Buncombe County Commission

Commissioners seek exemption from mental-health-board term limits

In its latest effort to rein in development, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved new rules strictly limiting the height and density of condominiums and apartments built at higher elevations.

Got it? Good.: Mountain Voices Alliance member B.J. Snow protests outside the Buncombe County Planning Board’s Feb. 26 special meeting, where a new condo ordinance was being reviewed.

The hastily written stand-alone ordinance, approved Feb. 27 on a 4-1 vote, was presented as a stopgap measure until countywide zoning can be implemented. The county’s current development boom has prompted growing public concern about issues such as stream-choking runoff, increased risk of landslides, compromised public safety and unsightly ridge-top construction. Until now, a loophole in the subdivision ordinance has exempted multifamily developments from subdivision ordinance rules.

Starting at 2,500 feet above sea level, the new ordinance limits multi-unit residences to a maximum height of 35 feet and a maximum density of one “dwelling” per two acres. In other words, a 20-unit development would require 40 acres of property. Starting at 3,000 feet, the height limit is 25 feet and the density is capped at one dwelling per four acres.

The rules are stricter than the state’s 1983 Mountain Ridge Protection Act, which sets a 35-foot height limit for buildings at least 3,000 feet above sea level or 500 feet above a surrounding valley.

The meeting, which consisted mainly of a lengthy public-comment period, was a continuation of the board’s Feb. 20 session. Chairman Nathan Ramsey cast the lone vote against the new rules; a second vote (required because the first one wasn’t unanimous) will be taken on Thursday, March 8.

Members of the public turned out in force, and about 15 people spoke, almost all of them favoring stricter controls.

East Asheville resident Steve Sloan strongly urged the commissioners to approve the new rules. “We are highly exposed,” he told the board. “And without this ordinance, it’s only a matter of time before a major condominium project presents itself.” In the past five years, said Sloan, the number of subdivisions in the county has increased substantially, and with the baby boomers starting to retire, that trend is likely to accelerate.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “this is just the leading edge. We have been given the rare chance to be ahead of the curve on this.”

The lone opposition to the ordinance came from John Carroll, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, who spoke on his group’s behalf. “This ordinance has had numerous changes in the past 24 hours,” said Carroll. “Can you commissioners—in your heart of hearts—know what you are voting on here today?”

Carroll also blasted the commissioners’ attempts over the past year to tighten standards for development, saying, “We’ve had a lot of knee-jerk reactions, a lot of hodgepodge ordinances passed over the last several months.”

Alexander resident Gary Roberts, who chairs the county Soil and Water Conservation Board but said he was speaking “as a citizen,” approved the spirit of the ordinance but noted that it overlooks some vulnerable lands. “There’s lots of slopes in this county that are steep below 2,500 feet,” said Roberts, citing bluffs along the French Broad River that he believes are unsuited to development because of their vulnerability to erosion and inadequate water supply.

Others, including Elaine Lite of the Mountain Voices Alliance, a local activist group, continued to press the commissioners for a temporary halt to new development. “The fears related to a moratorium need to be dispelled once and for all,” she said, proclaiming, “No one will lose their jobs; no one will go out of business. … Consider it as a pause to plan.”

Just before the vote, Commissioner David Gantt pointed a finger at out-of-state developers. “I’ve never worried about local developers, who know not to build on the mountain slopes,” said Gantt. “But now we have developers coming in who want to stick it to us, take the money and run. We’ve heard your comments, we’ve taken your phone calls, we’ve read your e-mails. This [ordinance] is the fastest way to get there. We’ll move faster with this than a moratorium. It’s time to act.”

Commissioner David Young supported the ordinance, though he had reservations about how quickly it was drafted.

“It’s a little disconcerting to me to vote on something I’ve just seen,” said Young. “It’s far from perfect. Still, we have a huge loophole—a gaping hole, really. And the only way I see to close it is to pass the ordinance.”

Ramsey, meanwhile, thanked staff for drafting “a decent ordinance” but said he couldn’t support it. “Our Planning Board could come up with rules that make a lot more sense,” he said, adding, “This ordinance really doesn’t address the problem.”

As county residents filed out of the meeting room after the vote, the commissioners took up the only other agenda item: a resolution asking our representatives in Raleigh to sponsor legislation exempting Buncombe County’s appointee to the Western Highlands Area Authority board from a term limit imposed by the General Assembly last year. Established in 2003, the authority oversees mental-health care for eight counties in Western North Carolina, and board members are limited to two consecutive terms. Each county appoints one board member, and Buncombe County’s representative is Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone, whom the commissioners hope to retain “for the sake of continuity,” said Ramsey.

The meeting adjourned at 6:30 p.m.

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