Buncombe County Commission

After more than a year of intensive effort and heated public involvement, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, opening the door to tighter regulation of growth and development in the county. The plan, developed after 12 communitywide hearings, is intended to provide a basis for future policy decisions.

Commissioners convened their regular March 16 meeting without benefit of clergy: the Rev. Tom Lolley of Beverly Hills Baptist Church never arrived to offer the invocation, though other Fairview citizens were present at the meeting, displaying boldly lettered signs proclaiming, “Say No to Zoning.” Fairview residents had packed the chambers during two public hearings on the land-use plan, voicing fears that countywide zoning would soon follow — without area residents ever having had a chance to vote on the question.

Chairman Tom Sobol called the land-use plan a “foundation to land-use regulation.” He offered three minutes to anyone wanting to speak about the issue who had not already done so. Keith Gibbons of Fairview took the opportunity to read from the Constitution, urging commissioners to get the “consent of the people” before adopting any countywide land-use regulations.

“Without land-use management, Buncombe County is on a collision course with disaster. We have to do something to steer clear of that,” Sobol declared. Before the vote, Commissioner David Young proposed an amendment to try the incentives-based plan for three years before imposing any land-use restrictions. Commissioner Bill Stanley voted with Young in favor of the amendment, which did not pass.

After voting with the rest of the board to adopt the land-use plan, Commissioner Young pleaded, “I ask that the people of Buncombe County give us a chance. We want your input; don’t withdraw — talk to us.” He suggested setting up a subcommittee to explore implementing the kinds of voluntary incentives suggested in the plan — such as fee waivers and fast-track permitting — before commissioners direct staff to proceed with actual zoning. County Attorney Joe Connolly then stepped to the podium, to clarify his advice to the commissioners: “This is not an issue the board can delegate to citizens. My best interpretation of the law is that the decision to zone or not to zone is a decision that would lie with the Board of Commissioners. It is a responsibility this board has to take for themselves: It is not bound by the vote of the people.”

Good news

Before launching into the controversial land-use issue, commissioners introduced a new regular agenda item, designed to give selected county employees a chance to share the positive side of county programs and activities.

WNC Nature Center Director Pat Lance told commissioners about a group of third-grade students at Haw Creek Middle School who took part in the federally funded GLOBE program — Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment — which links students, teachers and scientists involved in local experiments with other similar groups around the world. The students participated in a stream-watch program and adopted a river otter living at the Nature Center, Lance told commissioners. The Haw Creek group also bought a stuffed otter from the Nature Center, naming him Al Gore after the GLOBE program’s founder, reported Lance. They then sent the mascot to the GLOBE office in Washington, D.C., with a journal attached to his back. From there, GLOBE staff hand-carried the otter to assorted GLOBE projects worldwide, traveling more than 45,000 miles. By the time “Al Gore” returned to Haw Creek, the journal was filled with comments, medals and signatures from around the world. The Nature Center hosted a homecoming party for the otter and invited all the students.

Next, Fran Thigpen, the director of Buncombe County Child Care Services, explained the agency’s mission: to improve the quality of life for children and families in Buncombe County, by providing and advocating for safe, nurturing learning environments for children in group care; providing support and assistance for early-childhood caregivers; and giving workers access to affordable care for their children. She told commissioners about the agency’s recent “Level II” accreditation by the state. “There are only 30 agencies accredited by the state, and only 10 have reached Level II”, she said. “We are proud that we are one of these, and we wanted to let you know.”

Lt. Ray Evans of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department announced that the county jail ranks among the “top 10 in the country” for the health-care services it offers inmates, according to the National Commission on Correctional Health. “We’re proud of that: It makes a difference,” he said.

Commissioner Patsy Keever then awarded a certificate of commendation to seventh grader Ollie Ehlinger, for taking first place in the “There’s Trouble Under the Surface: Groundwater Pollution” speech contest, sponsored by the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District. The Valley Springs Middle School student delivered his winning four-minute speech to the indulgent smiles of commissioners and his proud family and teacher.

The consent agenda passed without comment. Among the items approved by commissioners were: an amendment to the personnel plan, regarding health-insurance coverage after retirement; the approval of pyrotechnic experts for fireworks displays in the county; and various budget amendments.

New business

Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution “urging the NC DOT to continue on schedule with plans to start construction of the I-26 connector through west Asheville by the year 2001.” With the resolution, the board pledged its “support and assistance to the NC DOT efforts to maintain this schedule, for the needed economic well-being of our area.”

Mary Ann Demelfy of the Nursing Home Advisory Board gave commissioners an update on the board’s work with the 19 nursing-home facilities in the county. The 18-member advisory board has provided “over 500 volunteer hours to the county,” she reported. Demelfy displayed a lovely crocheted lap robe, similar to the ones delivered to nursing-home residents throughout the county. The robe was the work of 90-year-old craftswoman Carrie Johnson, who was “perfecting a new stitch,” during the 32 hours it took her to complete the project,” Demelfy said.

She also briefed commissioners on a study done at UNC-Chapel Hill, about aging in North Carolina. “North Carolina is a leader in identifying key factors that will shape the future,” she declared. The study predicts that, by the year 2020, the majority of the state’s residents will be over 50 years old. Demelfy also reported some statistics about the baby boomers: “The boomers smoke more than their counterparts throughout the U.S., more are overweight, and 13 percent have no health insurance.”

Calvin Underwood, director of the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, asked commissioners to approve a budget amendment creating four new Social Services positions, at “no increase to the county share of the DSS budget.” He reported on a “growing trend in homeless families with young children” in the county. The increased number of such families, said Underwood, can be linked to welfare reform and a lack of affordable housing. A new Social Worker II position will provide intensive case-management services to Buncombe County’s homeless families, “with an ultimate goal of self-sufficiency [for] high-risk families,” he told commissioners.

Underwood also asked commissioners to accept an ongoing grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to fund additional child-health-insurance outreach activities and create an Income Maintenance Caseworker II position within the DSS. “Approximately 2,000-3,000 currently uninsured children in the county are eligible for Medicaid or Health Choice in Buncombe County,” he told commissioners. “By locating and enrolling these children, physical, emotional and economic distress will be alleviated for many of our citizens.”

Underwood also explained that the “complexity and nature of DSS work creates a high level of liability and requires access, upon demand, to qualified legal counsel.” He asked the board to hire a second attorney, reporting that contracting with the current attorney for only 15 hours a week has been costing the county more than the requested regular, full-time, permanent position would. Commissioners unanimously passed the requested budget amendment.

Next, the Buncombe County Health Center requested approval for four new positions that will be fully funded by grant money, or will be self-supporting through additional revenue generated from Medicare and insurance reimbursements. Included were a Public Health Educator for the dental clinic, a Dental Clinic Office Assistant, and two Social Worker II positions — a maternity-care coordinator and a child-service coordinator. In collaboration with other community initiatives, the county plans to implement a dental-sealant program at the Health Department during school hours, to be coordinated by the public-health educator. The position is to be funded by a $54,017 grant from the Mission St. Joseph’s Health System.

Health Center Director George Bond Jr. described some of the critical dental needs of Buncombe County students. “We have to find a way to stop decay in young children,” he declared, noting that half of the approximately 2,300 children enrolled in the second grade in Buncombe County need subsidized dental care. The use of dental sealants is recommended by the North Carolina Healthy Carolinians task force as “the number-one strategy to increase the percentage of children and youth whose permanent teeth are free of dental decay.” Bond described county residents’ dental needs as part of a “never-ending black hole of indigent care.” Commissioners unanimously approved the new positions.

Commissioners also approved a resolution authorizing loans of up to $3,000 to help county employees buy home computers. Commissioner David Gantt asked staff to report back to the board in six months, so commissioners can review the program.

Boards and commissions

Commissioners appointed Agustus “Gus” Sims of Sims Group Engineers in Asheville to a three-year term on the Board of Health. The board also filled seven vacancies on the Nursing Home Board, appointing: Dorothy Smith, Johanna Schneider, Karyl Arnold and Gordon Beem of Asheville; Bryan Moneyhun of Swannanoa; and Dave Torbett and Carol Boyd of Weaverville. Commissioner Gantt, noting that some Nursing Home Board appointees have served more than the usual two terms, explained that, “Making sure the board is filled outweighs our public policy of two terms.” Six vacancies on the Adult Care Home Advisory Board were also filled, as follows: Peggy Howell of Weaverville, Rusk Henry, Edwin Grushinski and Jesse Owen of Asheville; Kathleen Tate of Fairview; and Joan Medicott of Barnardsville, all for three-year terms.

Commissioner Keever made a plea for more African-American participation on the Adult Care Home Advisory Board. Addressing her comments to any viewers watching the televised meeting, Keever asked any African-Americans who want to “reach out and offer their services” to come forward.

Commissioners then went into closed session, to discuss a settlement regarding a Sheriff’s Department employee. No action was taken. The meeting was adjourned 6:30 p.m.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ regular meeting schedule has been changed for the month of April, from the usual first and third Tuesdays to the second and fourth Tuesdays (April 13 and April 27) at 4 p.m. in Room 204 of the County Courthouse.

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