Buncombe County Commission

Buncombe County residents whose roots here go back for generations filled the commissioners chambers with an air of determined resistance on March 3. In a two-and-a-half-hour public hearing on land-use planning, which was part of a regular Board of Commissioners meeting, the voice of those residents was clearly heard.

A worried-looking Chairman Tom Sobol called the meeting to order at 4 p.m., flanked by commissioners Patsy Keever and David Young. Commissioner Bill Stanley was in Washington, D.C., attending a legislative conference of the National Association of County Commissioners, and Commissioner David Gantt was delayed in Hendersonville, arriving just in time for the land-use-plan hearing at 5:30 p.m.

The room was filled to overflowing. A television monitor and extra chairs were set up in the hallway, to accommodate some of the nearly 150 residents on hand, many of them wearing red buttons with the words, “No Zoning Incorporation Council of Fairview.”

Brightening the chamber, from their front-row seats, were the four winners of the Buncombe County Cover Kids essay contest: Heather Burrell, Willie Bender, Tina Evans and Kendall Moore. To warm applause, they stood and accepted certificates commending them for their essays on Buncombe County Parks and Recreation programs.

Dispensing first with routine business, commissioners approved the consent agenda, including one added item establishing a $50 fine on all trucks arriving at the landfill without a covering tarp (to contain loose trash).

Numerous budget amendments passed without comment. Commissioners also approved a resolution supporting state House Bill 89, which would provide tax relief for disabled and elderly low-income taxpayers. The legislation would increase the county property-tax exemption to $25,000. The bill stipulates that the state would reimburse counties for 50 percent of all revenue lost, but the county resolution asked that the reimbursement be increased to 100 percent.

New business included a presentation by Alan McKenzie, executive director of Project Access — an award-winning initiative by physician volunteers — which, he said, “provides access to a full continuum of health care to residents of Buncombe County.” McKenzie noted that low-income and uninsured county residents have received $3.5 million worth of free care from area doctors during the project’s four years of operation.

Dr. Rodney Pugh, president of the Buncombe County Medical Society, called Project Access a “national model” and thanked the county for its support — in particular, for funding the project’s pharmacy program, without which, he said, the project “would not fly.” For the last three years, the county has given the program $250,000 a year.

Following the report, Commissioner Sobol declared, “Health care in Buncombe County is not a privilege, it is a right.” And he promised, “We are going to keep that as one of our top priorities in Buncombe County.”

In other new business, Larry Thompson, director of the Blue Ridge Area Authority for Mental Health, told commissioners that his agency is bearing up under a “tidal wave of [funding] cuts.” He thanked commissioners for authorizing an increase in agency staff’s work week, from 37-1/2 to 40 hours. This has allowed staff to compensate for problems caused by Medicaid and Medicare cuts, Thompson explained.

The Carolina Alternatives program, a managed-care program for emotionally disturbed children, is slated to be closed down by the state on July 1, he said.

“It will take every bit of creative energy we have,” Thompson went on, “to continue providing the same level of services.” The traditional Medicaid program, he said, does not provide many of the services available through Carolina Alternatives, is less flexible, and offers a lower reimbursement rate.

Blue Ridge provides mental-health and substance-abuse services, as well as services to developmentally disabled adults and children in Buncombe, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Ernest Ferguson — senior vice president of Wachovia Bank, and chairman of the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission — gave an update on the EDC’s activities since its inception in 1994. This public/private partnership between the Buncombe County commissioners and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce was created “to enable the county to be more proactive in creating new jobs and enhancing the tax base of the county with new business investment,” stated Ferguson.

“Our basic mission is to promote Buncombe County worldwide to the business and industrial market,” he said, adding that, since 1994, the EDC has been directly involved with 25 companies that have announced a total of 1,808 new jobs and more than $100 million in capital investment.

From 1994-97, however, the county’s manufacturing sector saw a net loss of 507 jobs, reported Ferguson, telling commissioners that, with their continued support, the EDC could work to slow or reverse that negative trend.

Asheville, he said, ranked 37th on a list of “The 50 Hottest Cities” in America for business recruitment, published by Expansion Management magazine, and a Boston economics-research firm ranked Asheville 36th in a list of 136 “Entrepreneurial Hot Spots” in the country.

Z-Word

“All these people moving in here are the problem: They come in here complaining and try to push us out,” protested county resident Mary Owensby, during the public hearing on the land-use plan.

Commissioners listened attentively to alternate waves of praise and criticism delivered by a mixture of farmers, white-collar professionals, older women and young men, who reflected differences of class and lifestyle, but not the multiracial and ethnic diversity of Buncombe County. Residents were told to keep their comments to three minutes, though Chairman Sobol, who moderated the hearing with sensitivity and concern, was tolerant of many speakers who didn’t stop when the egg timer rang.

Before opening the floor for public comment, each commissioner stated his or her position on the controversial issue, to respectful applause. Sobol read from prepared remarks, seeking to explain why he was reversing his often-stated position that zoning should be handled as a “home-rule issue,” with each township or community voting on any proposed zoning restrictions.

“I was born and raised here. I own land here, and I love this county,” noted Sobol, saying he has concluded that “Home rule is not the solution.”

“I am well aware that my change in position compromises my credibility. This decision carries a great deal of political risk, but I have to be open to change, with new information,” he said.

“I have seen and heard neighbor pitted against neighbor. The mere mention of the word ‘zoning’ creates fear and anxiety,” yet control through countywide special-purpose ordinances is not working, he concluded: “It is reactive and becoming legally indefensible. We must move forward.”

County resident Tony Candler told commissioners, “Zoning is another form of carpetbagger control,” adding, “I will continue to be your friend and your critic.” Commissioner Young voiced support for the county’s proposed, incentives-based land-use plan, holding up the hefty document as he spoke.

“Our goal is keeping Buncombe County the most beautiful county in the state,” Young declared. Commissioners, he said, should give this plan time to work, charge an entity to oversee the plan, identify all incentive tools, and dialogue with agency partners. “We must encourage communities to restrict themselves,” he concluded.

As Young spoke, Planning Director Jon Creighton and County Attorney Joe Connolly, seated at the table in front of the dais, leaned head-to-head in whispered conversation.

Commissioner Keever began her remarks with an apology. “I’m sorry I had to go back on my word: We truly thought there was a way to do this,” she lamented. “But we cannot do this piecemeal,” she said. “It must be countywide.”

“We’re at a crossroads,” began Commissioner Gantt when it was his turn, looking rather harried. “When I was elected, I felt we needed zoning. But I listened to and heard that people don’t want zoning,” he said. “Then came the asphalt plants, the junkyards, the cell towers, the shooting galleries in people’s neighborhoods — all legal — and there was nothing we could do.”

“We’ve lost two Fortune 500 businesses because of no zoning,” noted Gantt, adding, “We’ve just been putting Band-Aids on bigger and bigger wounds, and we’re tearing this community apart.” Telling citizens that he had come full circle, Gantt declared, “I will support zoning.”

But when it was the public’s turn to speak, the opinions expressed were decidedly more varied.

“One hundred forty-four thousand dollars was spent to develop this land-use plan,” said Asheville resident Carol Collins, a member of the Community Council for Biblical Values and the Private Property Rights Alliance. “I feel very betrayed. Before you even vote to approve [the land-use plan], you decide to abandon it and go to zoning. Please give the land-use plan an opportunity to work,” she pleaded.

Calling the proposed land-use plan “a good beginning,” Asheville resident David Stewart, representing Smart Growth Partners of Western North Carolina, told commissioners, “The issue we now face is deciding what we can do to prepare for growth, so it will enhance our community.” Land-use planning, he said, could provide more transportation options (instead of just congested roads), more affordable and diverse housing choices, and better air and water quality, while preserving scenic mountain views and farmland. Stewart advocated compact patterns of development, rather than uncontrolled sprawl, maintaining that, “A sensible planning process that can last over the long haul allows all members of the community to have a voice.”

Doug Adams called comprehensive land-use planning “communist inspired,” declaring it a spinoff of the “progressive era and the New Deal.”

Reynolds resident John Shupe invoked more recent history. “My president looked me in the eye and lied,” he said. “You told me I would not get zoning unless I voted on it, and you lied.”

Scott Hughes, who chairs the county’s Land Use Planning Task Force, told commissioners “It’s going to be hard to go back out and face the people whom we assured that this land-use plan was not a prerequisite to zoning.”

Local attorney and task-force member Albert Sneed warned that, by implementing zoning restrictions, “You will increase divisiveness. Look at the city of Asheville: I urge you to reconsider your opinion.”

“We will always be remembered as fools, or parties to a hidden agenda,” predicted task-force member Bob Selby. “I ask that the land-use plan be implemented, and that countywide zoning not be adopted for at least 10 years.”

County resident Martha McFalls praised commissioners for “the backbone” they were showing “to do what you think is right.”

Frank Clark of Riceville urged commissioners to “go slow” with zoning. “You need to hold a lot more meetings — in a big place, where you can get everyone in,” he suggested. “If you feel like you’re getting some heat now, just think what you’ll get if you don’t get the majority behind you.”

There was a lot of coming and going in the chambers, with the fire marshall monitoring the door to maintain a safe occupancy level. Many speakers left the room after voicing their concerns, in order to make room for others.

Sobol called the speakers “congenial,” despite their strong differences of opinion.

“I relish the conflict: Let’s roll up our sleeves and go at it,” declared Jim Webb of Fairview, a fourth-generation Buncombe County resident whose family land was condemned by the National Park Service, to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway. “I haven’t read the plan either,” he confessed, adding that “my vision has room for preservation, conservation and planned development.”

Carl Silverstein called for a strong and enforceable land-use plan. He encouraged mixed-use planning, with higher density in some cases, to reduce people’s dependence on autos; promoting development in areas where infrastructure is already in place; and a conservation easement, to reduce the burden of estate-taxes.

Mort Jonas of Reems Creek, an MIT graduate in urban planning, advised commissioners to “build where industry and business already exist to de-emphasize the creation of new commercial hubs.”

Government, declared Weldon Penley — a 28-year military veteran and church pastor — was set up “by Christ himself.” He went on to discuss his worries about zoning. “People who go to my church are not low-class,” he said. Concerned that zoning might restrict mobile homes, he pleaded, “Stop demeaning citizens who live in mobile-home parks.”

Bobbie Massey of Candler had sage advice for commissioners: “You are at a difficult place. You have a lot of responsibility and need a lot of wisdom. If you draw it out of yourself, you’ll fail. If you draw it out of the well of wisdom, you will succeed. Common sense says obey the will of the people.”

Finally, at 8 p.m., Sobol asked if anyone else wanted to be heard, and then thanked the residents for their “courteous and respectful” manner. At that point, John Stroupe stood up to ask, “Will we get to vote?” Sobol responded that North Carolina law does not require a vote by citizens on zoning ordinances.

“So four guys and one woman are telling all the people in Buncombe County what to do?” queried Stroupe. The meeting adjourned with that lingering question, as the lights in the room were dimmed to signal the end of the hearing.

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