Buncombe County Commission

The Buncombe County commissioners jumped into the billboard debate last week, unanimously issuing a 60-day moratorium on new off-premise signs in the County.

Approved on March 6, the moratorium took effect immediately. It is aimed at preventing a torrent of requests for new billboard permits as the commissioners consider banning billboards altogether.

Commissioners agreed to set a public hearing on billboard regulations for their April 3 meeting, which starts at 4 p.m. in the commissioners’ chambers on the second floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse.

Board Vice Chair David Gantt has proposed both banning new billboards in the unincorporated parts of Buncombe County and forcing billboard companies to take down their existing signs by 2008.

“It’s just something a progressive community that cares how it looks should do,” Gantt said before last week’s meeting.

He and Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey plan to draw up separate proposals regarding billboards. Ramsey said he can go along with prohibiting new signs, but not with forcing billboard companies to remove existing ones.

The issue struck a nerve with many of those in attendance at the meeting. About 60 people filled the commissioners’ chambers (and most left after the board had voted in favor of the moratorium and set the public-hearing date).

A 1994 county ordinance regulates the size, height and number of faces that billboards can have, as well as dictating setbacks and spacing between signs, County Zoning Administrator James H. Coman told the board. Neither the existing ordinace nor the current proposals affect on-premise signs.

The proposals would regulate billboards in unincorporated areas of the county on noninterstate roads. Municipalities have their own regulations, and interstate highways are covered by state and federal rules. Of the 253 permitted off-premise signs in the unincorporated areas, 84 would be affected by the proposed ban, Coman told the board.

The commissioners, said Gantt, have three options: do nothing, ban new signs, or order the billboard companies to take down their signs after they (and the property owners) have had seven years to recover their investments, a process called amortization. Another option, noted Coman, is for the commissioners to set new size limits.

Coman also told the board that in 1994, church and school representatives had expressed concerns about restricting temporary signs.

“I think that’s very important to the citizens of this county,” he said.

A document prepared for the commissioners’ consideration (“Potential Amendment to the Off-premise Sign Ordinance”) defines temporary signs as those posted for no more than 60 days or for the duration of an advertised event. Such signs would have to be removed within 48 hours after the event ended, according to the proposal. Yard-sale signs (no bigger than 6 square feet) would have to be removed the next day.

Political signs would be allowed under the proposal, but they couldn’t be bigger than 8 square feet or taller than 6 feet. They would have to come down within 30 days after a primary (for a candidate who lost in the primary) and 30 days after the general election (for everyone else).

Church signs would not be affected by any billboard proposal, since they are protected by the First Amendment, Coman noted later.

Ramsey (whose campaign signs blanketed the county last year) pointed out that he wouldn’t be allowed to reuse the 80 political signs he still has at his family’s dairy farm.

“All my 4-by-8 signs would be illegal under this proposal,” Ramsey noted after the meeting. “It’s going to affect everybody.”

North Carolina’s courts have upheld the seven-year amortization period, noted Coman.

But Ramsey said he fears that Buncombe County might be liable for millions for dollars in damages if sued by billboard companies claiming an illegal taking of property. “I think it’s a foolish risk,” said Ramsey.

Gantt, however, disagreed, arguing that billboard companies factor legal expenses into their cost of doing business.

“I think our community wants this,” said Gantt. “We have a place we’re proud of. We want to keep it that way.”

The commissioners also considered a separate but related issue, which led to some confusion.

Seven years ago, the state legislature outlawed new or replacement billboards on I-26 and I-40, Coman told the board. And since U.S. 19/23 North is slated to become a part of I-26, commissioners were considering asking the General Assembly to specifically prohibit billboards on that road. There’s only one billboard there now, but Coman noted that he’d gotten a call within the last week about someone interested in placing a new one along the road.

The twin issues prompted spirited comments from many audience members.

Mac Swicegood, the president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, warned the board against taking “such hasty actions” as banning billboards, especially in light of a potential economic downturn.

“Why take away a form of advertising that may work and may be cost-effective?” he asked.

Local Libertarian Party leader Kevin Rollins complained that property owners have no rights (a view seconded by Ramsey).

Peggy Bennett, founder of the grassroots action group Citizens for Change, said she fears that removing billboards would hurt local businesses. She said people who want scenic beauty should drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, not 19/23 North.

“I think the real issue is you’re taking it upon yourselves to legislate beauty, and that’s illegal,” Bennett added.

County watchdog Don Yelton said signs can be helpful to travelers and suggested that Coman put together a presentation on billboards and post it on the county’s Web site, which now includes commissioners’ meetings presented in a streaming-media format.

Susan Roderick of Quality Forward (the local Keep America Beautiful affiliate) called U.S. 19/23 North a beautiful stretch of road and suggested that smaller highway signs displaying a number of logos can be an effective way for businesses to advertise.

Isbell Behrer maintained that while some business may be lost when a billboard is taken down, tourism itself has a high economic value.

“Billboards and tourism really don’t go together well,” said Behrer.

And longtime county-government observer Jerry Rice said that while he wouldn’t want Buncombe County to look like Dollywood or Las Vegas, he didn’t think it was a good idea to restrict billboards entirely.

After the discussion, commissioners voted 3-1 (with Ramsey opposed) to ask the General Assembly for a billboard ban along 19/23. Ramsey said later that he views the move as “incrementalism.”

“I’m willing to take one step, but not willing to take two and jump over the cliff,” Ramsey explained.

Later in the meeting, the board heard from a few more people concerned about the proposed billboard ban.

Frank Martin, coordinator of the Coalition for Scenic Beauty in Asheville & Buncombe County, reported that billboard companies typically recoup their investments within three years. He also noted that without a highway (which is built with public funds), a billboard isn’t worth much.

A local billboard company also made its presence known. Asheville attorney Craig D. Justus told the board that he represents Fairway Outdoor Advertising. And while his client hadn’t yet established a legal fund, Justus said it would do so to counteract what he called “extremist” views.

Amortization isn’t the answer for local governments, said Justus, pointing commissioners toward a particular federal case involving billboards. (Much of what Justus said was echoed in a letter Ramsey had received that day from another member of Justus’ law firm, Albert L. Sneed Jr.)

Commissioner Patsy Keever read a letter she’d received from a woman who complained that billboards are an unwelcome sight along our highways. After the meeting, Keever said she supports amortization as a way to protect the county’s scenic beauty while giving billboard companies time to recoup their investments.

“The bottom line is I totally support elimination of the billboards, and I think it’s a moral issue to go ahead and do it,” Keever said.

Ramsey, however, complained after the meeting that the board is losing its focus. Commissioners, he said, should be concentrating on education and economic development.

But Gantt countered later that preserving and improving the area’s scenic beauty will help attract new businesses, adding, “I think it’s a quality-of-life and economic-development issue, and we can’t ignore it anymore.”

Legal challenges, said Gantt, are an inevitable result when taking on a powerful interest such as the billboard industry. But he said he doesn’t think those companies should be able to dictate public policy.

Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent from the meeting. (Commissioner David Young — who said little during the billboard discussion — noted that Stanley was in Washington, D.C., at a meeting of the National Association of Counties.)

Biltmore School funding falls through

Assistant County Manager/Planning Director Jon Creighton updated commissioners on the latest snag in efforts to preserve the former Biltmore School as a museum.

In a letter to the county, the WNC Historical Association reported that the Janirve Foundation had not approved the group’s funding strategy for buying the property from the county.

“Essentially, Janirve has pulled their funding,” Creighton told the board.

The news came just two weeks after the funding seemed secure. On Feb. 20, Executive Director Rebecca Lamb of the Historical Association told the board that the nonprofit had raised the $1 million it needed to qualify for an $800,000 grant from the Janirve Foundation.

That, however, was contingent on getting final approval from the Asheville-based foundation.

After the meeting, Janirve’s Ray Poston called the Biltmore School a “wonderful treasure,” but noted that the association was relying on a $500,000 loan to make up the fund-raising shortfall, a strategy that sparked some concern at the Janirve Foundation.

“It was felt here that that would be asking too much of them to think that they could retire the indebtedness that they would have incurred and then raise sufficient additional moneys to do the necessary renovation work on both the interior and exterior,” Poston said.

Add in acquisition costs and operating fees, and it would be a “very heavy load,” remarked Poston, adding, “Their problems would just have started.”

Creighton said he planned to proceed with the upset-bid process and to get an updated appraisal for the property.

Keever asked whether there were any restrictions in place aimed at preserving the building’s facade. Creighton replied that that is up to the board, though he suggested that the “highest and best use” of the property would be to sell it.

Gantt suggested that Creighton get two appraisals — one if the facade is left intact, and one without it.

Depending on what is feasible, that “facade” could include the auditorium wall facing Hendersonville Road, the wall plus a corner of the building; or perhaps the entire auditorium, said county planning technician Diane Lankford.

Tie vote on Air Quality appointment

With Stanley absent, board members tied 2-2 on appointing a new member to the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency to fill out the term of the late Doug Clark, who died in January.

Board members had previously interviewed four candidates: Mike McManus, William F. Church, Mac Swicegood and Liz Foster.

Young nominated Church, a Weaverville resident who is operations manager at American Threshold Industries’ Enka plant. Church told board members in his interview that he’d learned about the vacancy through the Manufacturers Executive Association, an independent affiliate of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Keever nominated Liz Foster, an Asheville environmental lawyer who previously represented the Nashville, Tenn., agency that handles that city’s air-quality permits. Although she’s been in Asheville only three months, Foster already chairs the local Air Quality Agency’s Technical Advisory Committee.

Young and Ramsey voted for Church, and Keever and Gantt voted for Foster. In light of the tie, the commissioners decided to hold another vote at their next meeting.

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