“The higher you go above revenue-neutral, the less efficient you are planning to be.”
— Weaverville resident Clarence Young
Outside the Buncombe County Courthouse, a picket line wound around and among hundreds of traffic violators — the usual Tuesday night-court crowd — before the Board of Commissioners’ June 20 meeting. Signs, stickers, buttons and hats bore the same emphatic message — “No Zoning” — and the picketers apparently hoped their show of strength might derail the county’s looming tilt toward comprehensive land-use regulation.
But the picketing was to no avail as the commissioners voted 3-2 to establish zoning in all areas of the county not already incorporated or zoned. In about 80 percent of the county, virtually any type of activity will be permitted under the “open-use zoning” proposed by the county Planning Board, but 11 kinds of uses will be regulated: incinerators, solid-waste-management facilities, mining and extraction operations, concrete plants, asphalt plants, motor-sport facilities, slaughterhouses, amusement parks, chip mills, outdoor shooting ranges and multifamily structures over a specified size. Stricter rules will apply to all previously unzoned areas now served by the Metropolitan Sewerage District as well as some areas where water-and-sewer infrastructure is likely to be extended in the near future.
How much is too much?
About a dozen residents spoke out against zoning and in favor of property-tax reduction during public-comment periods both before and after the commissioners’ meeting. And like the mythical children of Lake Wobegon, all of the speakers were above-average. Although a number of them voiced concern for impoverished county residents, the speakers themselves own an average of $390,000 in real property, county tax records show. The average for all county residents is $207,500, according to Keith Miller of the Tax Department.
“Just how much money is too much money to take from us?” queried Barnardsville veterinarian Kathy Lack, adding, “There comes a time when it’s not worth it to work anymore.” Then, turning her attention to zoning, she said, “I’ve had the feeling from some commissioners that [this] is kind of paternalistic — like you know what’s good for me.” Lack indicated that she prefers to make her own land-use decisions.
Kathy Rhodarmer said: “I think the issue of taxes and zoning is control. We need to let people have control of their own property. We don’t really own our property anymore — we rent from the government.” Then she added, “Oppressive property taxes are a burden to the poor.”
Speaking to the proposed tax rate (53 cents per $100 of assessed value), Harry Maroni said: “I think revenue-neutral is 35 cents. If you can’t live within that budget, you should go to jail.” (A revenue-neutral tax rate is one adjusted downward so that rising property values do not generate more income. According to a state-prescribed formula, Buncombe’s revenue-neutral rate following the latest revaluation would be 50.25 cents.)
Meanwhile, Weaverville resident Clarence Young observed: “The higher you go above revenue-neutral, the less efficient you are planning to be. If you vote for a rate below 50 cents, I will vote for any one of you in the next election. If you vote for a rate below 45 cents, I’ll put your bumper sticker on my car. That’s my deal; I want you to think about it.”
Holding the line
The closely intertwined issues of property use, property value and value-based taxation formed the core of the meeting, as County Manager Wanda Greene presented her staff’s proposed fiscal year 2006-07 budget (which included the 53 cent tax rate), and Planning Director Jon Creighton pitched changes to the county’s land-use plan.
Although revenue-neutral taxation may be a nice idea, the county’s costs — particularly for the jail addition and fuel — have continued to climb, noted Greene. She also pointed out that while the proposed rate would increase taxes on real property, it would reduce taxes on personal property, which she said constitutes 30 percent of the county’s tax base. The latter category, Greene explained, includes such items as vehicles, business equipment, planes and boats.
“So we’re reducing the rate on the things people own which help them create jobs,” interjected Commissioner David Gantt.
Although there was some further discussion of specific line items, it was clear from the outset that the commissioners had already reached agreement on expenditures and taxation, and the budget was unanimously approved.
After that, the zoning proposal was presented by Creighton, Planning Board Chair Bill Newman, Zoning Administrator Jim Coman and Meg Nealon of Land Design, the company that produced the county’s current land-use plan in 1998.
Newman read a letter to the commissioners from the Planning Board, which highlighted prospective changes. In response to a question from Chairman Nathan Ramsey, he explained that multifamily housing represented one of the biggest loopholes in current county land-use regulations.
State law prohibits treating condominiums as subdivisions, noted Coman, leaving the county powerless to prevent any kind of construction a developer might want to create. “For instance, at the Cliffside development in Mine Hole Gap — I think they’re doing a pretty good job, but they could build 80-story condos and there wouldn’t be a thing we can do about it.”
Nealon then gave a PowerPoint presentation, using a series of maps to show how the proposed zoning would affect different areas of the county. Land Design, she said, had identified a number of potential hubs where mixed-use development, both high- and low-density, could be encouraged. If the county used water- and sewer-line extensions and zoning to guide growth, said Nealon, it could reduce the amount of straight-line commercial development, which tends to clog major arteries with traffic.
When it came time to vote, Commissioners Gantt, David Young and Carol Peterson voted to adopt the land-use plan, with Ramsey and Bill Stanley opposed. The board then instructed the Planning Department to move ahead with planning, mapping and holding public hearings throughout the county, with an eye toward adopting specific zoning regulations later this year.
Reining cats and dogs
Assistant County Attorney Mike Frue presented three animal-related items, all of which were unanimously approved. Two of them — a new contract with Friends For Animals to operate the county’s animal shelter, and a memorandum of understanding concerning ownership of the property that will house a new shelter — passed with little comment. The third item, a revision of the animal-control ordinance, makes the Sheriff’s Department (rather than FFA) the designated enforcement agency and imposes new requirements for people keeping dangerous and mixed-breed animals, such as posting a bond, displaying warning signs and installing protective fencing. This applies to animals that meet certain specified criteria, such as wolf hybrids and those that have shown they’re a danger to other animals or the public. Fencing requirements are needed because there is no state-approved rabies vaccine for such hybrid-type animals, Frue explained.
“What about a pit bull?” asked Gantt. “Would it automatically qualify?”
“No. It would be on a case-by-case basis,” said Frue. “It doesn’t provide for designating a specific breed.” The new rule, he noted, also addresses problems resulting from the seizure of animals that have attacked people or other animals. “The new statute follows models from other cities and counties. It requires that the owner post bond and have a hearing or submit to forfeiture of the animal.”
The commissioners also approved a $414,527 appropriation from the fund balance to cover projected jail-related shortfalls in the Sheriff’s Department budget. The principal cause of the overrun was said to be the cost of housing prisoners in other counties when the number of inmates exceeded the facility’s legal capacity. Other contributing factors included increased food, utility and fuel expenses.