All heads were bowed at the start of the Buncombe County commissioners’ April 13 meeting, as Dr. Robert Peurifoy of Trinity United Methodist Church intoned a litany of appeals for blessings on Buncombe County, as well as appeals for “mercy for those who serve in the military in this time of trouble in the Balkans.”
After approving a lengthy consent agenda, commissioners took up “Good News” items. County Tax Director Jerome Jones told commissioners about the statewide recognition his department had received at a recent conference in Raleigh.
“Buncombe County is the first county in the state to allow use of credit cards to pay taxes,” Jones said. The county also has a full-time sheriff’s deputy at its disposal, he added, to assist with collection of delinquent accounts.
Eleven thousand Buncombe County children currently benefit from Medicaid or Health Choice insurance, said a representative of the county Department of Social Services.
And WNC Nature Center was recently accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, based on its animal care, educational programs and other criteria, noted Nature Center Assistant Manager and Education Director Angela Mayo.
No one was present to accept a proclamation read by Commissioner Patsy Keever, designating April 17-30 as “Litter Sweep” in Buncombe County.
Commissioner Bill Stanley read a proclamation designating April 18-24 as “County Government Week,” during which all citizens are urged “to become more aware and involved in the issues affecting county government.”
No one spoke at a public hearing about the closing of a portion of Pinewood Road in the Beaverdam Township.
Under new business, public access to the Buncombe County Code of Ordinances was discussed. During the commissioners’ pre-meeting, County Manager Wanda Greene and Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes had asked commissioners for a policy directive on providing copies of the ordinances and other records to the public. At issue was a request from Fairview resident Gerald Dean for copies of the Code of Ordinances. Board Chair Tom Sobol had promised Dean copies of the ordinances that deal specifically with zoning issues. However, according to Hughes, Dean also requested copies of all county ordinances. She has also received five similar requests from residents, which Hughes estimated would each require about 1,000 sheets, copied on both sides. Hughes expressed a need to prioritize requests for copies, to help county workers manage their workloads. She said that a flyer now being circulated asks Fairview residents to call county officials and request a copy of all county ordinances.
“Our phones will be off the hook on this,” Sobol said.
“This is a waste of taxpayer money,” complained an irritated Keever, who characterized the requests as “abuse by one set of taxpayers who were just being ornery.” On a motion by Keever, seconded by Stanley, the board unanimously approved a policy stipulating that requests for public records be made, in writing, to the county manager. Staff will respond within 10 working days, or provide a cost estimate, if data must be generated.
The legal basis for the change, according to the county manager’s staff, is contained in N.C. General Statutes, 132-6.2 c, which permits a public agency to require written requests for information, when there is a heavy demand for access to agency records.
The Buncombe County Code of Ordinances is available on the county’s Web site, http://www.buncombecounty.org. A reference copy of the ordinances is available at the Law Library in the courthouse, at Pack Memorial Library, and in the county commissioners’ offices, according to Hughes.
One word of caution: The county Web site requires users to click through many screens of information, and to navigate through numerous expandable frames, in order to access the ordinances.
North Carolina’s public records law, section 132-1 (b), states, “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”
Though Gerald Dean was not present at the commissioners’ meeting, he took up the matter the next day on The Matt Cole radio talk show, on WTZY 880 AM.
“I want the copies to be available for the people, so that we can know what restrictions we’re under,” Dean said. “I’ve got a computer to [access them], and I’ve got the Web site written down, but I’m asking this for the people who don’t have a computer.”
“Let’s barrage [Wanda Green] with calls,” suggested Cole.
In other business before the commissioners, Charles Worley, chairman of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson, and Water Resources Director Tom Frederick, described a $3 million grant application made by the Authority, under the North Carolina Critical Needs/Infrastructure Bond Program. Twenty-one of 115 chronic problems, identified by a Water Department task force, meet the state’s criteria for the grant/loan program, Frederick said. He expects to hear from the state by June.
Worley reminded commissioners that Buncombe County is still under voluntary water-conservation restrictions. “The reservoir is not full,” he warned, “and odds are, it will not be filled.”
On a motion by Stanley, commissioners voted unanimously to endorse the grant request.
Commissioners also voted 4-1 to approve a $350,000 construction project for a new kitchen, as part of a food-preparation partnership between Child Care Services and the Buncombe County Council on Aging.
Commissioner David Gantt objected to the expenditure, which will pull funds from four budget sources identified by the county manager, including money from reserve capital funds. The building expenses will be recovered by the county within 10 years, Greene told commissioners.
Before the vote, Gantt made a motion to table the proposal: “I haven’t seen any paperwork on this. I am hesitant to vote taxpayers’ money before seeing some more information.” Gantt said he wanted to be sure that “everybody who might benefit has the opportunity to be involved from day-one.”
In other business, Weaverville Mayor Bett Stroud read from a prepared statement, expressing her concern and distress that the planned expansion of the Weaverville Branch Library has been delayed to 2003.
“Shelving space is so scarce that no new book can be shelved without removing another,” she said, describing the situation as “intolerable.” Leslie Osborne, chair of Friends of the Weaverville Library, asked commissioners to delay the scheduled Red Oak School demolition, which would free up $100,000 to pay for expanding the library (projected to cost $92,000). “The Red Oak school is used all the time,” she said. “Its demolition would be detrimental to the Jupiter community.” None of the commissioners responded when she asked if any of them had ever visited the Weaverville Library.
Leah Karpen, who chaired Friends of the Weaverville Library from 1978-81, told commissioners, “By blood, sweat and tears, we converted an old Baptist church into the Weaverville Library: We need the space.”
No action was taken on the request.
A saga of lawsuits, resulting from delays during the construction of the Buncombe County Detention Center, was recounted by County Attorney Joe Connolly, who recommended that commissioners accept a $55,000 mediated settlement of the last remaining lawsuit. He reminded commissioners that jail construction had begun in 1991, but that the initial contractor had walked off the job. “A number of lawsuits arose out of the delays,” he said, adding, “Everybody that could sue us has taken a shot at us. … We’ve held up pretty well.” He concluded, “As far as Buncombe County is concerned, this should be the end of issues involving construction delays.”
Buncombe County resident Clarke Merrill described to commissioners a recently erected 250-foot, lattice-type cell-phone tower, positioned about 400 feet from her home. The tower was constructed by SBA Inc., she said.
“The field office, the home office, the management, the building crews and even the surveyors were all from out of town,” she said. “It is hard to believe that they really care about our local environment and [the people who] must live close to these towers.”
Merrill acknowledged that a change in the county ordinance would come too late to protect her home, but she suggested four requirements for inclusion in any new ordinance: a 200-foot tower-height limit; a minimum 800-foot distance between a tower and nearby homes; clearly and permanently marked tower-property lines around the towers; and a mandate that all safety issues brought to the attention of county officials or the tower builders must be resolved within 15-20 days.
Commissioner Keever invited Merrill to submit her recommendations to the committee working on the cell-tower ordinance.
Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, requested that commissioners attend the Air Pollution Control Agency board’s first budget-hearing meeting.
Jack Garrett reminded commissioners about the ongoing problems with the Shelby Road shooting range in the Emma community. “I approached this Board over a year ago as to why an ordinance could be made so vague and broad,” he said. “My first appeal is to change the law. To live in a community where shooting goes on — the sound carries — makes living hard.” He then asked commissioners, “Are we gaining ground?”
Commissioners asked County Attorney Connolly what progress had been made on the issue, recalling that he had been directed by the commissioners to explore National Rifle Association standards regarding shooting-range safety.
“We said, since we couldn’t meet the decibel level [in our noise ordinance], we were going to check with the NRA,” Stanley recalled.
“We have to get our act together on long-range policy. Mediation can help you,” Commissioner David Young told Garrett.
“Since the board retreat, I have tried to look at various possibilities,” said Connolly. “I did not hear a consensus from commissioners. I have tried to explore the possibility of mediation.” Turning to Garrett and Charles Norton, another resident critical of the shooting range, Connolly asked them if they would agree to mediation.
“I am not interested in mediation,” Garrett said.
“Why not?” Keever asked.
“I’ve not seen any action from the board.” Garrett replied, adding that Connolly has favored the shooting-range owner “from day-one. He never came to us.”
Young asked for a “timetable for a policy on taking care of these residents regarding safety issues.” Stanley made a motion directing Connolly to get the NRA information; Young seconded. Connolly was asked to gather the information in time for the commissioners’ second meeting in May.
Keever told Garrett, “Mediation is about all you have now,” and encouraged him to reconsider, since any new ordinance might not provide relief.
Sobol told Garrett that the board would find out if the shooting range complies with NRA safety standards.
Apparently agreeing to mediation, Garrett asked, “You’re saying, ‘If I will, you will?”
On another matter during the public-comment period, Don Yelton, a frequent critic of the commissioners, told the board, “I’m not here to be negative,” eliciting derisive laughter from Commissioner Stanley. Yelton objected to the commissioners’ decision, earlier in the meeting, to spend $350,000 to build a new kitchen facility to serve senior-citizen centers and child-care facilities. “That [expenditure] represents the taxes on 410 homes,” he calculated. Yelton suggested that a contract could have been explored in collaboration with the A-B Tech food-service program, and designed to employ developmentally disabled citizens.
The next meeting of the county Board of Commissioners is scheduled for April 27 at 4 p.m.
Board of Health: Carilee Simuel, reappointed from Asheville. Juvenile Crime Prevention Council: Deputy Don Frazer of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department. Nursing Home Advisory Board: Kathellen Griffin and Karen Gettinger, both Asheville residents.