Commissioners talk land use, taxes and more

At the Buncombe County commissioners’ recent retreat, held Jan. 5-6, board members grappled with one of the most consistently controversial local issues: land-use planning.

Although commissioners’ opinions on the issue were all over the map, they agreed to ask the county planning board for recommendations. Commissioners gave the planning board until late May to propose a range of options, including both enforceable and nonenforceable land-use regulations.

That decision came on the heels of a presentation by County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman on the recommendations contained in the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

The previous Board of Commissioners adopted the land-use plan in March 1999 as an alternative to zoning. But later that year, then-Chair Tom Sobol and fellow board members Patsy Keever and David Gantt changed their minds and decided to support zoning. The issue was put to a nonbinding referendum in November 1999, and about 56 percent of the people who cast votes turned thumbs-down on the concept. The issue also dominated last fall’s commissioners’ race, with zoning foe Nathan Ramsey ousting Sobol from the chairman’s seat.

Board members expressed a range of views: Gantt and Keever want enforceable land-use regulations; Ramsey and Commissioner David Young said they support the current land-use plan. Although Commissioner Bill Stanley didn’t say much during this discussion, he indicated during his re-election campaign last fall that he wouldn’t favor countywide zoning unless a majority of county residents wanted it.

The commissioners did find something to agree on, however: Reappointing the current members of the planning board, for continuity’s sake (even though some of them have already served two terms, the maximum allowed). Commissioners plan to make the reappointments, and to fill a vacancy on the planning board, at an upcoming meeting. (Applications to fill the open seat are now being accepted.)

The commissioners also touched on a number of other issues including:

A local-option sales tax: County Manager Wanda Greene floated a proposal for a 1-cent, local-option sales tax to pay for needed improvements. The proposal generated a flurry of news reports in the local media. And though local-option sales taxes haven’t usually found much success before the N.C. General Assembly (which would have to approve such a plan), Greene thinks she may have hit on a selling point: The increase would have a five-year “sunset provision” and would be earmarked for specific projects.

Raising Buncombe County’s sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent would generate an estimated $142.9 million over the five years, which would be divided between the county and its six municipalities, Greene reported. Under the proposal, the local governments might get the following amounts (in rounded figures): Buncombe County, $81.2 million; Asheville, $50.5 million; Black Mountain, $5.5 million; Biltmore Forest, $982,000; Montreat, $492,000; Weaverville, $1.8 million; and Woodfin, $2.5 million.

Greene said the county could use its share of the money as follows: $8 million for economic development (creating two industrial parks and providing business incentives); $24.3 million for water-and-sewer improvements; $24.3 million for school technology (to be divided among the Asheville City schools, the Buncombe County schools and A-B Tech); and $24.5 million for county construction projects (an auxialiary jail for nonviolent offenders, a daycare center, library improvements, a parking deck and affordable housing).

Raising the money through sales taxes, reported Greene, would ease the burden on property owners, because 50 percent of the people who pay local sales taxes don’t live here.

Board members — who unanimously backed the idea — designated commissioners Stanley and Young to meet with other local-government leaders to enlist their support. County officials also want to approach the Council of Independent Business Owners and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Once those contacts have been made, board members want to pitch the idea to the county’s local legislative delegation, before the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 24. The entire legislature would have to give the sales-tax increase the go-ahead.

But the commissioners recognized that the proposal might not be an easy sell.

“Why would the state not want to do this?” asked Keever.

“They’re chicken,” replied Stanley.

Gantt noted after the session that “good ideas get lost in Raleigh every session” but said he hopes the local delegation will support the plan with “every ounce of energy they have,” because it would improve county residents’ quality of life without overburdening property owners.

Staggered terms: Although there have been only two complete turnovers of the board in the past century — in 1928 and 1930 — some commissioners seemed open to putting the idea before the voters.

Associate County Attorney Stan Clontz reported that the board would first have to put the matter to a referendum, probably in 2002. No legislative action would be necessary.

If approved by voters, the plan could take effect in 2004. And if the position of board chair continued to be elected separately, the transition to four-year, staggered terms for the other four commissioners could be accomplished by having the two highest vote-getters serve four-year terms while the two lowest vote-getters served two years, Clontz explained. By 2006, the transition would be complete, with all of the commissioners serving staggered, four-year terms.

The board didn’t reach a consensus on the matter. Clontz said later that he would bring the commissioners a proposal if they requested one.

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