The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners tackled rezoning requests and also heard an update on local and national opioid use during its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17. The nearly three-hour meeting also saw commissioners make board appointments and request that a local college president make a presentation about capital improvement projects.
The general public comment session kicked off the commissioners’ evening and included criticism of the Asheville and Buncombe school systems from Fred Caudle. He stated he reached out to all commissioners online but didn’t hear back from any of them, so he decided to present his concerns in person. “How many millions of Buncombe County taxpayer dollars can be saved by having streamlined school systems?” he asked. “We don’t have diversity with two school systems. I can’t figure out why we should be funding two systems. Why should taxpayers be overburdened?” he inquired, noting that “Only six counties in the state have duel systems.”
Don Yelton, a regular commentor, used the open comment period to implore the new commissioners to do their business in public, not via phone calls and closed door meetings. “As a citizen, I’ll be looking for you to bring to topics up [in the commissioners’ chamber]. … It makes for long meetings, but guess what: The people’s business takes a lot of time,” he said.
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Commissioners then addressed a last-minute addition to their agenda concerning A-B Tech. The board unanimously agreed to halt funding of all capital projects until the school’s president, Dennis King, presents an update to the board.
Commissioner Mike Fryar, who sits on the community college’s board, said, “Dr. King needs to come before us, like other school leaders have come before us.”
Commissioners have asked staff to arrange the update on capital projects for the board’s first meeting ofnext month.
Commissioners heard from developers looking to rezone four parcels of land in order to build a multi-use project at, and around, 101 Cedar Ridge Drive, adjacent to Charlotte Highway in South Asheville. The request was to rezone the parcels from various residential designations to Neighborhood Service District, which would allow for commercial uses.
The county’s planning board recommended approval of two properties: one south of 19 Staak Drive and one west of 204 Charlotte Highway. The board asked commissioners to deny the other two requests at 19 Staak Drive and 101 Cedar Ridge Drive.
Jesse Gardner, with Asheville-based Civil Design Concepts, said his client’s project would be an asset to the surrounding community. “We feel the intent of Neighborhood Service District is to provide slight commercial [services] for the community in Fariview so they don’t have to drive out and create more traffic for things that could be provided closer to home,” he noted. “I feel like we are meeting [the county’s] Comprehensive Land Use Plan with rezoning of these four lots.”
Nearby resident Ralph Humphries spoke out against the rezoning. “I understand the need for development, but … It’s not as simple as making it all Neighborhood Service District zoning,” he said citing concerns about clear-cutting and access points to the properties.
Commissioner Joe Belcher said he was in favor of giving the go-ahead to all four requests. “I think the properties are close enough there could be some synergy,” he said, noting neighbors could benefit from walking to some potential services provided. “By allowing those to be approved, the developer could create a better product and it would be less abrupt.”
Commissioner Ellen Frost countered by stating nobody spoke in favor of the project while it was before the planning board. She also expressed concerns about it affecting the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Belcher replied that the chambers weren’t flooded with people speaking against the development. When communities are against a project, he said, they usually have a large showing.
Chairman Brownie Newman said he was inclined to go with the planning board’s recommendation. “I find that to be important to listen to and staff recommends keeping the current zoning. It would be intruding into a lot of residential areas around it,” he said.
Ultimately, commissioners unanimously approved rezoning the two parcels recommended for approval by the planning board.
The other two parcels, recommended for denial by the planning board, failed to get a rezoning by a 4-3 vote, with Commissioners Belcher, Fryar and Robert Pressley in favor.
Commissioners next heard a presentation from county staff about amending Chapter 70 of the county’s Subdivision Ordinance. Staff said the move is to clarify development procedures, shore up some loopholes and increase fees for violation of procedures.
Fryar then stated he’s not at all happy with the proposed amendment, commenting that “The book is getting a little too big” and citing concerns about the county telling people what they can do with their property. “That’s why you can’t live in Buncombe County, because it’s $20,000 before you even stick a shovel in the ground,” he said. “I understand we have to change some stuff, but we’re trying to make too many rules. I got friends who wanted to build something but they had to stop because of all the rules… I never thought Buncombe County would get to this.”
Belcher then thanked staff for their work on the amendments while offering some concerns. “There’s a lot of what Fryar said I agree with. It would be good to know if the number of pages increased or decreased, because some things were lined out, making it simpler,” he said, adding he’s “having heartburn” about the fines.
With that, commissioners approved the amendment by a vote of 6-1, with Fryar voting against the measure.
Up next was a proposed amendment to the county’s Zoning Ordinance. County staff noted the move was mostly to revise definitions and commissioners unanimously approved it.
Commissioners next heard from Jim Holland, the county’s business manager for the Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s a complex issue, there’s lots of information and components to opioid addiction,” he said. “We’re certainly not in the worst shape, but I think that speaks to a lot of things. We have good support but we also have challenges.”
Holland presented data that shows Buncombe County was 39th out of the state’s 100 counties in the amount of pain pills prescribed in 2015. He said that translated to having more than 16 million pills in the county, or almost 65 pills per county resident.
Holland said the community is looking at collaborative efforts to combat the use of opioids, including increasing early intervention and treatment and recovery support options, especially inpatient and resident-based treatment programs. “If there was more capacity for inpatient therapy it would be used. We don’t have that capacity. The volume is so big we’re not able to meet that need,” he said, noting residential treatment with childcare options would also be an asset in recovery efforts.
“We’re not where we need to be, but we are going to communities most impacted and asking them what they need to address problems related to substance abuse,” said Holland. “And then you hear about underlying factors that impact substance abuse, like poverty.”
Belcher then said he wants to scour the state and country for models Buncombe County can adapt, “Who’s best at this; what’s the model? One thing I want to do is make sure our ego gets out of the way and go after whoever the best is. Let’s see what those programs are.”
Holland said they would accept the task and take it as an opportunity to research best practices and report back to commissioners down the road.
“It’s an issue that is a concern to all of us,” stated Newman. “We are asking you to bring us ideas that can make a difference, so we can find the policy solutions. This is the beginning of a conversation and we want to get engaged in every way we can.”
You can see the entire presentation here.
Also, Xpress has interviewed law enforcement, health and recovery experts, along with a number of other stakeholders for an in-depth look at opioid use in Buncombe County slated to appear in next week’s (Wednesday, Jan. 25) issue.
Lastly, commissioners made the following two board appointments, both approved unanimously:
- Downtown Commission, Ruth Summers
- Economic Development Coalition, Michael Meguiar
Commissioners next meet on Feb. 7. Ahead of that meeting they will hold a joint meeting with Asheville City Council to discuss goals and partnership opportunities for the upcoming year.