Buzzworm news briefs

Primary choice

Buncombe County Democrats will return to the polls Tuesday, May 30, to pick a candidate to run against Sheriff Bobby Medford. Van Duncan and Walt Robertson, the two top vote-getters out of the original field of six, will go head-to-head.

In the May 2 primary, Duncan netted 37 percent of the vote, while Robertson collected 23 percent. When no candidate achieves a substantial plurality, the No. 2 contender can request a runoff, explained Max Gough of the Buncombe County Board of Elections.

Questioned before the primary, the two candidates offered very little in the way of policy differences (see “Game On,” April 26 Xpress). Both said they plan to enhance community policing, create citizen advisory boards, improve handling of domestic-violence cases, increase deputy training and reduce the number of highly paid administrative personnel in the department.

Asked about their differences after the primary, Duncan said: “Walt is a good man, but the biggest thing that sets us apart is that we have a vision that is unique. We plan to enhance the School Resource [Officer] program, form community partnerships and make our decisions based on how they will affect the community.”

Robertson told Xpress, “I’ve got more experience and a desire to have a professional department. Buncombe County needs a professional sheriff’s office, and I’m a career law-enforcement officer. I’ve got pride, integrity and experience.”

Among the also-rans, fourth-place finisher J.B. Howard has endorsed Robertson, while James Grant, in fifth place, has declined to make a choice and announced that he won’t make a third run for the office in 2010. “I’m through with politics,” he told Xpress. “I’ve put in my time, and the people have spoken.”

According to a report in the Asheville Citizen-Times, third-place finisher Lee Farnsworth, who has just resigned from the Sheriff’s Department, has endorsed Duncan, as has Rick Cummings, who trailed the pack.

North Carolina law gives county sheriffs considerable power — they’re accountable to almost no one other than the voters. Although the county board of commissioners controls each sheriff’s overall budget, the specific allocation of resources is left to the top cop, and deputies serve at the pleasure of the sheriff. Barring outright violations of the law, which might be investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation or the attorney general, Tar Heel sheriffs are essentially free to run their departments as they see fit.

Despite the power and importance of the office, a mere 10,813 votes were cast for sheriff in the May 2 primary, raising questions about the likely turnout for the runoff election.

— Cecil Bothwell

Into the zone

Scapegoat
photo by Kent Priestley

The evening sun gilded the interior of the gym at the National Guard Armory near Brevard Road in West Asheville, warming the wood floor and coming to rest on a series of easels set with paper tablets. It was Tuesday night, and the noises in the gym came not from martial goings-on or sergeants’ games of Horse or Around the World, but from the pitched babble of 75 or more Buncombe County residents trying to understand the future of growth here, its implications for their little portion of the state.

Judging by the tenor of the comments at the May 16 land-use-planning information session, to live in Buncombe County in 2006 is to be fearful: that the very charms that induced one to move here are under assault; that property taxes will soon reach Florida or California levels; that every farm or family home place will soon have an adjacent shopping center or subdivision; that public officials’ standards of “affordable” stand in stark contrast to economic reality; and that, for residents working jobs as cashiers and clerks and factory workers, even singlewides will soon be out of reach.

“You think this last revaluation was a shock, wait until you see the next one, four years from now,” warned Buncombe County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman, speaking with Oteen resident Andrea Shrestha. “People are worried, and maybe rightfully so, that we’re going to become the Aspen of the East.”

On the gym’s walls, nearly 20 full-color maps had been hung, representing various land-use alternatives. Attendees stroked their chins and knotted up their faces, trying to understand what they were looking at.

Shrestha, a diminutive woman who had to crane her neck somewhat to scan a poster labeled “Potential MSD Expansion and Service Area Map,” said she hopes one day to own a home but is concerned about rising costs. She worries, too, that the movement of public services into more rural parts of the county will spur rampant growth and put wildlife on the run.

Cathy Rhodarmer of Candler said she opposes zoning, likening it to a property owner conveying rights directly into the hands of the powers that be. “Property rights are one of the foundations of our system,” she said. “We’re going to lose that freedom.” Zoning, however well intentioned, inevitably becomes just another rule for the wealthy and politically connected to bend, insisted Rhodarmer. “Look at what happened at Wolf Laurel,” she said. “That property was zoned. Two hundred people spoke out against that rezoning, and they went right ahead with it.”

At 7 o’clock sharp, Coman, looking a little tired-eyed, began removing the maps from the walls, peeling off the tape and piling them neatly on a stack of tables.

Several feet away, Viola Walker of Enka, whose jacket bore a red NO ZONING button, was reading public comments (“Is zoning a precursor to A BRAVE NEW WORLD?” “Zoning stinks, but not doing some kind of land-use control stinks more!”), that were scribbled onto one of the large pads. Inexplicably, someone had taped a child’s drawing onto the same pad: a stick figure with the word “ZIP” written next to it.

Walker said the taxes on her and her husband’s 28-acre property have just risen from $2,000 to $5,400 a year. She shook her head wearily, saying, “I’m ready to go home.”

Outside, Nanny the goat, pacing a chainlink cage set on the back of a pickup, seemed ambivalent about her role as a statement-maker. A sign below her, framed by property-rights bumper stickers, read “Planning Board Scapegoat.” She nibbled listlessly at the fingers of passers-by as the manure in her temporary stall piled up, dollop by marble-sized dollop.

— Kent Priestley

Public gets chance to scrutinize state energy plans

The N.C. Utilities Commission is headed west, holding a rare public hearing in Asheville Thursday, June 1, in response to the latest round of annual reports filed by the state’s electric utilities.

The hearing is one of the first in some 20 years on what’s called the Integrated Resource Plan, according to David Wallace, who heads up the western branch of the State Energy Office.

North Carolina’s larger utilities, including Duke Power, Progress Energy and Western Carolina Electric (composed of membership cooperatives), are required to give yearly estimates of their future energy needs and how they plan to meet them. The 2005 plans propose new nuclear and coal-fired plants to boost production. But the projections have been met with intense questioning and calls for hearings by various energy-conservation and environmental groups, as well as the commission’s own consumer-advocacy arm.

In particular, concerns have been raised that energy efficiency is being given short shrift as a strategy for helping meet growing demand. “This is about how energy efficiency can be an alternative for their scenarios for increasing power,” said Wallace. “The Utilities Commission seems particularly to want to hear what citizens have been doing to conserve energy.

“I don’t know what planet they’ve been on,” he joked. Such conservation efforts are the focus of his work at the Energy Office.

The public hearing happens Thursday, June 1, starting at 7 p.m. in the Buncombe County Courthouse, District Courtroom 1. For more information, go to www.ncuc.commerce.state.nc.us.

— Nelda Holder

Local Food Guide ripe for the pickin’

“My bliss, so to speak, is in taking the tomato seed, planting it, and watching the miracle of that plant as it grows,” proclaims local organic farmer William Shelton, quoted in the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s just-released 2006 Local Food Guide. Shelton’s family farm is one of 180 in the comprehensive listing, which includes everything from consumer-supported agriculture to tailgate markets to wineries. Now in its fifth year, the annual guide is available to the public free of charge.

Flipping through the 88-page publication, one gets the impression that Western North Carolina is bursting with fresh, organic produce around every bend. Rich images of sprawling, leafy greens, crimson beets, vine-ripened tomatoes piled high, and the beaming faces of seasoned farmers who seem to delight in bringing produce to your plate are enough to convince any tourist that they’ve just landed in some modern-day Eden.

But local family farms are not exactly thriving like mint in compost-rich soil — if they were, ASAP wouldn’t have to put so much energy into connecting consumers with the produce being peddled right in their back yard. Reflecting the sense of urgency implied by the group’s name, its mission is to revive Western North Carolina’s fading agricultural heritage and regain control of the local food system. “North Carolina is leading the country in terms of loss of farms,” explains Executive Director Charlie Jackson. “Our vision is that this is happening under our noses, but most people are not aware of it.” The goal of the Local Food Guide, he says, is to “give people the choice” to proactively support small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

The guide is available at grocers, bookstores, libraries, restaurants and other locations throughout the area. But if you want one, get your copy as soon as possible, the publisher warns, ’cause they’re going faster than ripe berries at a U-pick.

— Rebecca Bowe

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