Buncombe County Attorney Joe Connolly chewed on an unlit cigar and shook his head as he left the chamber following the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ marathon Feb. 20 session. “That’s the longest one in the time I’ve been here,” he said. A lengthy agenda coupled with massive public opposition to the board’s recent decision to lease former landfill property to Progress Energy had stretched the session from noon to nearly 6 p.m., when the commissioners voted to continue it to Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 5 p.m.
The agenda included extensive reports on county spending for both physical- and mental- health care and EMS personnel, as well as detailed information on proposed state tax-relief legislation. In addition, one of two public hearings concerning proposed county development regulations prompted extensive discussion between commissioners and planning staff; that hearing was continued to allow broader community involvement.
As on Jan. 16, when the board approved the Progress Energy lease, the chamber was packed to overflowing when Chairman Nathan Ramsey opened the pre-meeting public-comment session. Opponents of the proposed oil-fired, peak-power plant and supporters of a temporary development moratorium spilled out into the hallway, and more than 20 had signed up to speak. Dozens of attendees brandished yellow fliers emblazoned with a sketch of a compact-fluorescent light bulb, waving them to indicate agreement when speakers scored telling points. And about a third of the 100 or more people in the audience wore green lapel stickers from Save Our Slopes, a local nonprofit that’s running TV ads urging a short-term moratorium on city and county development projects.
At the end of the extended meeting, four more people came forward to speak during the formal public-comment period. Woodfin resident Ron Larsen read a resolution opposing the power plant signed, he said, “by more than 1,000 people in the past 10 days—and we aren’t through yet.”
Public outraged by power-plant lease
Woodfin resident James Latimore led off public comment, telling commissioners, “The power-plant lease was a bad decision, and I think it will cause your consciences some trouble in the future.” Admitting that he didn’t believe the commissioners would reverse their decision, Latimore urged them to “think of positive things we can do now to put Buncombe County in the forefront of action on global warming.” His comments sparked widespread applause, and Chairman Nathan Ramsey gaveled the room to silence.
Asheville resident Jay Gertz said: “I’m outraged that the commission has once again ignored the voice of the people by favoring mega-developments and a private utility over the welfare of the people. This will be your legacy to Buncombe County: to despoil the environment of this region.” Then, in pointed reference to the siting of the proposed plant as well as both the former and current landfills, he added, “The poor, rural population of north Buncombe shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden for growth in other parts of the county.”
After acknowledging the health-and-environmental issues, UNCA math professor Dot Sulock raised yet another concern. “An oil-burning plant is a national-security issue,” she said. “America needs energy independence, and this plant is not a step in that direction. … A Stanford University study out this week showed that Eastern states could produce 150 percent of their energy needs from offshore wind alone.”
UNCA student Katie Souris urged the commissioners to reconsider their vote, noting that while the energy produced may be sold anywhere on the grid, “the health effects will be centralized in our local population. … A new plant is not the answer, anymore than an inhaler will cure a child’s asthma,” she said, concluding, “I speak for many other Warren Wilson and UNCA students who are taking the exam that I’m missing to be here.”
In response, Ramsey offered to give her a note explaining her absence.
Gayle Ray of Asheville declared, “Global warming is a reality,” wondering, “What are we going to tell our children and our grandchildren when they ask, ‘If you knew about it, why didn’t you do something?’”
Asheville resident Will Ray aimed his critique directly at commissioners. “I love living in Asheville and Buncombe County. I love the mountains, the trees, nature and the people. What I don’t like is the government. It seems unresponsive to the people, for some reason.” He continued: “I thought the proposed power plant would be up for discussion for months, and all of a sudden the dust had settled on this. Why can’t the government listen to the people? I don’t think the Woodfin decision you made was a good one.”
Roger A. Miller, who recently moved from Miami to Woodfin, said: “I came to Buncombe County to photograph the mountains, not haze and pollution. I chose to buy an existing home, not in a place like Reynolds Mountain, because I wanted to make as little impact as possible. The first thing I did was install a power-monitoring system to lower my power consumption; then I installed compact-fluorescent bulbs. If I had known the power plant was planned, I wouldn’t have bought a house here.”
Asheville resident Cheryl Wolff said: “I’m concerned, because I want to know what other studies you did besides take information from Progress Energy. … If you took their specifications, couldn’t you have put it out for bid for alternatives or renewables?”
Perhaps the most impassioned plea came from Lael Gray, youth director for the Jewish Community Center. Emphasizing that she wasn’t speaking for her employers, Gray, who also manages the county’s Smart Start program, said: “I work with children and adults, and I see a lot of children with asthma. I’m here to ask you to think about what you are doing. You are swapping out the health of people I know and care about in exchange for short-term gain.”
Gray, who has an asthmatic child, told of one co-worker with adult-onset asthma who’d been hospitalized and missed weeks of work due to complications and another who frequently misses work to care for a child who has such severe asthma that he recently turned blue. Such absences entail financial as well as health costs, she noted, concluding, “I want you commissioners to think about a blue child whenever you talk about this plant.”
Claudine Cremer of Weaverville said: “Since you made this decision, the [National Climatic Data Center in Asheville] reported that this January was the warmest on the planet of any January in their archives. Why not honor the contract you signed but require them to build an alternative plant on that site? [Commissioners] showed vision when you entered into the methane-gas agreement on the old landfill. Why not follow your same initiative and make this an alternative plant?”
David Johnson, an Asheville-based energy-industry professional, submitted a detailed conservation plan that he said could cut Buncombe’s energy use by 100 megawatts annually at less than half the cost of the proposed 130 MW peak-energy facility while providing more local jobs, cutting power bills and reducing air pollution. “We are facing perhaps the biggest challenge in history,” Johnson declared. “Our national electric system was designed to encourage consumers to use as much electricity as they wanted. The system needs to be revamped to encourage conservation.” Noting that “any change in the way we do business must be profitable to Progress Energy,” Johnson said, “Conservation and nonpeak use can provide many times the energy that would come from the planned plant at far lower cost.” Furthermore, he warned: “There’s nothing to prevent [the utility] from selling the power from this plant out of state. I firmly believe that the voting public, if educated on this subject, would overwhelmingly reject this plant. These numbers can easily be accommodated for far less money.”
At that point, Ramsey called Progress Energy spokesman Ken Maxwell to speak, though he hadn’t signed up as is usually required. Refuting shouted challenges, Ramsey also allowed Maxwell to speak without a time limit—another violation of normal procedure. “Look, we’ve had 20 people up here speaking for more than half an hour. Hearing the other side is part of a public discussion,” said the chairman—to which some audience members replied, “He’s had two years!” referring to the two years of backroom discussions the county admits it conducted with the utility before the deal was made public last December.
Maxwell essentially repeated what he’d said at the Jan. 16 meeting (see “Commissioners Override Citizen Demands,” Jan.24, Xpress). “The company has obligations dictated by its contract with the state Utilities Commission,” and “Building this plant is the only way we can guarantee that we will meet the need.”
When asked whether Progress Energy had considered the projected impact of the State Energy Office’s plan to reduce by an average of 20 percent the amount of electricity used in all state office, university, community-college and public-school buildings by 2008, Maxwell told Xpress, “It’s easy to make plans, but that doesn’t mean they will reach those goals or stick to them.”
Due to the lengthy comment period, the formal meeting began a half-hour late, with Human Service Support Team Manager Jim Holland reporting on the health-care challenges facing the county. An aging population, he said, is driving up Medicaid costs, and the state is providing less funding than expected. On the other hand, the Medicare Prescription Plan, which started last year, has reduced drug costs. Although children are the largest population served, their per capita costs are low, said Holland, whereas serving the smaller elderly-and-handicapped population costs more per person.
A report on mental-health services by Assistant County Manager/DSS Director Mandy Stone and Western Highlands Network Director Arthur Carder also cited cost increases. Both were upbeat, however, about the transition in mental-health care following the collapse of New Vistas last fall (see “Holes in the Safety Net,” Oct. 4, 2006 Xpress). After an initial scramble, the system now has immediate openings for children needing care and a three- to four-day wait for adult services—down from two to three weeks a few months ago. “We expect to bring that down to one to two days soon. We’re very pleased that things are going as well as they are,” reported Carder.
“Mission’s ER reports no increase in mental-health treatment since the collapse of New Vistas, and there’s been no huge increase at the Health Department either,” said Stone, adding that the detention facility has taken in more people with mental-health issues.
Meanwhile, North Carolina is now capping the number of people state facilities can admit at 110 percent of capacity. “This will require the community to keep people until a state slot opens up, or force the state to release people to make space—which means the community will have to find ways to help those who are released too early,” Carder explained. He also noted that a recent grant application may help fund a telepsychiatry system electronically linking area residents with care providers. Stone said DSS will train one-third of county law-enforcement officiers to deal with mental-health emergencies.
Residents request zoning changes
Planning Director Jon Creighton reported on the community meetings held to explain proposed countywide zoning. Attendance ranged from a low of 150 at North Buncombe Middle School (due to bad weather) to 500 or more at Owen, which is in the largest area that will be affected. Creighton said the meetings had gone well.
He also said his department has had 326 requests from people who want to change their proposed zoning designation, urging residents to get their requests in soon. Staff needs time to map the requests before the April 10 public meeting on zoning, Creighton explained.
“Will there be an appeals process if I’m not happy with my designation?” asked Ramsey.
“We were planning on just going to the Planning Board and talking,” said Creighton. “But if you want to make some more formal effort, we can.” Creighton said he expects his department to agree with most requests, adding, “If, say, 20 percent remain in dispute, you’re talking about a handful we’d have to deal with.”
“What if someone missed the deadline?” wondered Commissioner David Young.
“They’d have to come back to the Planning Board later and request a change,” Creighton explained.
Development could drain water table
Former Planning Board Chair Jim McElduff, an environmental engineer, discussed potential problems with the county’s water table.
“Current development in the county depends to a great degree on ground water for potable water,” he explained. Now, however, “Subdivisions are going into areas where ground water is not readily available—mountainsides with great views and beauty, out beyond water lines.” But the county’s planning tools don’t factor in the potential impact of such development on the ground-water supply, he said.
Based on census data, about 58,000 households in the county (56 percent) are on private supplies, virtually all of which depend on ground water. “We are beginning to draw water from deeper and deeper levels where there are fewer fractures in the rock and less water.” When those wells run dry, “It is not a problem that can be solved by adding new wells or going deeper,” noted McElduff.
A Guilford County study found that each household required 2.34 acres of rain-collection area to supply its water use, he said, noting that the piedmont is a more forgiving environment, because there’s a deeper level of soil available for water storage. McElduff urged the county to begin identifying areas where future water shortages are likely, as other counties have done. “We are looking at future shortages,” McElduff warned.
“Can you be more specific in what you recommend that we do?” asked Young.
“First, work with the state; identify what information already exists,” McElduff replied. I know [county Zoning Administrator] Jim Coman has an old map that shows where water supplies are likely to be limited.”
“Have you gotten information from adjacent counties?” queried Commissioner Carol Peterson.
“I don’t think there’s been much systematic effort,” said McElduff. “The potential problem will occur in the areas of greatest development first.”
“I think the steep-slope ordinance has already done what you suggest with the five-acre restriction on steep slopes,” noted Ramsey.
“The steep-slope ordinance will address some of the problems, but not all,” parried McElduff.
“Why don’t we instruct Planning to work with the state and get the information that’s available?” suggested Vice Chair David Gantt, and the other commissioners agreed.
Raleigh considers tax relief
Tax Collector Gary Roberts reported on assorted property-tax-relief options being considered in Raleigh. The existing elderly-and-disabled exemption, he said, is available to those with household incomes up to $20,500. They can qualify for a valuation deduction of $20,000 or 50 percent of the value of their residence and one acre of land, whichever is more.
The state is considering raising the income cap to $25,000, said Roberts, which would exempt an additional 750 homes, costing the county about $390,000 a year in lost revenue. If the state raised the cap to $30,000, it would cost the county about $800,000 annually, he said.
Another proposal would protect “endangered manufacturing and jobs” by exempting the furniture, textile and apparel industries, and a “homestead exclusion” would offer tax breaks based on length of residence. Roberts said neither is likely to pass soon.
But two other proposals are more likely to be enacted soon, he said. The “Homestead Circuit Breaker” would tie property tax to annual income on a sliding scale. Those with annual household incomes of $20,000 to $30,000 would pay a maximum property tax of 3.5 percent of income, and those with household incomes of $30,000 to $40,000 would max out at 4.5 percent of income.
The second plan, modeled on California’s Proposition 13, would limit how much the valuation could rise each year. “This would make the annual valuation increase predictable for a property owner. However, it wouldn’t regulate the rates charged by a municipality,” Roberts told Xpress. “A group of state legislators looked into this, and it would apparently require a state constitutional amendment to make it legal.”
Roberts said the state is also likely to make the existing forest-and-agriculture deductions applicable to smaller parcels.
More land-use rules
Commissioners conducted two public hearings. The first, concerning an amendment to the Beaverdam Community Land Use Ordinance, was brief and passed almost without comment. The measure will tighten restrictions on steep-slope development in Beaverdam Township, which already has the strictest development regulations of any unincorporated area in the county.
Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue introduced the second hearing, on an ordinance to regulate multifamily dwellings. State law excludes condos from county subdivision ordinances, because although the residential units are privately owned, the land beneath them is held in common—and therefore isn’t actually subdivided, Frue told Xpress.
“We’re looking at a very serious issue on fire safety and emergency response at high elevations,” said county Fire Marshal Mack Salley. “Part of this ordinance is to permit our fire departments to get to residences.”
“The water-system elevation limit varies countywide,” Frue explained. But above about 2,500 feet, water for firefighting is in shorter supply.
At elevations from 2,500 to 3,000 feet, the proposed ordinance would limit the height of multifamily units to 35 feet and the density to one unit per two acres. Above 3,000 feet, the height limit would be 25 feet and the density limit one unit per four acres.
That sparked extensive discussion between the commissioners and staff. Ramsey raised repeated objections to the density limits, which he said would discourage clustering of development. He also said steep-slope rules make more sense than elevation rules.
Gantt asked if the ordinance would encourage development at lower elevations.
“Hopefully, in the next couple of months we’ll have a zoning ordinance that will address those issues,” noted Planning staffer Coman. “But we need this right away, because there are plans afoot to build multifamily units on high elevations.”
“Have you looked at other counties?” wondered Young.
“Yes, this has been a hot topic in other counties,” said Coman. “I took a call from Macon County where someone was planning an 11-story condominium on a steep slope.”
“That’s the bottom line,” said Gantt. “There’s no rules at all right now on multifamily construction. We have a moral responsibility to make some laws that are tough. Once we pass zoning, we can step back and take a look at how it works. It’s much more overriding that we act quickly and protect areas where we feel development is inappropriate.”
After further questions from the board, five residents spoke in support of the ordinance, and Young proposed continuing the public hearing, since “Word about this only came out yesterday.”
After that Ramsey, a large-scale landowner, wondered whether he has a conflict of interest in the matter, directing his question to the county attorney. Last year, the chairman told this reporter that he’s been involved in real-estate transactions with The Cliffs at High Carolina, a large new development in Fairview and Swannanoa.
New business late in the day
Almost five hours into the meeting, the commissioners finally took up and unanimously approved all items in their “new business” agenda, starting with a proposal from Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun to create a “career ladder” within his department aimed at retaining emergency responders. The state’s technical colleges aren’t producing enough EMS graduates, he said, prompting heated competition among public and private responder organizations for trained personnel.
The commissioners also endorsed a challenge grant for an Asheville Speedway memorial (which City Council was expected to approve as well) and a bond referendum for state public-school facilities.
And in a nonbinding tip of the hat to public opinion, the board passed a resolution urging Progress Energy to use an alternative energy source for the planned Woodfin power plant.
Board appointments included: Jesse Edwards and Alice Wheat (Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee), Edison Seel (Adult Care Community Advisory Committee), Alice Keller (Historic Resources Commission) and Jerome Jones (Audit Committee).
At 5:45 p.m., the meeting was continued to the following Tuesday.