Buncombe County Commission

We’re sitting in our own stew — and it’s making us sick.

That was a cornerstone of the message air-quality advocates did their best to impress upon the Buncombe County commissioners at their May 7 meeting.

Alan McKenzie, who chairs the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency’s board, tried to debunk a popular myth — that 80 percent of local air pollution is blown in from other states. While that may be true on windy days at Mount Mitchell, more than half of the lower-elevation pollution on the worst air days is generated right here in WNC, he said.

“When the air is still, the pollution is being generated locally,” noted McKenzie, adding later: “Our worst air dates is when we’re stuck in our own pollution.”

The answer to the “big question” of where pollution comes from, elaborated AQA Director Bob Camby, is this: “We do generate our own pollution and it is blown in here from other places. That’s not a very satisfactory answer, but it’s the truth.”

And the resulting haze not only affects tourism (who wants to visit the mountains if you can’t see them?) — it also impacts county residents’ health.

Dr. Clay Ballantine, a local physician who serves on the board of the WNC Air Quality Trust, detailed some of the health problems stemming from air pollution: premature death, asthma, emphysema, pneumonia and respiratory infections, lung cancer (for a nonsmoker, the long-term effect of breathing our polluted air is akin to living with a smoker), heart attacks, birth defects and impaired fertility. The effects of air pollution on children are particularly sobering: They include higher asthma and infant-mortality rates and impaired lung development. Not surprisingly, overall death rates also rise.

“We are handicapping an entire generation with lung disease,” Ballantine declared.

Even otherwise-healthy people suffer serious effects from air pollution causes higher rates of lung cancer (similar to living with a smoker), noted Ballantine.

“As policymakers, you have to … decide how much of this excess death you’re willing to endure,” Ballantine told the board.

On the dollar side, the Buncombe County Health Department spends $400,000 annually on asthma care alone, he said.

Along with the health concerns, there’s also the risk that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might designate Buncombe and neighboring counties as a “nonattainment area” for ground-level ozone or fine particulates, warned Bill Eaker director of environmental programs at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. That, in turn, could hamper local efforts to recruit new industry.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked speaker Bill Jackson, an air-quality specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, whether solving such problems isn’t really the federal government’s responsibility — prompting a groan from one of the air-quality advocates seated in the audience. One approach, Jackson acknowledged diplomatically, would be to leave it up to the feds. But he countered Ramsey’s question with one of his own: What if there is no federal solution?

To help address the area’s air-quality woes at the local level, Ballantine urged the commissioners to: convert fleet vehicles so they can use less-polluting fuels; push alternative transportation; get the schools to take precautions to reduce children’s exposure on “bad air” days; bolster tree-planting requirements for parking lots; and demand that the state Department of Transportation offer better solutions to local traffic jams than merely widening roads (which produces more traffic and encourages urban sprawl — both inimical to air quality).

Eaker asked the commissioners to support legislative solutions, including the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act and a soon-to-be-introduced state bill that would offer incentives for people buying low-emission vehicles.

Commissioner David Young asked County Manager Wanda Greene to report back in a month with recommendations for implementing the delegation’s suggestions.

The one-and-a-half-hour air-quality presentation was the meatiest item on the agenda. With commissioners now convening weekly — for either a formal session or a community growth-management meeting — they’ve shown little interest in tackling other controversial issues.

All board members were present at the May 7 meeting except Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, who was out of town.

Tax talk

Six speakers sounded off at a public hearing on whether to enact a local-option sales tax to replace the half-cent sales tax the N.C. General Assembly adopted last year as a budget-balancing move. The state tax is slated to expire June 30, 2003.

State legislators offered local governments the option of passing this sales tax to give counties, municipalities and fire districts a reliable revenue source, replacing the annual reimbursements they’ve generally received from the state. For the past two years, however, the state has withheld those reimbursements to plug holes in its own budget. In the current fiscal year alone, Buncombe County lost about $6.2 million.

Peter Dawes of the Mountain Guardian News And Opinion newspaper branded it an “absolute disgrace” that food is still taxed (though the half-cent tax in question wouldn’t apply to food).

Libertarian Clarence Ervin Young urged the county to live within its means, remarking that it’s County Manager Wanda Greene‘s job to make this happen. Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey instructed Young to criticize the commissioners rather than county staff; then Commissioner David Gantt jumped in.

“I would just be real curious to see what you would cut,” Gantt tossed out.

“I would love to have the opportunity to do that,” replied Young.

Later in the hearing, Libertarian Kevin Rollins promised that the Libertarian Party would present the board with a reasonable draft budget.

The commissioners will vote on the sales-tax issue Aug. 20.

Till we meet again

With a half hour to kill between the administrative/public-comment session and the 6:30 p.m. formal meeting, Commissioner Patsy Keever suggested starting both of the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meetings at 4:30 p.m. instead of alternating evening and afternoon meetings each month.

The board changed its meeting times twice last fall: once as part of its retooling of opportunities for public comment, and then to address concerns that the first change had prevented working people from attending the earlier meetings.

Greene noted that more people attend the 4:30 p.m. meetings, and Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes observed that people wanting to make presentations to the commissioners also seem to prefer the earlier time slot.

Ramsey said the commissioners would discuss it at their May 21 meeting (the public-comment session starts at 3:30 p.m.; the formal session begins an hour later).

In with the new

Back in November, the commissioners agreed that, come May, they would revamp the county Planning Board, returning to a seven-member board (down from the current nine) and appointing members from the unincorporated parts of each school district, plus one at-large member.

So just before the commissioners’ administrative session May 7, the board launched a series of interviews with prospective Planning Board members. In the comfortable confines of Ramsey’s office, commissioners interviewed the following: Alan Styles, who owns a land-surveying business; Bill Newman, a vice president at Taylor & Murphy Construction Co.; Roy Chapman, who owns a mobile-home park and chairs the county’s Mobile Home Park Review Board; Jay Marino, a landscape architect; and Ray E. Anders, a retired land surveyor.

In a series of 15-minute interviews, commissioners peppered the candidates with questions, including gauging their opinions on countywide zoning. All expressed either support or ambivalence for the idea; none were firmly opposed.

Seven more interviews were scheduled for May 14: Julie Combs, Karl Koon, Robert Middlemas, Hilary Paradise, Greg Scales, David Shenaut and Rick Sluder.

Current board members Alan McGuinn, Jim McElduff and Steve Towe have asked to be reappointed.

Odds and ends

In other action, the board proclaimed May as Organ Donation Awareness Month and pledged to spread the word about organ donation to county employees through the Workplace Partnership for Life program (www.organdonor.gov).

The board also conducted its annual public hearing on the state Department of Transportation’s priorities for paving secondary roads in Buncombe County. After three members of the public spoke, the commissioners voted unanimously to accept the DOT’s priority list.

Around 9 p.m., as the meeting wound down, the board postponed a cluster of appointments, as well as a public hearing on amendments to the county’s subdivision ordinance.

Consent agenda

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its May 7 meeting:

• The minutes of the board’s April 23 regular meeting.

• The hiring of pyrotechnics experts for fireworks displays at Biltmore Estate and for the town of Weaverville.

• The county’s intent to reimburse itself from the proceeds of one or more tax-exempt financings for an $11 million addition to the county jail.

• An amended resolution appointing eight plat-review officers for Buncombe County.

• A capital-projects-budget amendment appropriating $1.2 million in additional funds for the EMS fire/rescue radio system.

• A budget amendment for the Sheriff’s Department ($7,011).

• A release report correcting Tax Department errors.

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