The devil is in the details, or so it seemed at the Buncombe county-commissioners’ first meeting of 1999, which covered a daunting, varied and lengthy agenda on Jan. 5. On the docket were: animal-adoption concerns, a neighborhood battle over a shooting club, a proposed mountain-bike path around the new county landfill, the sale or disposal of surplus and junked county property, and the announcement of a new automated county-information telephone line … and more.
At the pre-board meeting, in a narrow and crowded room, commissioners reviewed the agenda while they snacked on popcorn at an oval table squeezed in beside a water cooler and a video monitor. With only a half-hour to deal with any changes or additions, business was conducted hastily.
“I talk very fast sometimes,” Chairman Tom Sobol explained after the session. The process moved quickly, with cryptic references to prior business and earlier decisions, so that a newcomer — such as this reporter — definitely had to listen up and observe carefully to sort out the issues. But most of the citizen-observers crowded in the room were old hands at the business of politics.
There seemed to be no process for prioritizing issues or weighing how much time should be allocated to particular items. County Clerk Kathy Hughes explained later that the only portion of the commissioners’ regular meetings with a specific time limit is the public-comment period, and in that case, a buzzer sounds, alerting each speaker when his or her five minutes are up.
As commissioners shuffled papers and discussed the upcoming agenda, they were handed background information on two additional applicants for appointment to the county Board of Mental Health. Commissioner David Gantt lamented, “At every meeting there are more and more things to read.”
“Does anyone know who these people are?” inquired Commissioner Patsy Keever.
The commissioners’ chambers were packed as the regular meeting got under way with a prayer offered “in the name of Jesus” by Dr. Gene Rainey, former chairman of the Board of Commissioners.
The first order of business was the consent agenda — routine items usually passed without discussion. Included in this week’s list were:
• acceptance of the county’s semiannual report on the sale or disposal of surplus and junked county property;
• a resolution authorizing the chairman to execute an application to the state Department of Transportation for community-transportation-program funding;
• a budget amendment, which includes the transfer of $11,100 from unallocated contingency funds to cover legal fees for the Detention Facility Building;
• an amendment to the Special Revenue Projects Ordinance; and
• a request to the state Department of Health and Human Services for a waiver of the state moratorium on new adult-care beds, to allow an additional 40 beds to be placed at Aston Park to serve the critical need of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Oralene Simmons and Willie Mae Brown accepted a county proclamation declaring Jan. 15-22 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week. The document urges all citizens of Buncombe County to “rededicate themselves to the principle of justice and equality for all.” Commissioner Keever called for a special recognition of Simmons for her founding efforts and many years of service with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast Committee.
Becky Anderson presented the close-out report on a $337,324 Community Development Block Grant to Handmade in America. Anderson outlined the many successes of the program, which serves 21 counties in western North Carolina with the goal of making the region a center for handmade crafts. The CDBG grant, along with matching funds from private foundations, were used “to renovate buildings at Penland School in Mitchell County, to establish a craft registry to be used as a marketing tool, to provide entrepreneurial/craft-production training at Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, and to establish a loan fund through the Self-Help Credit Union for craft-related business[es].” Anderson said the program has helped 1,052 of the estimated 4,000 craftspeople living in the region.
Two aspects of the report drew critical comments from citizens who questioned the need to return to the federal government $123,000 in unused funds, which were part of a sum designated as loan capital for use by the Self-Help Credit Union. Eight loans, ranging from $1,000 to $20,000, were made from the loan fund. Anderson explained that the small number of participants in the loan program was a result of a “good economy” and competition from new community banks, which has created a “lenders’ market.”
“In four years’ time, someone should have seen this,” commented Peter Dawes, adding that the money could have been used in Buncombe County.
“I hope the [federal] government spends the money wisely that you’re sending back to them,” Commissioner Bill Stanley remarked.
And what about the county’s administering the program without charging for its services, Dawes asked. HandMade in America’s budget allocated $45,000 for administrative funds, he said, yet Buncombe County received no money for its oversight. “Ninety-two percent of all the money expended went out of the county,” Dawes complained. “The state should have done it, and not Buncombe County.”
“I assure you, if this opportunity comes again, the commission will do it again,” Sobol replied.
More than one-third of the meeting was taken up by an invited speaker, Rich Ducker of the Institute of Government in Raleigh, who discussed zoning theory and practice in North Carolina. By 5:20 p.m., people in the audience were showing signs of weariness. At one point, Commissioner Stanley leaned farther back into his easy chair, drumming his fingers on the desk, while at the other end of the dais, Commissioner Gantt avidly engaged Ducker with a number of questions.
“Buncombe County’s approach to community-based planning is unique in North Carolina,” said Ducker. “You are plowing new ground. As a practical matter, zoning needs to be continually fined-tuned.”
“All five [commissioners] are on record regarding land-use restrictions,” Sobol noted, calling land-use planning a “home-rule issue.”
Keever preferred the term “site-development standards,” instead of “restrictions,” saying, “I like that way of looking at what we are trying to accomplish.”
County Animal Shelter Director Mark Poulos offered some relief from the 45 minutes of zoning theory when commissioners took up the question of the shelter’s animal-adoption policy. Poulos decried a WLOS-TV story which, he said, was “filled with false impressions, and sound bites that did not represent animal-service policies.” That story had reported on the shelter’s recent rejection of an application for adoption. Poulos said that, of the 13,000 animals the shelter handles each year, only 2,500 are adopted. With so many animals being euthanized, he observed, the shelter must be accommodating when it comes to adoption applicants: “We prefer to risk a bad adoption than to euthanize.” But the applicant in question was rejected for several reasons, Poulos explained. One of them was that the applicant “wanted to keep the dog outside.” While there is no firm rule about adopted animals being kept outside, Poulos said, “We prefer that the dogs be treated as a member of the household.” He explained that dogs kept isolated and chained outside generally become aggressive.
The meeting took a turn toward the combative when Charles Norton of Shelby Road complained to commissioners about a shooting range located in the Emma community. Norton played excerpts from a 40-minute tape of gunfire that he recorded on Jan. 5 from his property, which is 200 feet from the shooting club. Loud retorts, repeating every second or so, brought the ambience of the Area One Shooters Club right to the commissioners’ ears.
“This went on from about 2 to 6 p.m., right in my backyard,” Norton explained. “It sounds like a war zone.”
“And this is legal?” he asked. “The man with the biggest gun — is he the one who always wins? I would really appreciate some help in this matter.”
“I can’t understand why this is a big issue,” replied gun-club owner Don Guge, a former Army combat engineer. “The people who shoot here are law-enforcement officers and their wives,” he added. “I’ve done my research. I’ve met every statute and ordinance. … I’ve abided by the law. I’ve done it by y’all’s rules from day one.”
“I understand [that] Mr. Guge got instructions on how to do this legally,” remarked Jack Garrett, another neighbor of the shooting range. “A noise ordinance having an open exemption [to a shooting club] is unfair,” he concluded.
Keever remarked, “The question is not what is legal, the question is, ‘Do we have a decent ordinance?'”
Guge said he had consulted with County Attorney Joe Connolly about the legal requirements before embarking on his project. His shooting club has about 50 members who use the three-acre, private facility at no charge. The club will soon have its charter and will issue membership cards, Guge said, adding that once this is accomplished, he may charge a “small dues” for club membership.
“We have rules,” he asserted. “There is never a shot fired on Sunday, or before 10 a.m. I also work on guns. We test a varying degree of weapons — all legal. Under [North Carolina] law, it is legal to possess an automatic [weapon],” he said. “I don’t have one, but some of our members do. We might fire 20-30 rounds until we get [an automatic weapon] fixed.”
“I invite anyone to come up and take a look,” Guge offered. “I have never made a secret about what is going on up there.”
“I will come out to see you,” promised Gantt.
“We know we have to do something. It is a top priority to get this matter settled within the confines of the law,” Sobol said. “We have set aside some time at our retreat to deal with this matter.” The commissioners’ retreat is scheduled for Jan. 29-30 at Freedom Escape in Weaverville. “The meeting is open to the public, but public comments are restricted to the last 10 minutes,” Sobol said.
In another matter, Buncombe County Tax Administrator Jerome Jones assured commissioners that his agency is taking steps to keep citizens’ Social Security numbers confidential, as required by state law. Until recently, one screen of the public computers showing tax records had been displaying property owners’ Social Security numbers; the problem has now been eliminated, Jones said.
A new mountain-bike park got a thumbs-up from commissioners. Tom Nix, representing local bike dealers and associations, accepted the endorsement for a mountain-bike-park project surrounding the new county landfill, which Nix described as a beautiful place with many fine vistas of the French Broad River. Commissioners approved a feasibility study for the park. In response to Keever’s question about how the park would be funded, Nix expressed confidence that seed money could be raised from private and corporate sources.
“What about the buzzards and the smell?” asked county resident Jerry Rice, adding that he wondered who would come from out of town to ride circles around our new landfill.
By the time commissioners got around to voting on appointments to boards and commissions, the candidates’ names were rapidly called out and approved without discussion. Commissioners filled three vacancies on the Weaverville Board of Adjustments, appointing Bruce Weaver, Anthony Franco and Bob Embler to two-year terms.
Near the end of the meeting, County Attorney Connolly announced two items to be considered in closed session: one regarding “property acquisition,” and the other “a legal matter involving Champion.”
At about 6:30 p.m, the commissioners went into closed session and took no action on items under discussion there. The meeting was continued to Jan. 12 at 4 p.m.