The Buncombe County commissioners have given Swannanoa’s controversial incorporation drive their blessing—provided that the potential new town’s roughly 10,000 residents approve the move in an upcoming referendum.
Incorporation “is certainly between the General Assembly and that community,” Chairman Nathan Ramsey observed during the board’s Feb. 19 meeting. “We don’t really have much of a say. I’ve said before that I think a referendum is the best way to settle this. That way, even if it’s by one vote, you’ll know exactly where the people stand.”
Public comment concerning the measure was vigorous, with area residents speaking both for and against incorporation. Proponents said it would give Swannanoa more independence and better services. Opponents asserted that it would simply raise taxes and charged that the Swannanoa Incorporation Task Force has whipped up unfounded fears of annexation by Asheville to get petition signatures.
Both sides have now launched competing petition drives. The task force, which had previously won Black Mountain’s endorsement, is slated to make its pitch to the Asheville City Council next month. Later, both groups will make their respective cases before the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporation. And the task force says its proposal will make incorporation conditional on a successful referendum. The Joint Legislative Commission will make a recommendation to the General Assembly, which will have the final say.
The town of Swannanoa?
That referendum seems to be just about the only thing Swannanoa residents agree on when it comes to the contentious question.
“There is an organized opposition to the incorporation, and we feel like a majority of the residents are against [it],” Eric Gorny, who helped found the anti-incorporation group Swannanoa Truth, told the commissioners. “We do feel like many residents signed the incorporation petition because they were afraid of being annexed by Asheville. They’ve told us that, and many people have requested that their names be removed from the petition.”
But Mike Tolley, who chairs the Incorporation Task Force, said his group has “held many community meetings, hundreds of people have been involved, [and] over a period of time, it became clear there was overwhelming support.”
Citing a survey conducted by Jerry Boyce, a retired professor of statistics from Mars Hill College, Tolley said it showed 85 percent support for incorporation. The county, he noted, would also benefit, because Swannanoa would assume responsibility for certain services, such as extra sheriff’s deputies.
“That’s a win/win situation,” said Tolley. “We’ll pay for deputies and a sheriff’s detective available there. … That makes things easier on [Sheriff Van Duncan].” Tolley also displayed letters from both Duncan and the Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department endorsing incorporation.
Other services the town would provide include fire protection, street lighting, trash collection and road maintenance. To cover these services, Swannanoa residents would pay an additional 23 or 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the task force estimates.
Ramsey, meanwhile, noted that any sales-tax revenue the county might lose to the new town would be offset by the savings on services it would no longer have to pay for.
However, Tolley also said that he realizes there are objections, though incorporation proponents have gathered signatures from 25 percent of the community’s 6,000 registered voters.
“We will ask for a referendum. We do want an opportunity for everyone to vote on this,” Tolley said. “We want Swannanoa to have its own voice and have the right to protect what we’ve got.”
But resident Gary Aiken challenged Tolley’s assertion of broad support, saying the survey represented only a small number of people and that a recent anti-incorporation rally had collected 400 petition signatures.
Swannanoa resident Harry Vess also blasted the pro-incorporation folks.
“The last time I was here was on ‘Communist Workers Party Day,’ when [the commissioners] decided to approve zoning without a vote—and Swannanoa Pride [the nonprofit group that spawned the Incorporation Task Force] was for that. At least now they’ve realized there should be a vote,” said Vess. “One day Buncombe County citizens are going to wake up and realize from all sides they’re being surrounded and told what to do by damn Yankees, by scalawags and by mountain-men wannabes who have come here and decided to tell the rest of us what to do. My taxes are nine times what they were when I bought my house.”
But Carol Grubin, co-chair of Swannanoa Pride, said her group would “try to bring business in whether we become a town or not,” emphasizing that every effort has been made to involve the community in the incorporation campaign.
Bonnie Vess, however, charged that the group had used “scare tactics” to get petition signatures, citing her own case as an example.
“This guy who had just gotten out of the Marine Corps said, ‘You better sign now, or you’re going to be annexed by Asheville,” said Vess, adding, “I’ve found out that’s not the case.”
She added that she was still undecided on the issue but was worried about how the additional tax burden would affect Swannanoa’s poorer residents.
In the end, Commissioner Bill Stanley made the motion to endorse incorporation provided that the referendum supports it. He added, “Folks, if you think Asheville’s not going to come after your land, someone’s pulling your leg.”
The board also unanimously agreed to waive $29,000 in property taxes for Custom Packaging Inc. The Arden-based box manufacturer is in the midst of a $4.5 million modernization and expansion of its operations.
The company currently employs 60 people at its 140,000 square foot facility, but it’s looking to hire more. And based on those additional jobs and the resulting tax revenues, Custom Packaging was asking the commissioners for financial help.
“This allows us to go after different markets, including graphics, and expand our reach. We’re very thankful for your consideration and support,” plant manager David Hennessey told the commissioners.
Hennessey also touted his employer’s benefits package, noting that the company “is having a hard time finding people to fill” the 12 new jobs, which range in pay from $12 to $56 an hour. “We’re very aggressively looking,” he said.
Ray Denny, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development, emphasized that the company must fulfill its promised expansion in order to qualify for the incentives, and that increased property-tax revenues resulting from the expansion would make up the incentive payment within a year.
“If we don’t [give incentives], we’re just going to fall farther and farther behind,” said Denny, who helped set up the deal. “The company acts first—they have to fulfill this before they get this. It’s not like we have a Brink’s truck that we’re just driving around giving out cash.”
But Harry Vess wasn’t placated. “Every time I hear the word ‘incentive,’” he said, “I think you’re taking more of my property-tax money and giving it to someone else.”
The commissioners, however, found the company’s logic convincing.
“After recouping this investment,” noted Ramsey, “they’re paying far more into the community than what we’re waiving, and the payback is within a very short term.”
In other business, the commissioners were unable to agree on an appointment to the Asheville Downtown Commission. Ramsey and Vice Chair David Gantt both supported local developer Chuck Tessier, while Stanley and Commissioner Carol Peterson voted for former Downtown Commission Chair Dwight Butner. (Commissioner David Young was absent.) The board will take another vote at its March 18 meeting, when all five commissioners are expected to be in attendance.
Ramsey had praise for both these two candidates and all the other applicants for the post, calling them “excellent and very well-qualified.”