The dreaded “z-word” reared its head in a public debate at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners July 7 meeting. The lengthy debate was supposed to be about the procedure for establishing a community council, a kind of forum for determining and representing residents’ concerns. But much of the discussion centered on many residents’ fears that creating such a council leads directly to zoning.
Like opponents in a high-stakes pingpong match, residents traded turns at the mike for nearly two hours, supporting or condemning current community-council policy and arguing the pros and cons of zoning.
“I do not have any problem with a community council, if that’s what my community wants,” said Ann Worley of Reynolds, where an effort to establish a council is under way. But Worley and others do have a problem with the way those councils are formed — and with what they might lead to.
Commissioners established a community-planning program in 1979. “The main purposes of this program are to organize the community, produce community-wide agreements on the major issues, and to provide an orderly forum for the expression of community opinions,” states the introduction of the resolution that established the program.
Under the program, communities can form their own councils — community “nerve centers” where people can take their complaints and suggestions. The councils, in turn, can present these concerns to the county commissioners.
“A community council is not a governing body, but a catalyst for community action,” reads the introduction.
“There’s not any power provided to the community council,” explained Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton at the meeting. “The whole objective is, basically, to have a planning unit within the community.”
But the councils apparently do have the power to hold a vote on whether to establish zoning in their communities — which may have something to do with some residents’ concerns.
Buncombe County currently has three such councils, representing the Beaverdam, Flat Creek and Limestone communities. Each has held a vote to determine whether or not to establish zoning.
The councils in Beaverdam and Limestone held their votes in the early ’80s — with no help from the Board of Elections.
Both communities voted in favor of zoning. Today, these are the only two unincorporated areas of the county that have zoning.
In the late ’80s, the Flat Creek Council also held a vote on zoning, with the assistance of the Board of Elections. Residents voted zoning down.
Another community council, in Fairview, dissolved itself in 1984, after intense controversy about whether the community was on the road to zoning. The Reynolds community is sandwiched between Asheville and the Fairview Township boundary.
“I think there’s a fear here that these councils lead to zoning. And in three out of four cases, it has,” acknowledged Creighton.
Perhaps it was that statistic that prompted Worley to prophesy that, “Zoning is coming.”
Calling zoning and land-use planning “bad words,” Worley charged that the county commissioners want zoning, but are afraid to impose it on the county. Helping communities form councils is their back-door way of getting what it wants, she reasoned.
Commissioners have repeatedly confirmed that any decisions on zoning will be left up to individual communities. “If any township in this county wants zoning, you can have it. If you don’t want it, you’re not going to have it,” declared Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol at the July 7 meeting.
Currently, a community forms a council by getting 20 percent of that community’s registered voters to sign a petition, which is then presented to the county commissioners. The Board of Elections verifies the signatures, and a council is born.
Councils may contain up to 15 members. Commissioners appoint up to seven of them, and the community elects up to eight more at the first council meeting.
The Buncombe County Board of Elections has verified that the Reynolds petition drive in the Reynolds District garnered signatures from 25 percent of the community’s voters, according to Director Trena Parker.
Many who spoke at the meeting objected to the whole idea of using petitions to form a council.
“I really feel that a 20 percent minority should not be able to establish a quasi-governmental board,” declared Frank Clark of Riceville. He and others advocated that the decision to form a council be based on a popular vote.
Twenty percent of the registered voters doesn’t even equal one-fifth of a community’s population, noted Worley’s friend Jean Sales. “That means four-fifths have no idea what’s even going on,” she pointed out.
Others, however, argued that the possibility of a majority of community members being left in the dark about what’s going on right in their own backyards is precisely why community councils are so important.
“It’s too easy to sit back and say, ‘Nobody told me.’ If you go to your community council meeting, you’ll be told,” said one man.
Stephanie Wilds of Ridgecrest spoke in support of the petition system. The councils, she said, exist so that people can ask questions; it’s still up to the full voting public to decide how to answer them. “There’s no harm in asking the question, ‘Do we want zoning?'” she asserted.
“Nobody likes zoning, until they put a cellular tower next to your house,” argued Don Fauble, current chair of the Limestone Community Council. He ticked off a list of his council’s accomplishments: zoning, improved roads and a fully staffed EMS station (in Skyland). The council also serves as a focal point for the anti-annexation movement, he said.
Some in the crowd charged that they had been misled during the Reynolds petition drive.
One man asked that his name and those of 36 others whom he had recruited to sign the petition be removed from it. He had thought he was getting signatures to call for a vote on whether to form a council, he explained.
Speaking near the end of the hearing, Riceville resident Cynthia Edmonds called the entire discussion “confused.”
“In this county, if people don’t want to deal with something, that word [zoning] often comes up,” she observed.
Conceding that the policy on community councils might need adjusting, she urged county residents, “don’t hide behind the issue of zoning.”
Commissioners took no action on the matter. But Sobol said they realize that they need to look into how communities form their councils and will discuss the issue at upcoming meetings.