After hearing pleas from representatives of local manufacturers, Mission Hospitals and the school system, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a work-force housing plan at their April 15 meeting that could provide up to $5,000 per unit in county-backed loans to developers.
Developers who build 100 or more apartment or condo units or 50-plus single-family homes affordable by residents earning 80 to 140 percent of the county’s median household income could qualify for $2,500 per unit in county-backed low-interest loans. The amount could increase to $5,000 per unit if the developer met other requirements, such as making a percentage of the units affordable by even lower-income residents and incorporating environmentally friendly building practices.
The assistance will take one of two forms: Either the developer can take out a no-interest loan with the county, payable once the homes are sold, with the affordability written into the deed for 5 years; or, the construction loan can be rolled into another mortgage for the homebuyer. If the second option is taken, the loan is repayable once the homebuyer no longer lives in the home, at the percent the price of the home has increased.
Representatives of major employers in the county said they’re having major problems recruiting and retaining employees due to the rising cost of living here.
John Bellows of Unison Engine Components said his company is losing employees to other areas. “We’ve been doing business here for over 50 years—our business is going through a very rapid expansion,” said Bellows. “Our work force is the constraint that’s holding us back from further growth. … The lack of affordable work-force housing is a critical constraint to attracting new employees and maintaining our existing work force. We are losing professional employees to other locations—and one of the main reasons is that it’s so hard to buy a home.” The company, which manufactures jet parts, employs 375 people locally.
Mission Hospitals, the area’s biggest employer, faces similar problems, said Maria Roloff, the vice president for human resources.
“It is taking longer and longer to fill critical jobs,” she reported. “A person whose basic living needs are not being met and who lacks safe and affordable housing will not be a productive worker. The increase in the cost of housing, compounded by the cost of gas, has become a huge concern. A growing percentage of turnover is attributed to relocation. Even professional staff are finding it more and more difficult to purchase decent, affordable housing [within] a reasonable commute to their jobs.”
Even nurses, pharmacists and managers, noted Roloff, have turned down jobs due to the cost of living. “The beauty of our region and our reputation are no longer as efficient a draw for those who can find better, more affordable housing opportunities in other areas,” she said.
Reynolds firefighter Richard Sells also spoke in favor of the plan.
“We have eight full-time employees: One is renting, another is searching for a house and finding it very difficult to find something he can afford,” said Sells. “I think this is greatly needed. We need some relief; we’re seeing a trend of people coming from out of county. They’re not living here because of the price of a house.”
No one on the board disagreed.
“It should be noted that Unison pays very good wages—well in excess of what many of our own county employees make,” Chairman Nathan Ramsey observed. “I think that shows the sort of situation we’re in here.”
More CTS contamination found
County staff confirmed that small amounts of trichloroethylene—an industrial chemical that can cause cancer, liver and brain damage—has been found in a third well near the site of the former CTS plant on Mills Gap Road. The well, about half a mile from the plant in The Oaks subdivision, serves seven families. The well was found to have 0.7 parts per billion of TCE.
Although that is well below the thresholds set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (5 parts per billion) and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (3 parts per billion), the board unanimously approved putting the subdivision on city water and instructing the Board of Health to develop criteria to discourage future well-drilling in the area until the situation is resolved. The Health Department has the authority to shut down contaminated wells.
Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone told Xpress that the county will foot the bill for installing city water. She added that a cost estimate is still being devised, but that “we’ve already been in conversations with the city’s water people about solving this situation—and they’ve agreed to do what needs to be done.”
“My guess, if there’s even a trace of it, I can’t imagine people feel comfortable putting their kids in that bath water or drinking that water,” said Commissioner David Young. “I really think we have to move fast to come up with something on these issues and get these folks on safe drinking water. You just can’t assure people enough once you’ve found it. No one’s ever going to feel comfortable when it’s there—because how long before a trace becomes more than a trace? We’ve got to get these folks public water.”
Stone, the staff liaison for the site, said the county is also conducting a study to determine whether cancer rates are higher than normal in the area. At previous board meetings, residents have harshly criticized the commissioners, saying they didn’t act quickly enough after contamination was discovered.
Ramsey agreed about the importance of notifying people in the area, adding, “We need to develop criteria for getting anyone in that area public water in the future.”
And Vice Chair David Gantt, who’s going head to head with Ramsey for the chairman’s seat, said, “We need some sort of notification process, so if people buy a house in that area, they know what they’re getting into—because a lot of people have told us they didn’t.” The board, said Gantt, should work with local real-estate agents to implement this.
A walk on the green side
The board also approved the Greenways Master Plan developed by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. The plan calls for greenways along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers, as well as establishing a county greenways commission and staff positions to handle planning and fundraising for both greenway and park projects.
The commissioners did have some concerns about costs, however—anywhere from $250,000 to $800,000 for each mile of greenway, according to the plan’s own estimates.
“I think we’re eventually just going to have to take out a bond on this, instead of doing it piecemeal,” noted Young. “This is something that can improve a lot of people’s quality of life.”
Ramsey agreed, adding, “The cost is something that has to be factored in—especially the cost of land these days.”
In approving the plan, the board made no immediate financial commitment, though the plan will be factored into the budget for the next fiscal year. Unused money from a currently vacant staff position could pay for at least one of the new staffers, noted County Manager Wanda Greene.
Sam Bowls, who serves on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, also encouraged the commissioners to adopt both the greenway plan and some of the specific components of the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which was approved in principle in February. Those components include several large capital projects, such as building a $12 million to $25 million aquatic center.
“That would be a huge draw. These [projects] will pay for themselves,” predicted Bowls.
“I think these are some great ideas here, but I want to see some hard numbers,” said Commssioner Carol Peterson.
Bowls replied that if the staff called for in the greenways plan are hired, they can develop cost estimates for the projects.
Enka resident Jerry Rice, however, said the county should think very carefully about its priorities. “You approved the plan on aging last week, calling for a coordinator for that. You need a coordinator for the children’s services, and now all this for parks too. Human services need to come first,” Rice declared. “I love parks, and I’d like to see more up near Enka, but we need to get our priorities straight.”
Subdivide and conquer
In other business, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton updated the board about the new subdivision rules the county is drafting, which have sparked controversy. Some in the community say the rules will loosen restrictions on developers and lead to increased disruption of the landscape.
But when viewed as part of the whole ordinance, the new rules have the opposite effect, Creighton explained. Although the current ordinance places limits on site disruption when constructing a building on a steeply sloping parcel, there is no comparable restriction for infrastructure. The proposed rule, he said, would limit such disruption to 30 to 50 percent of the steeply sloping area. “Some people have complained about that,” noted Creighton. “But … there’s no rules on that now. We wanted to tighten our rules here.”
A proposed redefinition of “land clearance” has also drawn some fire, noted Creighton.
“The definition we’ll be using now is the same one the state uses; it’s the same one our storm-water rules uses. It covers underbrush—which can be a fire hazard—and removing single trees.”
The board will consider the proposed changes in June.