Buncombe Commissioners: Day for night

Let there be (less) light: (Above) Board Chair David Gantt said the new rules restricting light pollution were long overdue. (Below) Bernie Arghiere of the Astronomy Club of Asheville helped lead a successful campaign to beef up new rules restricting light pollution. photos by Bill Rhodes

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Jan. 17, 2012 meeting

  • County seeks $900,000 in Mountain Mobility grants
  • Nine appointed to Planning Board

More stars may begin to be visible over Buncombe County night skies in years to come thanks to a new outdoor-lighting ordinance approved during the Board of Commissioners’ Jan. 17 meeting.

Intended to minimize light pollution, improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, the new rules limit the intensity of illumination allowed in new commercial, industrial and residential development as well as parking lots, roads and other areas. They also require shielding to point the light downward and reduce glare. The rules will apply only to the county’s unincorporated areas.

The commissioners amended a draft ordinance written by planning staff and endorsed by the Planning Board, incorporating stronger measures supported by the local Sierra Club and other groups.

During a public hearing on the matter, Bernie Arghiere, president of the Astronomy Club of Asheville, outlined the differences between the Planning Board’s recommendation and what environmental leaders were pushing for.

The draft ordinance, he noted, exempted county government buildings from the new standards. "It would be a little embarrassing to ask everyone else to meet these standards, but you don't have to,” said Arghiere, adding, “You have to do that, so you can lead by example."

The staff proposal also excluded residential development, and Arghiere made a case for applying them to apartments and houses as well.

"Commercial developers pick those lights, and they usually pick the worst lights — the ones that are totally unshielded," he said, adding that these "dusk-to-dawn" security lights rank near the top for glare created and energy consumed. Accordingly, Arghiere urged the commissioners to include a five-year sunset provision that would phase them out entirely. Asheville and Woodfin have such provisions in their outdoor-lighting rules, he noted.

"These amendments are going to save on our carbon footprint. It's going to put Buncome County in a leadership role in improving the quality of life of its citizens, and it's going to save energy," Arghiere asserted.

Toward the end of his comments, he asked everyone in the packed chamber who agreed with him to stand up. Nearly all of the 40-some people in attendance did, and many other commenters echoed his remarks.

John Buscarino of the UNCA environmental club shared a story about moving here from south Florida, where he grew up, and seeing the splendor of the night sky for the first time. "I think the natural beauty of the area is a big draw to tourists and residents, and we need to be proactive in maintaining the night sky as a resource," he said.

Ken Brame, representing the local Sierra Club chapter, told the commissioners, "All of our members support the base ordinance, and we also strongly support the amendment that will be proposed tonight."

Swimming against the current, however, two speakers opposed the measure.

Fairview resident Mike Fryar, a Republican candidate for commissioner in the 115th District, sarcastically referenced the unshielded lights in his neighborhood, declaring, "These lights have been shining on my house for 21 years, and I'm not dead yet.”

And Kathy Rhodarmer of Candler peered around the room, saying, "I've never seen so many people who want to tell others what to do."

Meanwhile, two commissioners indicated their intention to amend the draft ordinance even before they’d heard from the crowd. Before the meeting began, Holly Jones handed out copies of an amendment addressing the very concerns Arghiere and others subsequently raised. She read from it later while making a motion to include those revisions.

Board Chair David Gantt also voiced support for the changes before the vote, saying it was only fair to hold county government to the same standards as private developers. "We need these amendments: I think what's good for the goose is good for the gander," he asserted.

"This is not going to be any kind of major expense for people," Gantt maintained. "It's only a monumental change in the sense that we don't have any law right now, and we need a law — we needed a law 30 years ago."

Commissioner Carol Peterson disagreed, saying that while she supported the draft ordinance, she felt the amendment hadn't been properly vetted.

"I agree that lighting standards are good," Peterson explained before casting the lone vote against the measure. "But I feel like we've got to think about the folks who are not up to speed with what we're doing tonight, and those are the people I'm trying to make a stand for."

Later, during public comment, Peterson found an ally in Mike Plemmons, executive director of the Council of Independent Business Owners.

"We knew the issue was coming up, but we knew nothing of the amendments that were offered tonight,” he said. “If this was worked on for several days, and apparently it was, then we should have been notified, along with the Chamber and everybody else — pro-business, anti-business, everyone," Plemmons maintained. "Apparently there were a lot of groups already meeting with you. We were not one of them, and we don't like that. … I do think if the average person in Buncombe County living in the rural areas had known about these, you probably would have had a little different public here."

Other business

The commissioners also:
• Unanimously approved a pair of grant applications seeking more than $900,000 in state and federal funds for Mountain Mobility, the county's transportation system. The grants would require roughly $166,000 in local matching funds. • Unanimously approved a new "wellness incentive" designed to encourage county employees to measure and improve their blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass and blood sugar levels. • Appointed three new members to the Planning Board: Bud Sales, Jim Young and Catherine Martin. They also reappointed six current members: Josh Holmes, Joe Sechler, Tom Alexander, Greg Phillips, Bernie Kessel and Michelle Pace Wood. • Heard a report by staffer Tim Rhodes on the county's poverty prevention and management programs. Stressing the successful partnerships with outside agencies such as the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, Rhodes also noted that the renovation of the Health and Human Services Building on Coxe Avenue in downtown Asheville is almost complete. The improved facility, he said, will help streamline operations.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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