Buncombe County Commission

A proposal to increase fees for developers and change subdivision regulations to comply with the state fire code failed last week when the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners deadlocked.

The road to that stalemate, however, was marked by an odd series of moves that had commissioners opposing the very changes they’d voted for a moment earlier.

Both items were part of a package of 12 proposed changes to the county’s subdivision ordinance under consideration at the board’s May 21 meeting.

The Buncombe County Planning Board had unanimously recommended requiring at least a 20-foot-wide right of way (instead of the current 15 feet) for access roads to certain subdivisions, so emergency vehicles would have an easier time getting in and out.

“It is an issue of public safety,” Planning Board member Steve Towe told commissioners.

And Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley pointed out that the new state fire code also includes the 20-foot requirement.

“This is a moot point,” whispered Commissioner Patsy Keever (who was suffering from laryngitis).

But that’s not how the rest of the board saw it.

Commissioner David Young asked whether the county can legally make rules that are looser than what the state requires.

“Not in good conscience,” Keever remarked.

County Attorney Joe Connolly said it’s legal, though he cautioned, “I’m not sure it would be wise.”

The Planning Board also proposed doubling subdivision permit fees, which now stand at $50 for minor subdivisions (those with between four and 10 lots), and $100 for major subdivisions (11 lots and up). The proposal also calls for a $20-per-lot fee for all subdivisions.

The Planning Board reasoned that developers should pay for the time county staff spends reviewing proposed subdivisions — rather than, in effect, forcing all county taxpayers to foot the bill through property taxes, Towe explained.

While he didn’t object to developers “paying their own way,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey said he opposed the increase because it would make Buncombe County’s development fees higher than those charged by the city of Asheville.

And Young — while asserting that he didn’t want to offend his counterparts at City Hall — also declared that the county doesn’t want its regulations and fees to be like the city’s.

“I don’t think we can base our policy on what the city does or doesn’t do,” countered Commissioner David Gantt, adding that the general public shouldn’t subsidize developers.

Young also objected to the fee increase because the current permit fees have been in place only since March. Before that, there were no such fees at all, County Planner Jim Coman said later.

Three members of the public also addressed the issue; Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny told the board that increased fees make it harder for people launching new businesses.

With Vice Chairman Bill Stanley out of town, the commissioners then embarked on a complex series of maneuvers pitting Keever and Gantt — who favored the fee increases and wider rights of way — against Ramsey and Young.

Ramsey made a motion to approve the whole package of changes — except for the fee increases and the road-widening proposal.

“I can’t second it,” Young confessed. “I can’t go against what the fire code is.”

Gantt (seconded by Keever) proposed adopting all 12 changes. Then Young offered an amendment to approve all of the changes except the fee increases, which would be studied again in six months. The amended motion, seconded by Ramsey, failed 2-2, with Keever and Gantt opposed.

At that point, Connolly weighed in, suggesting that if the board wanted to approve the rest of the changes that evening — and to study the fee increases later — they could once again attempt to leave out the fee proposal.

“We could let Commissioner Stanley come back,” suggested Young.

Gantt then offered an amendment (seconded by Keever) to pass all the changes except the fee increase, which would be considered at a later meeting. It was essentially the same amendment Young had proposed minutes earlier; in the interim, however, he had changed his mind, and the commissioners once again deadlocked 2-2 (with Gantt and Keever in favor, Young and Ramsey opposed).

“I just didn’t like doing it that way,” Young told his fellow board members. “I’m sorry.”

The board will revisit the issue at its next meeting on June 4, when (presumably) Stanley will break the deadlock.

A look at the books

Harmony returned as the board heard from the county’s auditor, Jay Lee of Crawley, Lee & Co., who presented the annual financial report for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2001.

“It’s a clean opinion,” he reported.

Several problems were noted, however, including: the Internal Service Fund established for insurance coverage showed expenditures higher than its budgeted appropriation; there were paperwork lapses in the Department of Social Services connected with state reimbursements for staff expenses; Finance Department accounts and Tax Department records were not being reconciled monthly; and department-level staff lacked adequate understanding of accounting details. In a letter included in the meeting agenda, county management proposed solutions to address each problem.

The board accepted Lee’s report and unanimously agreed to pay Crawley, Lee & Co, $71,625 to audit the books for the current fiscal year.

“Certainly, Arthur Andersen could have used your services,” quipped Ramsey as Lee retreated from the lectern.

A time to meet

The board unanimously decided to revamp its meeting schedule once again. Last November, the commissioners adopted a schedule calling for one afternoon meeting and one evening meeting each month.

But they grew tired of meeting later in the evening and found that public attendance at the evening sessions was no higher than at the afternoon meetings. In addition, people waiting to make presentations to the board appeared to prefer the afternoon schedule.

Beginning June 4, the board will hold an administrative/public-comment session at 4 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month in room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse. The formal session will follow at 4:30 p.m.

At 6 p.m., immediately following the June 4 formal session, there will be a public hearing on the county’s budget for fiscal year 2002-03.

Both sides now

Amid other business, the commissioners recognized a cadre of county employees who won Excellence in Public Service awards. They also congratulated state 3-A high-school wrestling champions Phillip Bohanon of Enka High School and Freddy Soria, an Erwin High School grad.

With Stanley gone, the commissioners delayed choosing among 15 applicants for nine seats on a revamped Planning Board, saving those appointments until their next meeting.

They did however, unanimously agree to make the following appointments: Gil Walker, Linda Briggs and Ron Cohen to the Community Transportation Advisory Board; Keith Shipley to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee; Greg Mayo to the Economic Development Commission; Adrianne Gordon, Carol Jean Smith, Patricia Kaufmann, Laurel Reinhardt and Sandra Abromitis to the Women’s Commission; Melanie Sovine and Chris Eller to the Board of Health; Mandy Stone to the A-B Tech board of trustees; and Carmella Watkins to the Minority Business Commission.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners met in closed session for about 10 minutes to discuss the ongoing lawsuit over whether the fees and penalties assessed by the former air-quality agency should go to the county schools or to the Clean Air Community Trust. The lawsuit pits Betty Donoho and the Buncombe County Board of Education against the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, Buncombe County, the city of Asheville and Haywood County.

“We’re paying for both sides of that lawsuit,” Young observed before the commissioners and county staff went into closed session.

Consent agenda

The Buncombe County commissioners approved the following items by consent at their May 21 meeting:

• The minutes of the May 7 regular meeting;

• Returning foreclosed property to Johnny Jones after he paid the county $4,000 in back taxes.

• An additional $9,445 for the EMS fire/rescue radio system.

• The following budget amendments: Community Child Care Center funds ($8,050); Day Reporting Center reduction in Crime Commission grant ($8,961); library, withheld state aid ($17,633).

• The creation of the Buncombe County Public Safety Radio System Board.

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