Commissioners move to create new sustainability office, solar farm; A-B Tech spending freeze remains

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a variety of sustainable-oriented issues during its meeting on Tuesday, March 7. The meeting was also supposed to have continued talks about A-B Tech's funding freeze, but the school asked to delay that conversation.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a variety of sustainable-oriented issues during its meeting on Tuesday, March 7. The meeting was also supposed to have continued talks about A-B Tech's funding freeze, but the school asked to delay that conversation.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners bustled through a bevy of energy-related items and continued a freeze on funding for A-B Tech construction projects at its Tuesday, March 7, meeting.

The board created a new sustainability office, moved to invest in a feasibility study for a solar farm and allocated $700,000 for new LED lights for Buncombe County Schools, while continuing the moratorium on spending at the community college after A-B Tech officials requested a postponement earlier Tuesday.

Public praise

The open public comment period had people praising commissioners for their energy-efficiency efforts. Keith Thompson, a Black Mountain resident, said, “I’m proud of y’all for addressing issues that have a great impact on job creation and protecting things we all value, like clean air or water. No matter where you go to church or what you do for a living … we all care for clean air and water.” Thompson added that sustainability efforts can protect the environment and, in some cases, create jobs.

County resident Tyler Garrison said, as a father, he’s concerned about the future of our environment. “While I appreciate the work you are doing with a plan for sustainability and getting rid of coal, we have many other cities that have not only committed to clean energy but [are] doing it.” He cited Burlington, Vt., as a city that, he claims, is running completely on renewable energy and urged commissioners to make similar steps.

Michelle Pace Wood, a resident of the Enka school district, made a plea for higher education in her community. She said the shuttering of A-B Tech’s Enka campus in 2015 has left a void in the area. “A-B Tech is a wonderful organization. Enka needs a campus, we have no college campus. We need education to fight poverty. Please ask A-B Tech to consider keeping a college campus in Enka,” said Pace Wood. She also asserted that the land originally donated for the Enka campus was done with the intent that it be used for education and that spirit of intent should be continued somehow.

Burgeoning Brevard Road

A rezoning request for a 0.8-acre parcel at 233 Oak Terrace Road, adjacent to Brevard Road’s commercial corridor along the Asheville Outlets, received unanimous approval from commissioners. The applicant, Ron Moore, was seeking a rezoning from R-2 to commercial service district to grow his family business. “We are out of room. We employ about eight people and are looking to expand and hire more people. With the Asheville Outlets doing well, many businesses in the area are doing well also,” said Moore who also presented affidavits from contiguous residential neighbors who signed off on the rezoning.

No members of the public spoke against the request during the public hearing.

Commission Chair Brownie Newman said he went to the property earlier in the day, due to some concerns from county staff who recommended denial of the rezoning. “For me, the fact the business reached out to neighbors and got them on board has a big influence on me being comfortable with this. I can definitely see why planning staff would have reservations,” he said.

Job manufacturing

Next up, Nathan Ramsey, with Mountain Area Workforce Development, gave commissioners a presentation about the state of the region’s manufacturing job opportunities. “Buncombe County is doing really well in many aspects, and outperforming state and national job growth numbers,” he said, noting that without wage growth those numbers aren’t as significant. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2016, the county experienced a wage growth of 4.7 percent, ranking 24 out of 345 of the nation’s largest counties, Ramsey noted.

Ramsey says statistics also show county wages remain below national and state averages, with the average yearly county wage being $39,728, compared with $43,280 and $44,569 for North Carolina and the U.S., respectively. He noted only the health care and hospitality/tourism sectors in the region, composed of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties, have higher wages than the state and national averages.

“Between the Mission Health expansion and the conversion of [Duke Energy’s] Skyland plant from coal to natural gas… that’s $1.5 billion in investment and thousands of skilled trade workers that will be needed,” said Ramsey.

Mountain Workforce

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara inquired about the availability of apprenticeships. “That’s a hot topic right now,” said Ramsey. “They really provide academic and practical skills. There are about 220 apprenticeships in our region.” He noted that since the workforce for the same area is about 200,000 people, he would like to see significant increases in that area and said state funds are helping with the expansion effort.

Commissioner Al Whitesides asked about short-term certificate courses for people not wanting to invest two years in a program.

Ramsey said it’s another hot area and community colleges are “nimble” enough to provide them as they have the students to support those programs. “Frankly, the challenge has been to obtain students to run the short-term training. The challenge is how we drive enrollment to those courses,” said Ramsey.

You can see the entire presentation here.

A-B Tech’s absence excuse

A-B Tech President Dennis King was slated to appear before commissioners to continue a discussion about a spending moratorium that commissioners placed on the school’s capital projects in January. That meeting, on Feb. 21, sparked concerns about diversity efforts and the school receiving funding via the consent agenda. However, King canceled his appearance earlier in the day, citing information from a “recent engineering analysis” that will require him to discuss the college’s overall capital projects with the board of trustees on April 17. There was no word on when A-B Tech will reappear before the Board of Commissioners.

A-B Tech Absence
A-B Tech President Dennis King sent commissioners an email stating he would not be attending a continuance about a spending freeze on the college’s capital projects. The email was sent the day of the meeting.

Xpress spoke with King and Commissioner Ellen Frost about those diversity issues earlier this month.

Sustaining power

Commissioners received an update on the county’s energy usage regarding the landfill, numerous buildings and vehicle fleet. Kristy Smith, with the Solid Waste Department, said the landfill receives 1 million pounds of waste on a daily basis. However, she said a county initiative that captures methane gas produced at the landfill is helping offset energy usage. “Instead of the gas emitting into the environment, we decided to capture it and turn it into electricity,” said Smith.

She said the carbon reduction of the project, over the last three years, is equivalent to taking 16,490 cars off the road for a year, or a savings 8.8 million gallons of gas.

Carbon Equivalencies

Clint Shephard, the county’s general service manager, gave an overview of sustainability efforts regarding the county’s 84 buildings and 450 vehicles. He noted that after an energy audit and taking reduction measures, the county has reduced the average per-square-foot-utility (natural gas, electricity and water) cost by 12 cents over the past three years.

He said the average fuel cost is about $550,000 per year but noted combined fleet and building reductions have resulted in an equivalent of saving 9 million gallons of gas, or energy for 8,400 homes.

Commissioners were impressed with the reductions, but Commissioner Mike Fryar noted that while “if it’s break even, it’s still good,” the generator capturing and converting methane into energy is expensive.

No action on the update was required; you can view the presentation here.

Sustainable job

County Manager Wanda Greene pitched to commissioners the creation of a Sustainability Office that would help county departments with issues like carbon reduction, energy efficiency, cost-efficiency measures and actively seek external partnerships for the county to engage in.

Newman said the post would help ensure that energy use at county facilities is being responsive to the needs of taxpayers and the environment. “As we think about clean energy and sustainability goals … to really make a difference, it will take collaboration with community partners. As we go forward, there will be partnership opportunities we don’t even know about right now.” said Newman.

However, Fryar expressed concerns about the position reporting to the county manager while wondering if the position might not be better if it was housed in Solid Waste and General Services Department.

Newman conceded, “I thought about his question a lot. Because this position is different than other positions, it will include working with community partners, and for that reason, I think it makes a lot of sense for this position to report to the [county] manager. It’s not about any one department.”

Fryar accepted that line of logic, and commissioners unanimously approved the position. Greene told Xpress the salary would be about $75,000 a year and not require additional money for the current fiscal year, but it will need to be funded in the upcoming fiscal year.

Jeremiah LeRoy will immediately transition from the Finance Department to the new position. You can read his job description here.

Lighting lottery

Next commissioners heard from county school officials about an effort to replace fluorescent lights with LEDs across the entire district. The school system asked for $700,000 in lottery funding to help with the initiative and said the move would save $911,000 a year in maintenance and energy savings. It will take two years to completely change the lights from the remaining 38 buildings.

Commissioners unanimously approved the funding.

Sunny outlook

“I do work in the solar industry, so I think about good places to put solar installations in,” said Newman, starting his pitch for a solar farm on the county’s old landfill in Woodfin. “Solar is booming in North Carolina. It’s a challenge in the mountains. Steep slopes are not where you want to put solar farms, but the retired landfill in Woodfin is starting emerging as a unique property.”

He conceded that it’s not a sure thing the logistics will work out, noting that a feasibility study will show if it’s a good fit. However, he says if the forecast comes back positive, it would draw an investment of about $7 million for the potential 4- to 5-megawatt system.

“There are a lot of energy companies looking for locations for solar farms. Once approved in concept, we think we can find an energy company to provide capital,” said Newman, noting that permit and processing steps would take upward of 18 months. However, if successful, he says the investment could bring in property tax revenue and save money on land maintenance. Newman also claimed it would create enough energy to power 18 percent of the county.

The motion to invest $27,000 for a feasibility study was unanimously approved. You can view Newman’s presentation here.

Newman also said that no solar company he works with or invests in will be eligible for the project. The county’s attorney signed off on that notion, and no other commissioners raised concerns.

Solar Farm

Board appointments

Historic Resources Commission — Paul Benson and Emily Kite unanimously approved.

Juvenile Crime Prevention Council — Melisa Enclade unanimously approved.

Consent agenda

Commissioners unanimously approved the following items on the consent agenda:

The following budget amendments were approved:

A resolution allowing for a voluntary, on-bill energy-efficiency finance program was approved. According to language in the resolution, it would allow for:

“All Buncombe County residents, regardless of income level, credit score or whether they own the property they occupy, the option to finance needed home energy improvements “debt-free” while benefitting from lower annual energy costs and a more comfortable home; and achieving even a modest level of investment through a voluntary utility on-bill energy efficiency finance program over the next ten years would result in the retrofit and improvement of many homes, create new jobs for local contractors and retailers, reduce energy costs for Buncombe County residents.”

Commissioners will meet again on Tuesday, March 21.

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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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One thought on “Commissioners move to create new sustainability office, solar farm; A-B Tech spending freeze remains

  1. Hmmm...

    9-2 M-F all classrooms in the Elm building are full? As a past student in that building, I’m thinking not. Why aren’t people walking around that building during those times to see what is in use and when? And wouldn’t room use be booked through some sort of computer software that can run reports like it is in the hotel business?

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