Buncombe County Commission

Many Buncombe County residents love their junkers, and in a Jan. 13 public hearing peppered with laughs, applause and controversy, a whole heap of those folks let the Buncombe County Commissioners know it.

In a courtroom three times the size of the chambers where the commissioners usually meet — but still not big enough to seat the 150 people gathered in the name of junk cars — an army of used-car and parts dealers (some legally licensed, some probably not) assembled to speak their piece. Dressed mostly in work boots, ball caps, blue jeans and mechanic’s jackets, they struck up this chorus: Ditch the ordinance, and leave us — and our junk cars — alone.

“I believe in individual property rights,” proclaimed Pete McCurry, to loud applause from his comrades. “We’re not asking the government for anything but to leave us alone on our property,” added McCurry, a Leicester resident who rebuilds used cars.

“Personally, I think [the ordinance] is a waste of time,” declared Carl Lutz, who said he wouldn’t have bought land here if he’d known that such a law lay in his future. “I’d have gone to Madison and hoped I died by the time the bureaucracy followed,” continued Lutz. The ordinance, he charged, discriminates against working-class people — who have parts and junkers while the upper classes have hobby and antique cars.

What’s got people like Lutz so up in arms is the county’s proposed junk-car ordinance. Opponents maintain that it infringes on property rights, while advocates believe it will help eliminate the piles of unsightly junk cars in the county. Tom Sobol, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, says the county receives numerous complaints about such vehicles each year.

The draft ordinance now under discussion would prohibit having more than two junk cars on a property (under strict guidelines, more may be allowed). Enforcing the ordinance, which is complaint-driven, and interpreting such vagaries as “significantly dismantled” and “appears to be worth less than $100” would fall on the shoulders of county Director of General Services Bob Hunter.

The hearing — as commissioners stressed to the crowd — was called to allow people to speak out about junk cars on personal, not business, property.

However, “It’s a gray area as to who’s running a business,” explained Buncombe County Planner Jim Coman in a later interview. The lifelong Buncombe resident points out that there is a thriving community of “shade tree” mechanics in the area who buy, sell and trade parts and cars, but deny to Coman that they are “in business.”

Admittedly, setting themselves up in a licensed, legal business dealing with junk cars can be difficult, says Coman. A 1991 ordinance requires licensed junkyards to occupy at least four acres of land, with a 3,000-foot buffer along the road and 1,000 feet between the business and the nearest house.

“That’s hard to do,” he concedes. Since 1991, the county has licensed one junkyard, said Coman.

Some at the hearing spoke in favor of the ordinance. Restricting the use of private property is “not a new idea,” argued Stephen Towe — a real-estate broker born and raised in Buncombe County — citing billboards, septic systems and garbage disposal as examples of such regulation. People like his neighbor, who keeps 18 junkers on less than two acres of land, he said, are “infringing on the rights of their neighbors.” Properties bordering others stacked high with junk cars can’t get fair market value when they’re sold, Towe asserted, urging the commissioners to push ahead with the ordinance.

Another man, who declined to give his name, told Mountain Xpress that he had appealed his last tax revaluation because of the junk cars “scattered all over my neighborhood,” and won. The county, he said, is losing tax revenue because of the junkers, and the commissioners know it.

“We have to have the ordinance in place, so that we all can enjoy the beautiful areas that we live in,” declared Darlene Schleider of Candler.

Calling junk cars a “total embarrassment,” Susan Roderick of Quality Forward, an organization that promotes increased quality of life through beautification and recycling efforts, said passing the ordinance would demonstrate pride in the community. Quality Forward runs a program, which Roderick called successful, that tows junkers off private property free of charge.

Some speakers seemed ambivalent about the issue. One soft-spoken Buncombe native said that he was raised to respect his neighbors and their land. But he’s now trying to sell a piece of family land and attributes the hard time he’s having to a neighboring piece of property brimming with junkers. “We’re all subject to change. We have to change,” he proclaimed.

“[The ordinance] is going to hurt old-car workers,” asserted Chuck Krauz, director of West Side Cruisers, a 670-member car club. But he also called for compromise, adding that there are “violators” who use junkers to do things like raise chickens “We’ve got to all recognize this,” he said.

“The only opposition we’re getting is from people involved with junk cars,” said Sobol in a later interview. People who don’t like junk cars spoke up consistently at a series of community meetings commissioners hosted late last year, he noted, adding that he believes more people at the hearing favored the ordinance than actually spoke.

Still, most of those who did speak up opposed such an ordinance, in any form. Some went still further, saying they’re fed up with local government tightening the leash at every turn. Charles Bennett moved here six years ago from New York. “Now,” he lamented, “the baloney is following me down here. I’m tired of getting put in a box.”

Sobol said he expects that commissioners Patsy Keever and David Gantt, who served on a subcommittee that helped draft the ordinance, will get back to work on the draft in a week or two, but probably won’t bring it before the board again for several months.

Sobol also knows that any junk-car ordinance is going to miff some folks. “We’re not going to get something that everyone is going to be happy with,” he concedes.

Work First revised

“People work better than welfare,” goes the new Work First motto, and county Director of Social Services Calvin Underwood hopes it’s true.

“The folks who can work, will work, and it’s in their best interest to work, rather than be on welfare,” Underwood told commissioners during a presentation on the county’s revised Work First plan, which the board unanimously approved.

The Work First program aims to move its participants off of welfare and into the work force. Besides providing substance-abuse and financial counseling, job training and some transportation, the program sets a two-year limit on receiving cash assistance.

Cash-assistance checks in Buncombe County average about $220 a month, said Underwood in a later interview. He acknowledged that many program participants —- most of whom are white, single mothers with no high-school diplomas and no means of transportation who don’t receive child support —- will find it hard to wean themselves from those checks.

“It’s difficult for families to leave cash assistance for a low-wage, no-benefits job,” he told the commissioners. Many of these people are “living on the edge, and emergencies happen,” said Underwood. That’s why, he continued, the county will need to keep offering such subsidies as food stamps and (for kids) health and day care, and will keep its emergency-assistance program in effect.

A single mother with two children who doesn’t get child support needs to work 40 hours per week at $11.19 per hour to be totally self-sufficient, Underwood estimates. Work First jobs, on average, pay between $6 and $7 per hour, he said.

Work First is funded by a $4.7 million block grant, half of which is county money (as mandated by the N.C. General Assembly). The balance is split evenly between federal and state funds. That amount should hold steady through the year 2000, Underwood projects.

Over the past two years, the number of county residents using cash assistance has decreased by 25 percent, he said, adding that he hopes it drops another 15 percent in the next two years.

In July of 1995, there were 2,220 Work First cases, according to Tim Rhodes, a DSS administrator; in two years, he predicts, the number will be 1,118.

Sobol asked Underwood to give quarterly updates to the board. “We need an early-warning signal if we’re getting into trouble,” he observed.

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