Best and highest use

A pair of controversial rezoning requests dominated the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' April 20 meeting.

The WNC Mountain Land Corp. and Fairview resident Michael Donnelly, each of whom owns a parcel along U.S. 74A, wanted their respective properties rezoned from R-LD (low-density residential district) to NS (neighborhood service district). The properties are adjacent, and in both cases, planning staff had recommended denying the request while the county Planning Board advised approval.

Attorney Craig Justus, speaking on behalf of the WNC Mountain Land Corp., argued that the properties' original NS designation was still appropriate, even though it had been changed when the county reinstated zoning last December in the wake of an appeals court ruling that threw out the original zoning plan on a technicality. "It was plainly reasonable — none of the facts have changed since the last go-around in 2007," said Justus. He also pointed out that his client had already invested $100,000 to bring a sewer line to the 10.95 acre property, assuming that it would retain that designation.

Martin Lawrence, an appraiser hired by the corporation, also argued on behalf of the change, stating that under the current zoning, the land could support three private homes and is thus worth about $250,000. If it were rezoned NS, the property's value would triple, he estimated.

Several Fairview residents and environmental advocates spoke against the request, including Linda Connor Kane, who implored the commissioners to consider the land's broader value to the community.

"I would dispute that the value just mentioned is of any particular merit," she said in response to Lawrence's appraisal. "Its scenic value sometimes gets diminished."

Leicester resident Ken Brame, who chairs the national Sierra Club Political Committee, echoed Kane's sentiment. "I hear clearly the argument that the property would be worth more to property owners if it was commercial," said Brame. "But I think you've got to look at the property around that area. Would that property be worth more looking down on commercial development or a beautiful wooded landscape?"

Jeremy Jones, who said he lives below the WNC Mountain Land property, cited concerns about runoff. "If we allow commercial [development] to come up there, we're setting ourselves up for what, in my opinion, is a lot worse than what Maggie Valley went through," he said, adding, "This mountain is very steep." (see "Finding Stable Ground," Feb. 4, 2009, Xpress.)

Fairview resident Steve Schmeiser, who is president of the WNC chapter of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, told the commissioners that according to studies conducted by the group, the ridgeline in question, currently mature forest, is an important wildlife corridor. "I'm speaking for the wildlife community and saying, 'Please do not close this corridor,'" he pleaded.

Commissioner Carol Peterson said she drives the Charlotte Highway every day and values the area's natural beauty. "The sign that impresses me the most on this road is the sign that says this is a scenic highway (or a scenic byway), and I take that very seriously," noted Peterson, making a motion to deny the rezoning request.

The motion was approved 4-1, with Vice Chair Bill Stanley dissenting.

"My problem is how we had it zoned in the beginning. I don't really understand why we had the change," Stanley said before casting his vote. Asked about it later, Zoning Administrator Jim Coman explained that the property had previously been "spot-zoned" NS at the request of a former property owner. But the current zoning plan does not allow for spot zoning, and the parcel was rezoned in keeping with the surrounding properties.

After WNC Mountain Land's request was voted down, it was Donnelly's turn to make the case for rezoning his adjacent tract. His 29.69 acres, noted Donnelly, include more highway frontage and are more appropriate for commercial use. The parcel's closer proximity to the five-lane, he said, prohibits residential development.

"My house is located 230 feet from the highway and the noise is still excessive, requiring me to wear earplugs to sleep," reported Donnelly, who went on to note that he had a hard time selling a house on property he owned across the street because of the noise.

Despite expressing sympathy for Donnelly's situation, Schmeiser again spoke out against the request.

"I feel for people who, because of construction of a highway, find that it's difficult for them to continue the use of their land that they wanted," he said. "But we're not talking about construction of the highway — we're talking about the zoning plan. I think it's a very dangerous precedent to set."

The Donnelly parcel, said Schmeiser, is an integral component of the wildlife corridor that would also be ruined if opened up for commercial use. "When this kind of property is cleared or terraced or subject to any level of commercial development, it becomes impossible for wildlife to use," he said. "The homes that are in the area now are coexisting with the wildlife."

Peterson again made a motion to deny the request, and it too was approved 4-1 with Stanley opposed. The board also considered several other rezoning requests that generated less attention.

Throughout the contentious hearings, Commissioner Holly Jones expressed an interest in conditional zoning, which would give the board more leeway in dealing with future requests.

"That's an appropriate tool to have in our toolbox, but we don't have that yet," she said. "We're just settling in on our zoning, and let's just say it's not perfect, and we all know that, and we all know that zoning is a process. It's not dictated by the Lord."

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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