County residents debate the Z-word

A standing-room-only crowd of about 350 people packed A-B Tech’s Laurel Auditorium last week to voice their views on a topic that stirs opinions like no other in Buncombe County: zoning.

The Buncombe County commissioners called the March 27 public hearing to gather opinions on enacting limited county zoning just outside the Asheville city limits to prevent the city from extending its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) farther into the county.

And the commissioners got an earful. More than 35 people stepped up to the microphone to sound off — with many saying they viewed limited county zoning as a lesser evil than city zoning.

Before opening the public hearing, county Zoning Administrator James H. Coman told the crowd that city leaders have narrowed the areas they’re considering for ETJ expansion to certain parts of the county south of Interstate 40. Those parts are: the Reynolds area (around Avondale Road), the Sardis Road neighborhood, Enka-Candler and a section south of Biltmore Square Mall, Coman said.

The county’s proposed “multipurpose zoning” would offer a more relaxed form of land-use rules than city zoning. The proposal would require people to apply for conditional-use permits for nine types of projects: adult-entertainment venues, general-aviation airfields, asphalt and concrete suppliers, bars, pubs and nightclubs, cellular and other communications towers, junkyards, quarries, racetracks and drag strips, and landfills. The zoning would also require 10-foot setbacks.

“Virtually every [current] use … would be permitted,” Coman noted.

Before taking public comment, Commissioner Bill Stanley (who suggested holding the public hearing) put forth a disclaimer of sorts to separate the ETJ issue from countywide zoning.

“I would say there are not three votes on this commission to zone Buncombe County,” Stanley remarked.

Former county commissioner and state senator Jesse Ledbetter noted that he’s “really opposed” to countywide zoning. But he fears that the city would require an architect or an engineer to tell him how to fix the roof of his barn. (City Planning Director Scott Shuford later called that “a pretty big exaggeration” of the city’s rules.)

“At least in the area where I live, I’d hope you’d go ahead and zone it,” Ledbetter said.

And Alice Smith told the board, “I am very much opposed to be zoned by the city of Asheville.”

But county-government watcher Jerry Rice had a different take: “I don’t see the city as any bigger devil than the county,” he said, then noted that voters had already turned down countywide zoning in a 1999 referendum.

“I don’t understand what part of ‘no’ you don’t understand,” Rice added, to enthusiastic applause.

At times, the public hearing became more like a conversation than a formal hearing. Brenda Reese, who lives near Bent Creek, asked what the county could offer through its zoning.

Chairman Nathan Ramsey admitted that the plan would be a temporary measure to keep the city from extending its ETJ. But that wouldn’t prevent the city from annexing areas that satisfy the statutory requirements for annexation.

Ramsey (who opposes countywide zoning) added that Asheville’s mayor and city manager had told him they were upset that the county was holding a public hearing because they didn’t want the county to pre-empt them.

“I still say you’ve not offered anything,” persisted Reese.

Commissioner David Gantt countered that people in subdivisions with restrictive covenants don’t have to worry about things like asphalt plants locating in their midst. “The problem is, outside your little kingdom or subdivision, anything goes,” Gantt emphasized.

“I am the one who worked and bought my property,” Reese responded, to audience applause. She said later that she opposes any zoning, adding, “They just need to let the people alone.”

Stephen Craig also noted that the county’s plan wouldn’t solve matters in the long run. “When Buncombe County comes in and zones, it’s a temporary reprieve,” he said. “I’m strictly opposed either way.”

Dolph Robinson declared that voters are sending the wrong folks to Raleigh and to sit on the Board of Commissioners. He also berated Gantt for his position on another issue — supporting the elimination of billboards.

“If you’re not satisfied with Buncombe County, leave,” Robinson proclaimed, garnering applause and shouts of “Woo!” from the audience

After Robinson’s comments, Ramsey stepped in and suggested that audience members avoid attacking the commissioners personally.

Marjorie Vestal voiced a decidedly minority view, suggesting that not all areas that might be affected equally by the city’s proposed ETJ. While she loves Buncombe County, she said that the neighborhoods near Biltmore Square Mall could benefit from what the city has to offer — such as sidewalks.

The crowd rumbled disapprovingly.

“I think it would be best for everyone if the city and county could get together and work it out,” Vestal suggested.

But Greg Parlier, who lives near Bent Creek, said that of the two zoning options, “I’d rather go with yours.”

Ben Pace proposed a different scenario. Maybe city planners won’t be able to move as fast on annexation if they also have to work on ETJ plans, he said.

“We’ve got a little bit of divide and conquer right now,” Pace observed. “I think annexation will go a lot faster if we take the ETJ away from them.”

On the other hand, the commissioners could enact their zoning and “pay ’em back for the jail decision, Pace said, adding, “I’d love that.”

Daisy Smith wanted to know how much time she would have to put a doublewide mobile home on her property if the county doesn’t enact its own zoning in those areas. Ramsey read off the city’s ETJ schedule, arriving at a June 26 date.

But Shuford said later that the city officials don’t know yet what zoning might apply in the ETJ areas. There’s a good chance, he said, that if an area predominantly contains mobile homes, the city would make that use acceptable under city zoning.

Others urged the crowd and the commissioners to support legislation that would limit cities’ ability to expand. Citizens for Change, a political action group, was circulating petitions outside the auditorium advocating that cities be prohibited from expanding their ETJs without approval by their county’s commissioners.

But the commissioners seemed skeptical that any such legislation would pass.

Libertarian Ben Holloway told the board that the masses are against any kind of zoning.

“Our choice is between zoning and zoning,” Holloway expounded. “You’re still squeaking this in on us.”

About two hours into the public hearing, a show of hands from the dwindling crowd revealed that almost all of those remaining opposed city zoning; a handful also opposed county zoning.

Although the commissioners could have voted on the issue that night (they had continued their regular meeting to the public hearing for that purpose), the board adjourned without taking a vote.

After the hearing, the commissioners appeared divided in their opinions.

Commissioner Patsy Keever seemed glad to get an extra week to think about it, while Stanley said he was leaning toward the multipurpose-zoning plan. Commissioner David Young said he hadn’t made up his mind. And Gantt said he wasn’t sure whether he favored the multipurpose zoning, comparing it to the county’s other stand-alone ordinances.

“I think we need to do the whole county and protect everybody,” Gantt said.

For his part, Ramsey said he’d found the opinions too varied to feel comfortable voting for the limited-zoning plan.

“They realize it’s a temporary solution,” Ramsey said about the crowd’s response. “I made a promise not to zone Buncombe County, and I’m going to keep that promise.”

It wasn’t just the commissioners who were interested in gauging public opinion. Asheville City Council member Terry Bellamy swung by the public hearing (which had already ended), chatting briefly with Ramsey in an A-B Tech parking lot as he trekked out to his truck.

The commissioners may vote on the matter at their April 3 meeting.

The ABCs of ETJ

A city can extend its extraterritorial jurisdiction a mile beyond its corporate limits. State law allows a city to exercise a number of powers within its ETJ, including zoning, subdivision regulations, building inspections, junked-vehicle regulations and erosion-control requirements.

But a city can’t extend its ETJ into an area that already has zoning, subdivision regulations and building inspections — such as in Limestone and Beaverdam townships. The county’s multipurpose-zoning proposal would effectively stop the city from extending its ETJ by adding the missing element: zoning.

Cities typically exercise their ETJs to make sure that land uses just outside a city are compatible with those inside the city limits.

And in this case, those areas under consideration for ETJ expansion are probably those that ultimately would be priorities for annexation, City Planning Director Scott Shuford says.


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