The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners tackled four rezoning requests—a product of the county’s new zoning rules, approved last January. All except one passed unanimously.
That request would have rezoned the 62-acre Wellington Community Estates mobile-home park, located off Airport Road in Arden, from “residential” to “employment.” The move would have put the park’s hundreds of residents at risk of being evicted.
The request drew sharp criticism from residents who said the owner, Matthew Jenkins, had sent them letters stating that the park would not be sold—even as he was requesting the rezoning and offering the property for sale online for $11.5 million.
“We’re told the park’s going to be sold; then we’re told by the owner that it’s not going to be sold,” said 15-year resident Jo Lynn Murray. “There’s over 400 homes there. There’s terminally ill people like myself—I’m dying of cancer—children that are going to be on the street. Jenkins said that he has no intentions of selling it, but then a friend of mine looks it up on the Internet that it’s being sold. We can’t afford new homes; I’ll be on the street. Are we to be more homeless on the streets of Asheville?”
Murray produced two letters backing up her claims (to view the letters, visit www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles). A May 17, 2005 communication from Jenkins’ brother, Dexter, states that Wellington Estates “is not currently for sale, nor will it be put for sale in the future” and that it will remain a mobile-home park. And a Dec. 10, 2007 letter from Jenkins himself asserts: “Our purpose in seeking commercial zoning is simply to be in conformity with the surrounding parcels. We will continue to operate Wellington Estates as a mobile-home park.”
As of Jan. 9, however, the property—described as “commercial/other”—was confirmed as being offered for sale on loopnet.com.
Matthew Jenkins, who co-owns the property with his brother through the Los Alamitos, Calif.-based SDD Properties, declined to comment when reached by Xpress.
The county Planning Board also recommended against the request, as Jenkins had not provided any plan for relocating displaced residents.
“Staff’s position is not to rezone it until there’s some sort of reasonable relocation plan for the 299 families who live there,” said Zoning Administrator Jim Coman. (Not all the homes have families in them; some have single occupants, Coman explained later.)
Siding with the residents and staff, the commissioners unanimously rejected the rezoning request.
“This is the largest mobile-home park in Buncombe, and one of the Planning Board’s concerns was that there’s no way to replace the affordable housing,” noted Vice Chair David Gantt.
Questioned by Gantt, Coman said that all nine Planning Board members had voted to deny the request, making it clear that the lack of a relocation plan was the major concern. “We haven’t heard anything [from Jenkins or his representative] since,” noted Coman.
But Chairman Nathan Ramsey pointed out that rejecting the rezoning doesn’t mean the residents are no longer at risk.
“If the property is not rezoned, the property owner could terminate those leases, but the owner could not convert it to commercial use,” noted Ramsey. “The county cannot stop someone who owns a mobile-home park from sending out evictions,” though he added that they would have to come up with “a contingency plan.”
There’s no legal requirement to have such a plan, Coman told Xpress later.
“There is a moral requirement—I took an oath to be fair to people—and evicting 299 families is not social justice,” he said.
Since the commissioners denied the request, however, Jenkins—and anyone who might buy the property—will have to wait a year before submitting another rezoning request.
Twelve-year park resident Anita Reynolds praised the county’s conduct, saying Coman had been helpful and “really seems to care.” And rejecting the rezoning request, she added, will buy the residents some time.
“We know it won’t stop everything, but it will at least hold things off for one year,” said Reynolds. “That will give some people—not everybody, but some—a chance. I thank you. If you could go out and see these people, the elderly, some of them have lived there for 30 years.”
A clean bill of (financial) health
Finance Director Donna Clark gave her annual financial report. According to the audit, completed Nov. 28, the county is in good financial shape, buoyed by higher-than-expected tax revenues and lower-than-expected expenses.
“Net assets increased by $16.4 million, primarily due to our excellent tax collections and controlled spending within every area of the budget,” Clark told the board. The county’s 2007 collection rate is 99.15 percent; the average for the state is around 96 percent, she said.
Chuck Killian of Gould Killian CPA Group, who directed the audit, said: “I don’t know if you can ever have a fun audit, but this was probably as close as I’ve ever seen. Buncombe County qualifies as a low-risk county for next year, and there are really no major issues to point out.”
A home for Land-of-Sky
Perhaps feeling flush, the commissioners unanimously approved $8 million worth of financing for a series of construction projects. The money will fund a new animal shelter in West Asheville ($2.5 million), a parking deck on Coxe Avenue near the Department of Social Services ($1.3 million) and the Leicester Crossing development ($4.2 million). The latter project will provide a new home for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, which provides various services to member governments in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties and helps obtain grants for regional projects.
“Leicester Crossing is the old Bi-Lo on Leicester Highway,” Clark told the board. “It will primarily be for Land of Sky, but it will also include a cell-phone provider, a bakery and a video company.”
Under the terms of the deal, Land of Sky will lease about 55 percent of the space from the county for 25 years. Buncombe County will recoup some of its cost and service the debt on the property by renting the remainder of the space to businesses. Revenues from the development are expected to exceed expenses by about $10,000 a year.
In return for the county’s assistance, Land-of-Sky will freeze Buncombe’s membership fees at the current rate of $122,341 per year for the duration of the lease. At that point, the council will have the option of buying the building for a nominal fee.
“Land of Sky helps us work together as a region, not just individually, so we can do things cheaper and keep the taxes down,” said Gantt. “They’ve lost their lease, so we’re helping them get a place. You may not see it on the day-to-day, but over time, it’s one of the best investments we can make.”
Two major agenda items were postponed until the Jan. 22 meeting to give the commissioners more time to gather information: Sheriff Van Duncan‘s request for more personnel, and establishing the CTS Citizens Monitoring Council for the contaminated industrial site on Mills Gap Road.
The application deadline for serving on the monitoring council has been pushed back to Jan. 22.
In addition, the commissioners presented an award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving—the first of its kind for a Buncombe County sheriff’s deputy—to Jason Summey for his record of making DWI arrests and his activities in the community.
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Robert DeBruhl to the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee, LaZendra Bossard to the Tourism Development Authority, Chris Crawford, John Dankel and William Biggers to the Weaverville Board of Adjustment, and J. Ray Elinburg to the Abandoned Cemeteries Board of Trustees.