining together to protect Big Ivy,” he said.

“It starts right here, this is a critical moment for Big Ivy,” Harlan said as he finished his presentation to a round of applause, causing Gantt to again ask the audience not to applaud or boo.

A number of people speaking in favor of the issue cited various environmental, recreational and aesthetic reasons the area should be designated wilderness via poems, song and passionate pleas. One county resident became emotional discussing his love of  Big Ivy: “If anyone was going to log up there, I recommend they take a walk out there and pay attention to what’s around them, because that’s not just anywhere. Those are rare trees, rare rocks and rare springs.”

One of the last speakers told commissioners: “In the future all the politicians you know will be dead. [Donald] Trump, Hillary [Clinton] will all be dead. But Big Ivy will be there. We have a chance to create wilderness for our great-grandchildren.”

Nobody spoke against the resolution, and more than 30 people spoke in favor of it over the course of about 90 minutes. “The fact that you’ve all come here is a pretty strong showing that Buncombe County wants wilderness,” said Gantt.

The resolution to ask the federal government to designate the area as wilderness was unanimously approved. However, the resolution isn’t binding and is only a recommendation to the federal government. Ultimately, the U.S. Forest Service will have to redraw a land management plan, and then Congress will have to approve it. Harlan told Xpress the timeline for that would likely not start until spring.

Taxman: Property tax schedule in motion
Property tax revaluations are moving forward as commissioners unanimously approved holding a public hearing for the proposed tax schedule. Many people are confused as to just what the tax schedule is. Keith Miller, the county’s chief appraiser, addressed that issue during the meeting. He explained it as a 500-page document that details the methodology of how the county appraises and classifies properties and that it  takes months of research. The proposed tax schedule, if approved, would be in effect from January 2017 through the next time revaluations are approved, likely in four years, according to county staff.

Miller said new classifications in the proposed tax schedule include breweries, solar farms, compact cottages and other recent developments. He said the document is reviewed by the North Carolina Department of Revenue and has about 127,000 parcels.

“Currently we are looking at an analysis of 24,000 neighborhoods and, within those neighborhoods, about 18,000 sales transactions since 2013. Those sales are what drives the market in the county and help us interpret what’s going on,” said Miller.

Miller said appraisals are set to be complete by January. He also noted the proposed tax schedule is available online, and physical copies can be found at the Tax Department.

A public hearing on the proposed tax schedule is set for Tuesday, Oct. 4. Approval of proposed tax schedule is slated for Thursday, Oct. 20. If approved, county residents will then have four more weeks to appeal anything they believe is incorrect. You can view the proposed tax schedule online here.

County Commissions laid out differing views about elected officials having voting power on various county boards and commissions. Photo by Dan Hesse
County commissioners laid out differing views about elected officials having voting power on various county boards and commissions. Photo by Dan Hesse

Nothing personal: Board appointments lead to philosophical differences
Commissioners briefly, and courteously, sparred over thoughts concerning the appointment of elected officials to county boards and commissions. At issue was the appointment of state Sen. Terry Van Duyn to the Board of Health and Human Services. Commissioner Tim Moffitt said, “This has nothing to do with [Van Duyn]. I don’t believe elected officeholders should have a seat on a commission because they already have an elected seat. We have a responsibility to develop future leaders, and it doesn’t make sense to populate the board with ourselves or other elected officials.”

Commissioner Brownie Newman then weighed in: “Having served on different boards prior to, and since, being elected, if you get a board that is all politicians, that’s one thing. But when you have citizens and elected officials, it’s an interesting mix.”

Moffitt then countered, “I don’t disagree with what Newman has to say. I think those elected should serve ex-officio, and not in a voting capacity. You can have a conflict of interest when serving board that reports back to yourself.”

Commissioner Joe Belcher added, “I’m on the Tourism Board as a nonvoting member, and it has created a very positive position to listen and hear. But I do not influence those votes.”

To which Newman riposted: “In response to [Belcher], you serve on the MSD [Metropolitan Sewerage District] Board as a full member, and you vote … and that’s fine.”

Commissioner Mike Fryar then observed, “One thing that Van Duyn has is legislative powers — they make laws. We don’t make laws, we have resolutions here. I’m not going to complain one way or the other. She does have more power than we do.”

Newman noted, “That’s a fair observation. I was very supportive of putting [Fryar] on the A-B Tech Board that we fund. This is not unique in any way.”

Moffitt ultimately reiterated his position: “The headline should not read [Moffitt] blindsides [Van Duyn]. It’s just been my first opportunity to speak to this.”

Laughter ensued among commissioners as the conversation wrapped up and they voted 5-2 to appoint Van Duyn to the Board of Health and Human Services. Moffitt and Belcher voted against the appointment.

Closed session:
Commissioners held a closed session to get updates on three legal cases and an economic development.

The cases are as follows:

United States District Court, Western District of North Carolina:
Lisa Bain Landis vs. Buncombe County NC Government

Nathaniel Alan Ross Rhodes, Jr. vs. Buncombe County; Jack Van Duncan; Charles Samuel Kielson

Stuart Tyrus Maynard Jr. vs. Buncombe County; Commissioners; Mike Goodson; Wanda Greene; Ridgeview MHP and Bryan Merklin

According to the county’s clerk of court, the economic development will be at 195 Access Road, Black Mountain. The project is slated to bring more than $25 million in capital investment and 551 jobs. Xpress has more information here.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners next meets on Oct. 4, when it will hold a public hearing on the proposed tax schedule.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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3 thoughts on “Commissioners give unified push for Big Ivy wilderness, set public hearing for proposed tax schedule

  1. Don

    I think it’s more like…. Moffitt blindsides everyone by supporting Wilderness. As for his stance on politicians serving on local municipal boards…… well, I would rather have politicians who are answerable to the voting public be allowed on boards rather than an all citizens board that’s beholding [only] to the politician(s) who nominated and appointed them. Make sense? Anyway, good to see Mr. Moffitt cast a vote in/for the public good for once.

  2. Tony Lapinskas

    It is my understanding that the designation of an area into “Wilderness” denies mountain bikers access to that area. If that’s the case I’m totally against it. Horses and hikers do a lot more damage to trails that bikes do. We are quiet, our tires don’t leave massive holes in the wet ground and of course don’t leave piles of manure to step in. Access must be to all or none.

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