Board of Commissioners allocates $109,000 for farmland trust
It’s official: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has designated $109,000 as seed money for the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.
The money comes from the county’s recent sale of land along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the nonprofit Conservation Trust for North Carolina. “Give us a year to see if we can leverage additional funds with this $109,000,” said Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton at the board’s June 27 meeting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a matching-grant program for preserving farmland, and private foundations such as Janirve also regularly support such programs, noted Creighton.
In a farmland-preservation program, landowners give up the development rights to part of their land, usually in exchange for such incentives as tax benefits, Creighton explained.
Seed money and additional grants are needed to cover the costs of making such arrangements — such as survey costs and legal fees — said John Ager, a member of the county’s Farmland Preservation Board. “The conversion of our best farmland into residential uses continues at a pace that will transform Buncombe County, in short order, to an urban/suburban mix, connected by unsightly strips of sprawl. … We have outlined a careful approach to rating farmland, and for acquiring the development rights for property willingly offered by landowners, allowing them to continue the ownership and stewardship of their family land,” said Ager — who runs Fairview’s largest remaining apple producer, Hickory Nut Gap Farm.
Ager also presented commissioners with a proposed farmland-preservation ordinance, one that they and county staff will review in the coming weeks. The county also needs “incentives for developers to incorporate open spaces, including farmland, into their subdivision designs, much as golf courses have [done] in the past,” he argued.
Fellow Farmland Preservation Board member Charles Sevier mentioned that only seven N.C. counties have farmland-preservation policies in place (making them eligible for state funds). “Let us be the eighth. … Let’s keep [Buncombe County] green,” he implored, earning applause from preservation supporters in the audience.
Describing herself as “100-percent farmer,” Lucy Crowell urged commissioners to support the program. “Part of the charm of [Buncombe County] is its rural environment,” she observed. Crowell also mentioned that much of the farmland in the county is rented by farmers, making it especially vulnerable to development pressures. Construction of the new hotel at Biltmore Estate, for example, “squeezed us out of the land we rented for growing corn,” noted Crowell. A new school track in Enka also “used to be corn,” she added. Massachusetts and Connecticut set aside a large percentage of funds for farmland preservation, Crowell pointed out, adding: “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. … My husband says he’s lived in Buncombe [County] all his life, and he’s not going to be squeezed out.”
“I’m not saying I’d sell my development rights, but I’d consider it,” allowed Fairview resident Alan MacNair. He said he’d like to see at least part of his 105 acres preserved as farmland, “in perpetuity.” The mountaintop he owns is one of the few left undeveloped in Fairview — one, as he put it, “where you can’t see lights at night.” MacNair added that his brother had reminded him, “You really don’t own anything, because you can’t take it with you.”
On a motion by Commissioner Bill Stanley, seconded by Vice ChairPatsy Keever, the board voted 5-0 to set aside $109,000 for farmland-preservation projects.
For everyone, a home
As if inspired by their decision to fund farmland-preservation efforts, the Buncombe County Commissioners set aside another $109,000 for affordable-housing programs in the coming fiscal year.
This money, too, comes from the county’s sale of land along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. Said Commissioner David Gantt, “Every working person in Buncombe County should be able to buy a home, and that’s not the way it is now. … There’s a gap between the cost of homes [here] and people’s ability to afford them.”
Funding could be awarded to a nonprofit or private developer later this year — provided that it’s used for a program that aids low- and moderate-income residents, includes some form of repayment to create a revolving fund, and addresses affordable-housing needs in the county.
“The lack of public investment is a barrier to affordable housing,” Commissioner Stanley commented, mentioning the millions of dollars in federal moneys the county has directed to local housing programs.
Gantt made a motion that commissioners set aside the $109,000 for affordable housing. Seconded by Keever, the motion passed, 5-0.
2001 budget approved
Read Commissioner David Gantt‘s lips: No new taxes in Buncombe County’s 2001 budget (no tax increases, to be exact). And the county won’t have to appropriate as much money from its fund balance as was estimated a few weeks ago.
The sale of the old Biltmore School property has been pushed back at least 60 days (see below), which shuffles nearly $2 million into the revenue stream for 2001 (instead of fiscal year 2000, as was initially projected, had the Western North Carolina Historical Association been able to buy the building and land before July 1), County Manager Wanda Greene explained. The delayed sale means that commissioners must appropriate $5.18 million from the county’s fund balance, rather than almost $7 million, in order to balance the 2001 budget.
In response to recent public criticism of dipping into the fund balance, Greene showed graphs of previous years’ appropriations, remarking, “We’re budgeting about what we always [do] for designated funds [from the fund balance].” She emphasized that the county probably won’t spend all of the $5.18 million in the coming year. The Local Government Commission recommends that counties maintain at least 8 percent of their expected revenues in a fund-balance account; Buncombe County’s balance will be at about 14 percent at the end of this fiscal year, according to Greene.
That leaves the 2001 budget at $179,989,735. “So, we’re presenting a balanced budget; no tax increase,” noted Gantt.
On Commissioner David Young‘s motion to adopt the budget, seconded by Keever, the board approved it, unanimously.
But county watchdog Jerry Rice accused commissioners of a “fluffy” budget presentation, saying they were “stroking” themselves over it. “I’m going to stroke you the other way. I’m going to ruffle your feathers,” declared Rice. He charged that commissioners had dipped heavily into the fund balance in order to avoid a tax increase in an election year (all five commissioners are up for re-election this fall). “But you’re going to [have to] raise taxes next year,” Rice observed.
Commissioners did not respond to his comments.
Biltmore School sale delayed
The WNC Historical Association has 60 extra days to come up with the cash to buy the old Biltmore School on Hendersonville Road. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners gave the organization until the end of August to raise the $1.8 million needed to purchase the property.
To date, the association has less than $200,000 cash on hand, but it is awaiting decisions on an $800,000 Janirve Foundation grant and a $500,000 grant from the Save America’s Treasures program (a U.S. Department of the Interior project). “Do we have any hope that they’ll be able to [raise the money]?” Keever asked.
“‘Hope springs eternal,'” County Attorney Joe Connolly replied. “I wish them well … if there’s a way to save this historical site.”
Commissioner Stanley mentioned that a decision on the federal grant should come within the next few weeks.
The association has plans to turn the site — until recently, the home of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department — into a museum.
Commissioner Young, who had earlier remarked, “I want [the WNC Historical Association] to buy it,” made a motion to extend the purchase agreement 60 days. Seconded by Keever, his motion passed, 5-0.
Delayed benefits for new county employees
If you go to work for the county after Aug. 1, you won’t get health benefits for six months. As part of its consent agenda, the board voted to make this change to its benefits package.
Reported County Manager Greene, “We’re aware [this] will cause some recruitment problems, but [delaying the benefits package will give us] some ability to control costs.” New employees have traditionally been offered health benefits almost immediately, but pushing back eligibility until new employees complete a six-month probationary period could save the county nearly $1 million, Greene said.
Former county employee Don Yelton questioned placing the decision on the consent agenda and not explaining it, until he demanded figures on the projected savings during the June 27 pre-meeting. “You’re giving [current employees] a 6 percent raise, but you can’t afford to give health benefits [to new employees] for six months,” he emphasized.
Board Chairman Tom Sobol interjected that new county employees would be covered by COBRA, an interim insurance plan, until their Buncombe County coverage kicked in.
Commissioners made no other comments on the matter. After the meeting, Yelton emphasized that only new county employees who had left jobs that provided them with health benefits would be able to receive coverage through COBRA. Uninsured new hires wouldn’t be eligible for the program, and COBRA is often expensive, he pointed out.