It wasn’t a free lunch, but county commissioners were offered breakfast, free of charge, courtesy of the American Egg Board — and the staff of the county Finance Department, who won the meals in a KISS-FM contest.
The breakfast invitation was delivered during the commissioners’ Jan. 26 agenda-review meeting. (Bill Stanley was the only commissioner to accept the offer; he joined about 45 other county personnel on Jan. 27 for the breakfast, which was served in the Finance Department offices.)
The regular meeting of the Buncombe County commissioners opened with poetry and prayer, offered by the Rev. Joe H. Hoffman of the First Congregational Church of Christ. Every seat in the Board chambers was taken as commissioners addressed a hefty agenda, which included:
• A public hearing on the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan;
• A presentation on the School Supplement, a county-funded salary supplement for teachers, designed to augment the state-mandated salary schedule. The 1998-’99 supplement totaled $6.7 million.
• A request for a $45 million bond referendum to raise funds for the county Board of Education;
• A discussion on the flow and availability of school capital-commission funds, which are derived from sales taxes, interest income and state funds distributed to schools based on attendance figures.
• A proposed moratorium on cellular-phone towers in the county.
Chairman Tom Sobol began the meeting with the consent agenda, which passed without comment. He then announced that commissioners had agreed that the proposed animal-control ordinance will be “off the table,” except for three items that commissioners will look at as separate amendments at a later meeting, after they have had a chance to meet with hunters and beekeepers, who have expressed concerns about the ordinance.
“The public will be properly notified,” Sobol said. The separate amendments include a clarification of the six-dog rule, a resolution by beekeepers, and refinements to the wording that specifies the circumstances in which Animal Control officers can go onto private property or enter dwellings or other buildings.
“This matter has gotten out of hand. There is a lot of misrepresentation and misinterpretation,” Sobol explained.
County Attorney Joe Connolly stated that before an Animal Control officer can enter private property, the officer must have obtained permission from the property owner or the legal agent, or else have in hand an administrative warrant authorizing the inspection. The intent of the proposed ordinance is to ensure that officers can take action if dogs or other animals are being abused, or are behaving offensively, Sobol added.
Plan for land-use
The public hearing on the county Comprehensive Land Use Plan began with Asheville resident Scott Hughes, chairman of the Land Use Planning Task Force, explaining the work of the volunteer committee which, he said, had spent over one year putting the plan together, after 12 community-input hearings were held throughout the county. He called the plan “incentive based,” explaining that it is intended only as a guidepost for future development and wouldn’t require county zoning. But for the plan to work, he said, the process will need oversight and time to be implemented. The next step requires drumming up countywide support for the plan, Hughes said.
Sobol pointed out that, “if any land-use restrictions work themselves [into the plan], it will be done at the wish of those communities.”
Copies of the plan, which includes two-dozen color maps, may be obtained for $37 each. The text, without maps, is available at no charge from the County Planning Department (46 Valley St., in Asheville; 250-4840).
Commissioner David Gantt suggested that the plan be posted on the county’s web site; at his request, copies will also be made available to the public libraries. Weaverville resident Don Yelton suggested: “Let’s set an example and save paper. Print this on both sides of recycled paper.” He also advised commissioners to “make the second hearing a ‘happening’, with a little socializing. If we don’t do land-use planing, he concluded, we might have to bus workers in, like [they do] in Hilton Head.”
“Planning takes tough decisions,” said local attorney Albert Sneed, and “change always engenders fear.” Predicting that Buncombe County is going to have another asphalt plant, Sneed asked commissioners, “How many tough decisions do you have in you?” County residents are paying more for asphalt because we have no competition, he said, urging commissioners to identify any suitable places in the county for an asphalt plant and give industry an incentive bonus to go in there.
The League of Women Voters, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce and the Western North Carolina Alliance all spoke in favor of the land-use-plan. The 10 speakers at the public hearing repeatedly expressed concerns about farmland preservation, affordable housing, control of urban sprawl, and ridgetop protection.
“We are losing farmland at a drastic rate,” said north Buncombe resident Gary Roberts. “I want to see a strengthening of the Farmland Preservation Ordinance.”
The Western North Carolina Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group, was well represented, despite what community organizer Alyx Perry termed the hearing’s inconvenient timing, during business hours. She said, “It is really hard for people to make it to these meetings.”
Sobol replied, “We will try to set a time for the next meeting that is a little easier for people to attend.”
WNC Alliance Executive Coordinator Brownie Newman asked commissioners to approve a plan that would “promote mixed-use, cluster development on existing infrastructure, and create and fund a land-conservation program, as steps towards making sure that changes in our county over the next 20 years represent real progress for the community.”
“There is the danger that Buncombe County could become another community — like Boulder, Colorado — where housing prices are so high that people must live far out of town, and away from where they work, in order to find a place they can afford to live,” Newman said.
“The Western North Carolina Alliance wants to go on record,” Newman said, “as strongly supporting the creation and adequate funding of a Buncombe County land-conservation fund, which will be used to economically reward landowners who place an easement on their land.”
Fairview resident Keith Gibbons, a tool-and-die maker for 39 years, complained: “I’m sick of hearing that word ‘land use’. The landowner pays the taxes: That ought to give him some options.”
“I don’t agree with that outfit in Emma that has a firing range,” Gibbons continued. “I belong to NRA, I like my guns, but I’m not going to aggravate my neighbor. I have more respect than that. I know the people of Fairview. They’re the salt of the earth — real good folk, responsible people. Can we trust the landowner or the government better?” he asked.
Gibbons then issued a warning to the commissioners. “You’ve heard about bloody Madison? The reason for calling it that is, when the revenuers went in looking for stills, they disappeared. … So, beware: You can make a decent, tax-paying citizen into an outlaw over some ordinance.”
More or fewer funds for local schools?
Next on the agenda was a presentation — by Enka-Candler resident Jerry Rice (who regularly attends commissioners’ meetings) — regarding the Local School Supplement, a county-funded salary supplement for teachers which augments the state-mandated salary schedule. Rice recommended doing away with the supplement, in the interest of a “fair and equitable” treatment of all school and county employees.
“Hold to your seat and ride with me,” he said. “I don’t want to be mean and out of order — I just want you to listen.” Reading from prepared notes, and referring the commissioners to the detailed charts he had given them, Rice launched into a lengthy and detailed presentation of the program’s costs to Buncombe County.
“If the county is going to reward school teachers with a nice local supplement, the county employees need to be given a local supplement [also], to help them to get to the national average. Would this not be fair and equitable?” he asked.
It was nearly 6 p.m., and the room was thinning out as he spoke. The remaining audience seemed uninterested as Rice explained his detailed charts.
“We’re 48th in the nation in education,” Rice asserted. “Why should we pay teachers the national average, if they can’t educate our kids?”
“Oh Jerry, I can’t let you go there,” interjected Commissioner Patsy Keever.
“What’s wrong with rewarding teachers?” Gantt asked. “We are trying to take care of county employees. There is only so much pie we can cut up: We try to cut it as best we can.”
“You’re very young and tender for a politician, and you just don’t know what went on in the past,” Rice admonished Gantt, evoking laughter from observers in the room. Gantt was not amused.
“Education is a top priority with us; teachers are a top priority,” said Gantt.
“I resent your implication that they are not worth what they are getting,” declared Keever.
The entire Asheville City Schools board was present throughout the sometimes-contentious discussion of the salary supplement. They were on hand for the next agenda item: a presentation by Superintendent of City Schools Dr. Karen Campbell about the city’s five-year facilities plan, and a request that a date be set for a $45 million bond referendum to pay for the acquisition, construction and renovation of school facilities, and the repayment of prior debt, for both the city and the county schools.
The Asheville City Schools have already approved the plan, except for a separate project to renovate Claxton School, which is still being considered.
The last school-bond referendum, for $34.5 million, was approved in 1993. Funds from the proposed bonds, if approved, would be spent first to air-condition schools. “Temperatures reached 90 degrees inside some schools,” Campbell said. “As the school year extends more and more into the summer months, it is hard to maintain a quality learning environment.”
Buncombe County Finance Director Nancy Brooks said the bonds would be repaid using sales-tax monies, state education funds and interest income on the proceeds of the bond sales.
Hold that tower!
A proposed three-month moratorium on the erection of new telecommunications towers, introduced by Gantt and seconded by Keever, drew more public comment than commissioners had anticipated, despite the fact that it came at the end of an unusually long meeting.
“I know some folks negotiating [to lease their land for towers]. They could get from $800 to $2,000 per month,” Stanley said. “Can we just put on a moratorium?”
County Attorney Connolly replied, “It is our best opinion that the Board, if it chooses, can do that.”
Local attorney Larry McDevitt, representing Bell Atlantic Mobile, told commissioners he had just found out “last night” about the proposed moratorium. “I don’t fault my friend, Commissioner Gantt, for doing what he thinks is right,” he said. “But it is not fair to us. We ask you, as a matter of fairness, to give notice. We have business in process, negotiations are under-way.”
Keever interjected, “I live in a place where we did not have any notice. Your people can locate anywhere, and we have no say. I’m with David [Gantt]: We need to protect our citizens.”
Commissioner David Young questioned the length of the moratorium, saying, “Ninety days is an arbitrary number. If we get started on amending this ordinance now, can it be done in less than 90 days?”
Attorney Albert Sneed, representing BellSouth, objected to the proposed moratorium and complained about the county’s relationship with MetroSite Management, the consultants who advised commissioners of the need for various amendments to its telecommunications-tower ordinance, including encouraging different mobile-phone companies to co-locate their equipment on the same tower. Sneed was concerned about a conflict of interest, since the consulting firm was asked by the county to find sites for cell towers on county-owned property.
“These moratoriums are not without costs,” Sneed said. “We have people out in the field, budgets to deal with. This moratorium is overkill. If you want to have hearings, do so in the ordinary course [with proper notice].”
“I want time to get all the information I need to make a good decision,” Gantt said. “We represent people, as well as companies.”
The motion for the three-month moratorium passed 4-1, with Stanley offering the lone opposition. The proposal is set for a second reading on Feb. 3.
Before ending the meeting, commissioners concluded other business, including the appointment of 15 people to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.
Consent agenda & proclamations
At their Jan. 26 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners’ adopted the following consent-agenda items:
• A Special Revenue Projects Budget Amendment totaling $16,324 for the Buncombe County Tax Department Photographic Project;
• A resolution of intent to convey property and to advertise for upset bids on a 1.42-acre, county-owned tract in Sandy Mush, which will be sold for $5,000, unless a higher bid is offered;
• Budget amendments reflecting grants received for the Council on Aging ($100,235); Soil & Water Conservation for Newfound Creek ($15,000); an investigator for the district attorney’s office($7,310); and additional state aid to the county library system ($9,602).
The consent agenda was approved, with the addition of a resolution in support of a study of the potential for economic development at the BASF site.
Commissioners issued three proclamations, designating:
• Jan. 31 as Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Day, it being the 84th anniversary of the pastor of the Worldwide Missionary Baptist Tabernacle in Asheville. Dr. Grant beamed from the audience as he listened to Chairman Tom Sobol read the proclamation. After warm applause, Dr. Grant told commissioners, “I’m glad to see all of you. Y’all look so good.” Dr. Grant began his ministry in Pritchard Park as a “street preacher” in the 1930s. He was honored for his many contributions “including a positive impact on race relations in Asheville and Buncombe County.”
• A Proclamation in Memoriam of Dr. Paul M. Limbert “as a token of the esteem that this County has for the man and the work that he has done.” Limbert died last month at the age of 101. He was one of the founders of the Buncombe County Council on Aging and served the county through numerous projects and programs.
• A Proclamation of Congratulations to the Asheville-Buncombe Library System for 120 Years of Service. Library Director Ed Sheary — along with John Bridges, president of Friends of the Library, and Debra Compton of the marketing staff — accepted. “This is a great day for all of us library folk,” said Sheary.
— compiled by Clare Hanrahan