Buncombe County Commission

“Appropriately optimistic and aggressive, but totally do-able,” is how UNCA Chancellor Patsy Reed summed up the school’s 10-year growth plan to commissioners at their Feb. 3 meeting. The commissioners seemed to agree.

The plan — approved by the school’s board of trustees but still seeking state funding — calls for more than 15 new building projects, including eight entirely new structures (four of them parking garages) and six additions.

The top priority is a $12.4 million shape-up and expansion of the Highsmith Student Center, reported Reed. Since it was built in 1984, she said, the number of students living on campus has increased from 400 to almost 1,000. “We shape our buildings, and our buildings shape us,” Reed observed.

Second on the “to do” list is a brand-new, $16 million administration-and-classroom building that would also serve to clearly define UNCA’s entrance.

“We want to have a very distinctive entryway,” said Reed, explaining that, presently, all campus access roads lead to the backs of buildings. The new entrance would proclaim, “‘This is a first-class university,'” Reed asserted, adding, “We’re excited about that.”

The plan calls for keeping the new parking garages low and unobtrusive, Reed noted in a later interview. A $1.9 million parking garage slated to sit beside the university’s newest student housing (now under construction) would have 225 spaces — which works out to about $8,500 per space, according to campus architect Ron Reagan.

Funding for garage construction will come from a different source than that used to pay for the other construction, Reed explained.

The Highsmith project would include an art gallery, a children’s play center (half of UNCA’s 3,100 students are nontraditional, and many are parents), a post office and the school’s career center, whose current location is so obscure that some students don’t even know the facility exists, Reed told commissioners.

The chancellor made no mention of a controversial new conference center/headquarters for UNCA’s Center For Creative Retirement, proposed for university-owned property on Chestnut Ridge, adjacent to the campus.

Cable ordinance tweaked

Commissioners unanimously amended Buncombe County’s Cable Communication Ordinance to include, among other things, a 2-percent franchise-fee increase and a redefinition of the different cable companies’ service areas.

The three cable companies serving Buncombe County — Marcus, InterMedia and Charter — will now each pay 5 percent of their total gross annual revenues. In addition, the amendment allows the companies to compete with each other for customers in areas that don’t yet have cable service. Previously, the companies were limited to operating within certain boundaries.

“The county will get served much quicker [this way],” InterMedia Area General Manager Joe Haight assured commissioners.

The amendment, however, does not address those parts of the county so sparsely populated that installing cable isn’t profitable, which upset Commissioner Patsy Keever. Under the current ordinance, the companies are not required to service such areas.

Tax break for the elderly?

Should elderly homeowners get a break on property taxes? Commissioners said yes, approving a resolution asking the N.C. General Assembly to consider a property-tax discount for the elderly.

Rising property taxes in Buncombe “put some people on a fixed income at a disadvantage,” county Tax Director Jerome Jones told commissioners. Twenty states already offer such discounts, he said.

Because the tax laws are state-mandated, the county cannot unilaterally offer a tax discount, said Jones.

Buncombe resident Harold DeBruhl disagreed, saying that his brother had introduced a similar measure in Buncombe in the ’70s. Jones replied that he would double-check the law.

Resident Jerry Rice urged caution, saying such a tax break might adversely affect the county’s tax base.

Public comment

During the public-comment period, Rice asked commissioners to do something to control Buncombe’s growth, for the sake of county natives.

‘We’re destroying our native heritage by focusing on tourism and not jobs,” he declared.

Rice’s comment was sparked by his new property-tax assessment, he said, adding that he had expressed the same concern four years ago, during the previous revaluation. Rice asked commissioners to track property-tax complaints, which they did not do in 1994.

Taylor stays silent

Commissioners have not heard a word from Rep. Charles Taylor in response to a letter they sent to him on Jan. 23, asking him to meet with themselves and Asheville City Council members to discuss Taylor’s refusal to endorse the French Broad’s bid for federal American Heritage River designation.

“We’re not going to insist,” said Commissioner Bill Stanley, when asked if commissioners would pursue the meeting. “It’s in his court now,” Stanley added.

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