Buncombe County Commission

Buncombe County commissioners gave cell-tower companies the go-ahead, voting unanimously at their May 4 meeting to lift a moratorium on new towers. The moratorium, which had been in place since Feb. 2, was imposed by commissioners to give the county Planning Board time to review the county’s existing cell-tower ordinance.

Commissioners passed nine of 10 recommended amendments to the ordinance, which covers what are now called “wireless-communications facilities.”

The recommendations were made by the Planning Board, which developed them through discussions with county Zoning Administrator Jim Coman, industry representatives and concerned citizens.

Referring to the consensus process that the Planning Board used in its deliberations, Chair Sonya Friedrich said, “Sometimes it takes more time, but issues are explored more fully.”

“Co-location was our main goal, with fewer and taller, rather than an increased number of shorter towers,” Friedrich explained. However, she said, “without countywide zoning in place, Buncombe County is unable to have much to say about location of towers.”

Commissioner David Gantt and Vice Chair Patsy Keever, who worked closely with the Planning Board, especially pushed three amendments, two of which passed unanimously. One requires an applicant to prove either fee-simple ownership, a recorded leasehold interest, or an easement of all property within a radius equal to the height of the tower plus 50 feet. According to Gantt, this requirement is intended “to give a little more buffer — 50 feet of breathing space,” to property owners.

It has been a “very costly process for us, and three years of hell,” said East Asheville resident Keith Woods, who supported this amendment. Woods and other residents of the Eastmoor subdivision spent more than $4,000 in a successful legal battle with BellSouth last year regarding placement of a tower.

That tower was found to violate subdivision covenants and was removed, according to Coman. But it was replaced by a 250-foot, lattice-type tower built by SBA Inc. for BellSouth, he explained.

The placement of the new tower, just 400 feet from Clarke Merrill‘s Swannanoa home, prompted her active involvement in the ordinance-amendment discussions, which she said she did to help protect other homeowners.

“Someone called me ‘collateral damage,'” noted Merrill. Despite her personal frustrations, however, Merrill commended commissioners for the additional 50-foot-from-the-fall-zone requirement — although that didn’t stop her from suggesting that commissioners consider requiring tower owners to maintain even more buffer space. “Maybe you should double the fall zone, to two times the height of the tower,” she said.

The second successful Gantt/Keever-sponsored amendment stipulates that towers be at least 1,320 feet apart, unless documentation is provided to the ordinance administrator showing that “co-location on towers within 1320 feet is not technically feasible,” or that “three or more towers already exist within 20 feet of the proposed site.”

Gantt and Keever, however, failed to convince their fellow commissioners of the merits of restricting towers to a monopole-style construction.

“It is important in our mountains to do anything possible to mitigate the height and visual impact of these facilities,” argued Gantt.

Lattice-type towers are the “least-preferred” from an aesthetic perspective, acknowledged Susan Rabold of Metro Site Management Inc., a leasing agent for tower sites on county-owned property.

“The more loaded a tower is with antennae arrays,” Coman added, “the less aesthetic and more visually intrusive.”

The tedious discussions of proposed amendments took more than one-and-a-half hours, with attorneys and industry representatives wrangling over the intent and clarity of the language used in the ordinance.

Asheville attorney Larry McDevitt, representing Bell Atlantic Mobile, told commissioners, “On the whole, I feel we have something we can work with. We want to go ahead and move forward,” although he expressed concern about “vagueness’ in some of the wording in the ordinance — precipitating a lengthy discussion and some changes in the amendments.

The revised ordinance, on staff recommendation, limits cell-tower height to 200 feet and includes an initial, nonrefundable, permit application fee of $2,500 plus a $100 fee for permit renewals.

At Coman’s suggestion, commissioners approved an amendment requiring that all permits be reviewed every six months.

Corrie Cusker of Greenville, S.C. — representing American Towers and Trident PCS — objected to that requirement. “Why have you singled out our industry?” Cusker wanted to know. She predicted that the additional workload for permit renewals would turn into a full-time job for a county employee. She argued for a review every “five or 10 years.”

Cusker acknowledged that her industry is considered by some to constitute an intrusion into the community. However, she pointed out that “one in every five persons uses a cell phone.”

“In Littleton, [Col.] wireless communications saved lives,” she added, noting that, in communities where natural disasters strike, wireless companies often provide free emergency service.

“You can be sure [that] wireless would provide the same to Buncombe County, should the need arise.”

Apparently irritated by the delay caused by the lengthy cell-tower hearing, Commissioner Bill Stanley hurriedly excused himself at the close of the public hearing at 6:30 p.m., in order to attend a meeting in Raleigh. “If I get a [speeding] ticket, I’ve got four lawyers who kept me here for one-and-a-half hours longer than I wanted to be,” he said, eliciting general laughter.

School and college budget matters

Asheville City Schools Superintendent Karen Campbell presented her $14.1 million budget request for 1999-2000. Included was a request for funding to meet state-mandated, salary-and-benefits increases for locally-paid employees, plus a 0.5 percent increase in the local-salary supplement.

Campbell noted how that the budget includes a $97,204 reduction in contracted services and attorney fees.

Commissioner David Young asked about the school board’s plans for Claxton School. “I get asked a lot,” he said.

Campbell reported that two options are no longer under consideration: one, to designate the school as grades 3-5 only, and two, to close the school and rebuild elsewhere. Three options remain: Tear down the original building and construct a new one on the same site; build a new school on a new site; or renovate and expand Claxton, so it can accommodate the needs of K-5 students. “The Board is gathering data and looking at land,” Campbell said.

No action was taken by commissioners on the budget request.

Young took the opportunity to compliment the Asheville High School students who “do such a good job” of videotaping the commissioners’ meetings for later broadcast.

Before conveying Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s budget request for 1999-2000, President Ray Bailey quipped, “Your chairs are very hard, and I’ve heard more about cell towers than I ever wanted to know.”

A-B Tech’s $4.2 million budget request represents a 9.39 percent increase over last year’s budget. Bailey also asked commissioners to approve salary increases for teachers at A-B Tech, if increases are provided to the city and county schools.

“We’re struggling salary wise,” he said. We are “second-lowest in the nation, and getting further and further behind each year.” A-B Tech is in its 40th year, and enrollment is increasing rapidly, Bailey said. Current enrollment includes 4,505 credit students and about 7,000 noncredit students, he said.

No action was taken on A-B Tech’s budget request.

Pave those roads

Commissioners held a public hearing to discuss which unpaved roads in Buncombe are next in line for paving. A spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation listed the 52 roads scheduled for priority paving and explained how these had been selected, using a point system.

Commissioner Gantt asked for a written copy of the DOT’s point-system policy.

The state tries first to acquire “freely donated” rights of way, the spokesman explained. “Any road we can’t acquire the right of way for goes to the backup list,” he explained.

“How many property owners can hold up a project? Just one?” Gantt asked.

“Yes, if they own large amounts of frontage,” the DOT spokesman said. “We try to work around them and shift the road, but if we have one or two refusals, that can stop us dead in our tracks.”

“The county commissioners have absolutely nothing to do with the priority of roads? DOT just tells us?” Stanley asked.

The DOT spokesman explained that, under N.C. Statute 136-44.7, the Department of Transportation is required to hold hearings, to present to commissioners and the public the roads they have listed for priority paving, even though it’s the state that sets the priority.

DOT will spend $4.3 million to pave unpaved roads in Buncombe County in 1999-2000, according to the report, at an average cost of $250,000 per mile — though the actual cost can be twice as high in mountainous areas, the DOT spokesman reported.

Funding for paving Buncombe County’s 127.88 miles of unpaved roads comes from gasoline taxes, a trust fund and bonds.

The required public hearing was closed with no comments from the public.

@commishsubhead:The good news

Pam Wall of Asheville-Buncombe Vision presented commissioners with the “1999 Benchmarks” report. The countywide Vision process involved more than 1,200 volunteers who worked to set priorities, with goals and strategies, for making our community a better place for work, recreation and family life, according to the report.

Intended as a work-in-progress, the 48 benchmarks outlined in the report set measurable standards to help monitor change. The benchmarks include civic participation, economic development, education, the environment, equal opportunity, family and child well-being, health, public safety and quality of life.

Airboats and Y2K

Commissioners scheduled a public hearing at their next regular meeting, on May 18, to hear comments on the use of passenger airboats on the French Broad River, before they ask the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to rule on whether such vehicles should be allowed.

At issue is Arden resident Mike Bumgardner‘s airboat business, an enterprise that has drawn complaints from property owners in both Buncombe and Henderson counties.

By the time county Y2K Coordinator John Richard came forward to give commissioners an update, the meeting room had nearly emptied. Richard outlined the scope of the county government’s problem, which involves more than 1,000 PCs, servers, networks, telephone systems, and embedded chips in fax and microwave equipment.

Priority attention is being given to public safety: 911, the county Detention Center, the Department of Social Services, and health care/primary-care services, Richard said.

Last on the list is the county Tax Department, for which Richard predicted compliance by the middle of October.

The county has already spent $8.5 million on Y2K compliance, Richard noted. “We have a lot of confidence in the changes so far.” $100,000 remains in the contingency fund for the project, he said.

Public comment

East Asheville resident Johnny Wood told commissioners, “It would be nice if the community could be notified through the media of meetings of the Planning Board.”

Buncombe resident Don Yelton repeated his request, which he had made earlier in writing to the county manager’s office, to receive copies of the minutes of all 59 county boards and commissions. Yelton cited N.C. Statute 143-318.10 (e) requiring any “official meeting” of the county to keep “full and accurate minutes.” He chided Board Chairman Tom Sobol for his pledge of open government, made during his recent state-of-the-county address. “The people of this county need to realize the work of boards and commissions, and how much power they have,” Yelton advised.

Jerry Rice called attention to what he termed county schoolteachers’ “astronomical salary increases” and asked that commissioners publicly scrutinize the proposed school budget.

With regard to the lengthy discussion of the cell-tower regulations, Rice, in his usual folksy manner, said, “We’re straining gnats and swallowing the camel.” He added, “I’ve never seen [towers] so ugly that they killed someone for looking at them.” Rice called for an ordinance regulating Carolina Power and Light poles, which he said “kill people all the time, when they run into them in their automobiles.”

Consent agenda

Commissioners approved the following:

• $25,000 to support youth centers in Buncombe County.

• The donation of surplus computer software to Asheville-Buncombe Vision.

• Selecting Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A., a Charlotte law firm, to act as bond counsel for the county in issuing of $45 million in school bonds and $20 million in community-college bonds; commissioners also instructed county staff to file applications for approval of the bonds.

• A petition to the N.C. Department of Transportation, signed by homeowners, to add Hillside Drive in Swannanoa to the state road system, and a petition requesting that DOT take over maintenance Smith Knolls Road, off Hwy 74A East.

Appointments

Commissioners made the following appointments:

Arelene Brandon of Black Mountain, to the Women’s Involvement Council.

Christopher Lance of Weaverville, to the Weaverville Board of Adjustment.

Ray Spells of Asheville, to the A-B Tech board of trustees.

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