A brief retreat

The simmering debate over how to manage growth dominated the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ half-day retreat last week. But with countywide zoning shelved for the time being, the discussion didn’t generate any real heat.

The March 25 retreat included a request from an informal citizens’ coalition that commissioners follow recommendations in the county’s Land Use Plan that they plan for future infrastructure needs and take steps to preserve scenic areas and rural land.

Coalition spokeswoman Bette Jackson introduced her 10-person group, whose diverse membership includes both attorney Albert Sneed (a zoning opponent) and WNC Alliance Executive Coordinator Brownie Newman. The coalition, she noted, reaches decisions by “pure consensus.”

“One of the most simple and powerful ways to promote positive patterns of growth is to plan how the various systems of infrastructure are expanded into the county,” coalition members wrote in a March 19 letter to commissioners. “This can be accomplished by the creation of a central board with the ability to coordinate infrastructure providers and the authority to ensure that new development occurs in compliance with the Land Use Plan.”

That approach, the letter noted, could be supported by most members of the community, regardless of their political orientation.

The group recommended that the proposed infrastructure board include representatives of specific government agencies, public utilities and municipalities that make decisions involving infrastructure placement (such as deciding where to put schools, parks and utility lines).

“I think it’s great,” declared Commissioner David Gantt (a zoning proponent), though he noted that ultimately, decisions on land use can’t be delegated to others. “You can’t pass the buck,” said Gantt. “The buck stops here.”

The coalition also called on board members to establish a commission that would coordinate the efforts of voluntary land trusts working to preserve scenic areas, rural land and create greenways. In addition, coalition members asked the commissioners to further strengthen such efforts by providing staff support and paying for land-transaction fees (which run about $10,000-$15,000 per property) in connection with conservation easements.

Coalition member Ed Bullock observed that the county’s Agriculture Advisory Board for Farmland Preservation has a fairly narrow focus — and has had only limited success, largely because of the fees donors currently have to pay, as well as people backing out at the last minute when their children realize that they won’t ever be able to develop their family’s property. On the latter point, Sneed suggested that creative thinking (such as limiting the easements to 40 years) is needed, adding, “Some people think that forever is just way too long.”

The proposed land-trust commission would include members of various local groups that are working to preserve green space, such as the Emerald Land Trust and others, said Bullock.

“The south part of the county, it’s a lost effort already, for all practical purposes,” he reported.

Toward the end of the discussion, Vice Chairman David Young wryly noted that the retreat ought to be titled: “Buncombe County/Creating Synergy.”

“That’s what you do when you don’t have any money,” Young observed, drawing audience laughter.

The unnamed coalition last appeared before the commissioners in January 2002. Back then, a county Planning Board member delivered a very different recommendation — that commissioners implement minimal zoning countywide. But following a series of spirited growth-management meetings around the county last spring, Commissioner Bill Stanley (the swing vote on countywide zoning) balked, and the proposal went nowhere.

Board members also discussed a current pitch from the county Planning Board to expand community-based planning (see “Voters gain, lose ground in planning proposal,” March 19 Xpress).

And Planner Jim Coman briefly updated commissioners on the Joint Planning Area proposed last October to settle a legal battle between Buncombe County and the city of Asheville over which entity should control development in areas just outside the city limits.

“Negotiations so far are going very, very smoothly,” Coman told the board, though he cautioned that some issues may need to resolved by the Board of Commissioners and City Council, rather than staffers.

Ears to the ground

Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes reported on a revealing series of meetings held with county staffers in January and February to help determine what issues are percolating in the community.

Each of the 13 County Employee Roundtables featured at least a dozen different employees talking about issues that concerned them, both in the county and on the job, Hughes said later.

Although residents in different parts of the county had specific community concerns, the following issues were raised at every roundtable meeting:

• more affordable housing and jobs for the middle class are needed;

• zoning is still controversial, and the county should do more public education before this topic comes up again (a typical comment reflected the idea that a $250,000 house shouldn’t be built next to a body shop, nor should industrial and residential property be side by side — yet folks don’t want zoning);

• citizens don’t know what they get for their tax dollars, and they wouldn’t mind a tax increase if they knew where the money was going;

• more bus routes are needed in the county, including rural areas; and

• although most county residents fall in the middle-income bracket, the local cost of living is as high as in a metro area; plus, the area is promoted to the rich.

“That’s just how they feel,” Hughes told the board.

The last such series of roundtables was held in 1997, to help county officials prepare for a series of community meetings. In that round, public opinion largely matched what the county employees had reported, County Manager Wanda Greenetold commissioners.

The board also heard updates on economic development, roadside trash pickup, and Buncombe County’s homeland-security efforts (mostly in administering grants for anti-terrorism training).

Although the commissioners seemed agreeable to the idea of creating both the land trust commission and the infrastructure commission, they made no formal statement of intent to do so.

No affordable housing, no subdivision permit

At the tail end of the board’s retreat, Commissioner Bill Stanley floated the idea that developers be required — as a condition for getting a county subdivision permit — to make 10 percent of the residential units affordable housing.

“That takes a lot of courage, folks,” he told his fellow board members. “You talk about how brave you are and how much you want to do for people.”

Several counties in other states have made that requirement, Stanley mentioned after the meeting.

“Yes, indeed, I’m in favor of it,” said Stanley.

But Vice Chairman David Young sounded a cautionary note after the meeting, suggesting that the commissioners need to be patient and let the 14-member County/City Housing Task Force come up with recommendations. The Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council created the task force last August to focus on affordable-housing issues.

“Let’s let them do their work,” urged Young.

Judy Chaet, acting executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville & Buncombe County, said she’s not familiar with Stanley’s proposal.

But the coalition, notes Chaet, has long been a proponent of “fair-share housing,” in which a certain percentage of the residential units in conventional developments is set aside as affordable housing. One such carrot is “density bonuses” allowing developers to exceed the usual density limits. The AFC, she reports, is particularly interested in encouraging long-term affordability, which goes beyond ensuring that the initial purchase price is affordable.

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