“At the end of this week, there was going to be an announcement that there were three votes on this board for countywide zoning.”
— Nathan Ramsey, chairman, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners
Four Buncombe County commissioners faced a roomful of residents sporting “No Zoning” buttons and stickers at the Board of Commissioners’ April 25 session. The show of opposition to countywide zoning, which hasn’t been formally proposed by any board or staff member, erupted in response to a referendum promoted by Chairman Nathan Ramsey and reported on the television news the previous evening. Ramsey, elected as an antizoning candidate in 2000 and re-elected in 2004, wants to put the matter before the voters. But that requires approval by the N.C. General Assembly.
“This is something we’ve heard about for going on six-plus months,” Ramsey explained, adding, “There are three votes [a majority] on this board for countywide zoning.” His goal, said the chairman, was to head off possible action by the commissioners by presenting the issue directly to the voters who turned thumbs down on zoning in a nonbinding referendum in 1999. “This is the first item I have ever placed on the board’s agenda,” noted Ramsey. “This is not a partisan issue; the legislators told me that because this is a short-session year, they will not consider this referendum unless it gets a unanimous vote of the Board of Commissioners.”
Disorder in the court
Both in the regular public comment before the formal session and during a subsequent public hearing, numerous Ramsey supporters spoke out against zoning and in favor of the referendum. Only two speakers bucked the trend.
Most of the two dozen zoning opponents who spoke stressed the 1999 vote, widely seen as a barometer of county residents’ views on such land-use regulation. In that election, 55 percent of those who voted opposed countywide zoning. But since only 26 percent of registered voters chose to weigh in that day, it remains unclear how the majority of county residents feel about zoning.
Fairview resident Keith Gibbons, for example, said: “I’m a little bit confused about this. I don’t know why we’re here, because we voted against zoning. Why would you want zoning anyhow? It don’t do anything; all it does is bring oppression on people, take their rights away, their freedom. I think we ought to help each other, pray for each other any way we can, not oppress other people.”
Alan Ditmore of Leicester sounded an alternate note. “I can’t stress enough how harmful zoning is to the environment, because different people can’t live in the same neighborhood, and it forces commuting, which demands eight-lane highways and burning oil.” After noting that the United States is a republic rather than a democracy, Ditmore added, “I am a Democrat, and a majority of you on the board are Democrats. It is massively contradictory for Democrats to vote for republican policies.”
Jupiter resident Don Yelton, a Republican candidate for Superior Court clerk and a former Democratic candidate for the Board of Commissioners, roused the crowd to cheers when he threw down the gauntlet. “Go ahead, you Democrats: Pass zoning. Not all Democrats want zoning. Go ahead and zone, and require 5-acre lots. [State Representative Bruce] Goforth is making it an election issue — not you, Chairman Ramsey. Your own director of zoning said this week that zoning doesn’t work unless you change the law. If we don’t feed the available land to the housing industry, we won’t have any jobs.” Ramsey had to gavel the room to silence following Yelton’s speech.
Eric Gorny of Swannanoa, a Republican primary candidate for the 115th District in the state House, spoke directly about Ramsey’s proposal. “I’m here to ask [Commissioners] David [Young], Carol [Peterson] and [Vice Chairman] Bill [Stanley] to vote for this resolution so we can have a nonbinding referendum, so you can see how the people of Buncombe County feel about zoning.” (Commissioner David Gantt was absent.)
Asheville resident Chuck Durand took a slightly different tack, saying: “For 40 years, I’ve traveled all over the world. In no town, in no city, no county, no country, no continent has private control of public property worked. What it does is destroy family life and helps no one. The exception is the people who control property. Because Satan is a tempter and tempts them into decisions that do not benefit family life.”
Asheville attorney Albert Sneed made no bones about his position. “I’m here on my own time, based on 35 years of experience with zoning: It doesn’t work. I’d ask you to have a referendum with just the people that live in the county that zoning is going to affect. If you’re not going to have a referendum, are we going to take it that you don’t think people are smart enough to think for themselves? I’d urge you to at least have a referendum or, better, to take it off the table. I think that it’s bad policy.”
The comments by self-described Buncombe County native Steve Sloan seemed to suggest support for zoning. He said: “I think there’s been a lack of willingness to look at the whole issue. I think you, Nathan, have come a long way in the last few years.” (Ramsey has voted for certain limited land-use plans during his five-year tenure.) “I would like everyone on this board to imagine themselves retired or on their deathbed looking back, and see if you think you really did the best you could for the people of Buncome County.”
But it was Weaverville resident Julie Brandt who took the only unflinching stand in favor of zoning. “I want to thank the commissioners who are for zoning and not bowing down to political pressure. Some things I heard on TV last night really upset me. There will always be two sides, but I think it’s important not to pass along wrong information.
“One of the things I saw was, Albert Sneed was on the show opposing zoning. He works for wealthy developers and tries to get areas that have been zoned for one purpose to be rezoned for other uses, to put rich developments in residential areas. He also worked on building the [Grove Park Inn’s proposed] high-rise in our public park, to build luxury high-rise condominiums.”
Turning to the audience, Brandt declared: “Taxes are going to go up no matter what. Face the facts: We’ve had a big increase in density and no decrease in values or taxes. Right now, it’s neighbors against neighbors. Zoning will help developers make plans and benefit everyone.” Ramsey then had to gavel down a general uproar and threatened to have a sheriff’s deputy evict those who failed to quiet down.
Explanations and anticlimax
After public comment was closed, Peterson gently chided the crowd, emphasizing that there was, in fact, no zoning proposal on the table. “We asked the Planning Board to update our planning document, which was last updated in 1999,” she said, noting that community meetings had been held across the county to solicit input and that a report would soon be delivered to the commissioners.
“In all deference to the fact that Nathan is chairman of this board, I think that many things that have been said to people to get them to this meeting have been said prematurely. We are still waiting for that document. There will be another meeting May 16 at the armory on Brevard Road; people from the Planning Department will be there to answer your questions, and people from the Planning [Board]. … We want you to know that we are here because it is our hope that we do the things that are best for you, the citizens of Buncombe County.”
With no comment from Stanley or Young, Ramsey concluded by saying: “After five years on the board, I consider all of my fellow commissioners to be friends, even if we disagree at times. I did not put this on the agenda lightly; it’s been very emotional for me.” Ramsey added, “I know this entire board wants to do what’s best for this county,” but he followed that by stating, “At the end of this week, there was going to be an announcement that there were three votes on this board for countywide zoning.”
Ramsey then made a motion to approve his proposed referendum, which would have needed unanimous support to be considered by the General Assembly during this year’s short session. But after that motion failed for lack of a second, Ramsey tried again. The second motion, which was identical except that it would not have gone to Raleigh until 2007, would have required only a simple majority vote. But it met a similar fate, and Ramsey once again had to gavel the crowd to silence and threaten expulsion.
Money, energy and board appointments
In other business, the commissioners approved a financial arrangement with the county schools to counteract a change in the rules governing the taxation of school purchases. Effective this year, the General Assembly terminated the sales-tax exemption public schools in North Carolina had previously enjoyed. But thanks to a change in accounting methods, such purchases will now be credited to the county government, which remains tax-exempt. This will save the county upward of $1 million per year, according to Finance Director Donna Clark.
While accepting a proclamation for Air Awareness Week (April 30 to May 6), Director Margie Mears of the Clean Air Community Trust noted: “This year’s prediction is for a hot, dry summer, ideal for formation of low-level ozone, and I’d like to recommend two activities to promote clean air. Share a ride to work. You can give yourself a raise by starting a car pool; visiting www.sharetheridenc.com is an easy way to [do this].” There are already 450 people in the program, said Mears, and with gas at $3 per gallon, she expects participation to double this year.
Mears also touted energy-efficient, compact-fluorescent light bulbs. “If each person in Buncombe County installed a single compact-fluorescent, we could save 15 tons of pollution per year — and that’s a single light bulb,” she emphasized, giving one to each of the commissioners to get them started.
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Barbara Bowman-Hensley (Board of Health); Edwin Lederer and Spike Gram (Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee); John Fragale, Sonya Friedrich and Jennifer Mary Waite (Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee).