Buncombe County Commission

“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” “Born in the USA” and other rousing music filled the plaza outside the Asheville Civic Center, during a lively show of dissent to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ proposed countywide zoning ordinance. The draft ordinance was the only agenda item at the commissioners’ Aug. 3 meeting.

“We had to have a little show out here,” said Fairview resident Nathan Ramsey of Citizens for Property Rights, as he turned up the volume on his CD player.

A vocal crowd of about 25 residents of Fairview, Barnardsville, Candler, Leicester and other Buncombe communities marched, single file, around and around inside a compact circle of orange traffic cones, waving small American flags and brandishing placards bearing anti-zoning slogans such as “Sham Vote! Banana Republic begins in Buncombe County” and “Zoning Grows Like Kudzu.”

Across the plaza, at least 10 Asheville police officers waited in the shade, sipping Coke, idling on benches or tending to the two horses resting in the shelter of the trees. Others were stationed at the back of the Civic Center, or inside with the several Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department personnel who guarded the doors. “Our goal is to keep everyone happy,” said Civic Center Assistant Manager Bill Borenstein amiably, helping County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman and Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes paste up placards that declared, “No Signs, Posters Or Weapons Allowed” on the doors to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

“There is no metal detector,” Coman said, acknowledging some general concern about safety among commissioners and staff as they prepared to present the controversial draft zoning ordinance to the public.

The low turnout for the meeting surprised some county staff, but not Coman, who remarked, “I really think the people who are against this don’t want to come and hear about it. They are dead-set against it. … No matter what we say, they are going to vote no.”

County staff, including Hughes and County Manager Wanda Greene, stood at the entrance doors distributing copies of the draft plan (5,000 were printed, “Twice as many as the auditorium will hold,” Coman noted).

Most of the estimated 150 county citizens who did take the time to attend the presentation expressed vehement objections to the zoning plan. Circumventing the restriction on placards in the auditorium, many — including Leicester resident Michelle Cox, the new chair of the Buncombe County Republican party — affixed bright red “No Zoning in Buncombe” bumper stickers to their clothing. Cox arrived with a sticker on the back of her blouse, but asked for help peeling it off before she entered the auditorium.

“I was the campaign director for the building fund at Trinity Baptist Church,” said Cox. “After we spent about $1 million on grading and demolition, [city officials] yank the permit. We’re stuck with a financial nightmare.”

Waiting in the air-conditioned lobby for the auditorium to open, Fairview resident (and U.S. Navy retiree) Peter Walker, who supports countywide zoning, says he has been researching the restrictive covenants placed on deeds in Fairview by private developers. These restrictions, he says, include, “no trailers, modular or mobile homes; no home businesses; minimum home square footage; prior approval of home-building plans by developer or property-owners’ association; and limits on the number, size and content of signs “

One Fairview developer using such restrictive covenants is “Roy Ramsey, father of Nathan Ramsey, an outspoken opponent of zoning and spokesperson for the Citizens for Property Rights,” Walker said later. “It appears to me a bit incongruous for a developer to impose restrictive covenants upon property he sells — covenants that are much more restrictive than anything contained in the draft Buncombe County Zoning Ordinance — and then oppose extending similar (but not as extensive) protections to us common slobs who don’t have the wealth necessary to purchase land [or] houses in very restrictive subdivisions.”

Walker expressed these concerns to commissioners during the public-comment portion of the meeting. This [restriction] is not done by the county commissioners, he said, “but by private developers who make a great deal of money selling lots.”

Dale Weiler and Ned Cabaniss of the Fairview Advisory Coalition also represented the pro-zoning faction. They leafleted arriving audience members with a flier requesting contributions for Citizens For Buncombe’s Future. The flier claimed to provide “The real truth about what the No-Zoners say.”

“The Real Truth is Simple,” the flier proclaimed: “Plan Now or Pay Later.”

“We believe in Smart Growth. We want to try to halt urban sprawl,” said Weiler. Cabaniss added, “We are trying to get people to sit down and talk and find common ground.” He noted that his organization’s mission is “to try and influence the shape of zoning in a way that would preserve scenic beauty.”

Commissioners on the hot seat

Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol opened the meeting at 6 p.m. Like the other commissioners seated at the brightly lit dais, he faced what seemed to be a mostly antagonistic assembly.

“We’re here because each one of you loves Buncombe County,” Sobol said. He outlined the “ground rules” for public comment and asked citizens to “come to the process with open minds and mutual respect.”

County Planning Director Jon Creighton, maintaining a calm demeanor throughout the meeting, explained that the draft ordinance was based on Limestone Township’s zoning ordinance, which has been in effect for 17 years. Responding to widespread concern about the fate of mobile homes on family property, Creighton told citizens that existing mobile homes would be grandfathered. “This is an important part we wanted to include in this ordinance,” he stressed.

Creighton also outlined the schedule for the 13 zoning workshops to be held throughout the county, to give residents a chance to review the proposed ordinance and zoning maps and discuss their particular concerns with planners. The maps and draft ordinance are available at all libraries, the county manager’s office, the county Planning Department and on the Internet, Creighton noted.

“For people to be educated, they need to have this information before the meetings,” one citizen complained. “People have a busy life,” she continued, asking that the draft ordinance be made available in local supermarkets, gas stations and other places where citizens usually go. Commissioner David Gantt suggested placing copies of the ordinance in local fire stations, as well.

Bradley W. Davis of Land Design Inc. reviewed the existing Comprehensive Land Use Plan adopted by commissioners in March 1999. The firm was paid $140,000 for that work, according to Sobol, and was hired again as consultant to the county to prepare the draft zoning ordinance. Davis explained that the purpose of the ordinance, as stated in the 34-page draft, is “to ensure orderly, and economically sound development, and to protect health, safety, and existing property values within Buncombe County.” Using a large-screen display prepared by the firm, Bradley and Creighton then outlined basic elements of the proposed ordinance, explaining the many abbreviations and symbols used on the accompanying maps.

Citizen comments

Despite Sobol’s ground rules, however, citizens addressed commissioners with angry comments, threats and accusations, setting a combative tone for the two-hour public-comment session. The few pro-zoning voices that were heard — such as one man who declared, “You can’t do with your land what you say you want. Wherever there is civilization, you are going to have restrictions” — were sometimes greeted with loud boos and jeers from opponents.

“Who do you trust — government, or the people?” Fairview resident Keith Gibbons asked rhetorically. He wanted guarantees that zoning would not grow.

“I can’t guarantee that,” responded Sobol. “This is not a UDO,” he continued, referring to the controversial Unified Development Ordinance adopted by the city of Asheville. “It was an unfortunate circumstance that happened to Trinity.”

A church is a church

One speaker, however, expressed concern that the ordinance isn’t strict enough. Scott Compton, who identified himself as an architect of Trinity Baptist’s building project, admonished commissioners, “I think you folks have gone too far the other direction.” Compton warned commissioners about the broad definition of “religious institution” in the draft ordinance, which allows “any and all related uses and structures as determined by the religious institution.”

“I could conduct services for Aphrodite or Bacchus and then open an adult bookstore on the premises,” said Compton. “A religious institution is open in any zone and can define itself,” he cautioned, urging, “Don’t overreact to the mistakes of UDO.”

Cabaniss of the Fairview Advisory Coalition spoke about the need to protect Fairview’s scenic beauty from unrestrained development along the Highway 74A corridor.

“What can we do to have this concern incorporated?” he asked.

Creighton acknowledged that the draft plan has no buffer zone for Highway 74A.

“We will take it under consideration,” said Creighton.

Mike Summey, who described himself as “one of the larger individual taxpayers in this county,” wanted to know, “What did this fancy presentation cost, in my tax dollars?” In vulgar terms (and to wild applause), Summey told the commissioners exactly what they could do with the draft ordinance.

“The freedoms we enjoy to control our property … I don’t want to give away,” he declared, cautioning Sobol not to leave “with the legacy of presiding over the most divisive issue in this county.”

Summey received no response to his query about costs — though when commissioners were asked again by another citizen, Sobol said the information would be available at the next zoning meeting. Sobol also attempted to reassure a skeptical audience, saying, “There is no forecast for increased staff [to implement] this zoning ordinance.”

Throughout the public hearing, Commissioner (and Limestone resident) David Gantt responded at length to citizen concerns, addressing his comments both to the speaker at the microphone and to the audience in general.

Speaking in support of countywide zoning, Gantt warned, “You can’t pick and choose people. You have to treat everybody the same. Without some type of plan, we have no say-so how this community is going to look for our children.”

“One thing we can guarantee,” continued Gantt: “This county is growing. The real question is, do we have something worth keeping?”

“We’re going to let the people we appoint to the Board of Adjustments settle disputes. We want it closer to the people.”

“I share your fears that we might go too far. Let’s get together as a community,” he pleaded. “Let mountain people decide how these mountains are to look.”

Gantt’s remarks prompted a Canton man to ask, “Do you know what the definition of ‘communist’ is? One who believes property ought to be under community control.”

Speaking in favor of zoning, Alan McNair said, “I agree communism doesn’t work; pure capitalism isn’t realistic, either.” He then commended commissioners for taking a stand that is “political suicide.”

“It is quite refreshing,” he added.

A bellicose Peter Dawes approached the microphone and shoved some papers toward Sobol’s face, in an effort to illustrate what Dawes believes is a selectively enforced requirement that requests for copies of public records must be made in writing. Sobol responded tersely, “We don’t need to get into the suits you and your partner have filed against the county.”

Dawes and Don Yelton of C&T News Service are persistent critics of county government. Their frequent demands for copies of public records, according to county staff, have taken quite a bit of staff time to fulfil. The two filed suit against the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in Superior Court on July 30, asking that the county “cease and desist” the limitations on their access to county records.

“We were singled out individually,” charged Dawes, while distributing T-shirts in exchange for donations to their “legal defense fund.”

“We cannot garner any information in Buncombe without permission, in writing, of [County Manager] Wanda Greene,” he continued.

“She has established herself as the keeper of all records in Buncombe County,” said Yelton. “We have been denied records at the law library, the Board of Education, EMS and other county departments,” he complained, adding, “They have hampered us as reporters with the C&T News Service.”

According to Zoning Director Coman, Greene issued a “directive to all department heads” not to release documents to Dawes and Yelton without written authorization.

Other commissioners speak

At the end of the public-comment session, Commissioner David Young, who had remained silent throughout most of the meeting, said: “We came up with and adopted a voluntary system with the [Comprehensive] Land Use Plan. We continue to be rated one of the top places in the Southeast to move. … I’m not in favor of this [zoning] plan,” he concluded.

Commissioner Bill Stanley, who has also come out against the draft plan, said: “I’ve been a property-rights person all my life. We ought to give the Land Use Plan time to work.”

Commissioner Patsy Keever, who said, “I do support some kind of plan,” was mostly concerned about the tone of a prior anti-zoning speaker who had told commissioners, “Buncombe County people are tired — tired of all the taxes.” This speaker had then warned commissioners to “get off our backs. … Sheriff Medford does not have enough men.”

“I am concerned about the attitude that has the mild threat of violence,” Keever declared. “To say that Sheriff Medford would not have enough men to take care of [the situation] is a wrong attitude to take. I don’t want children to see us behave in such an uncivilized manner.”

At that, an anti-zoning citizen rose to shout out his objection: “I am not uncivilized! I am not uncivilized!”

As orderly public comment resumed, a lifelong Buncombe resident spoke about the factory jobs that, for several generations, had allowed her family and friends “to put food on the table.”

“Now the rich people, the retirees, the very filthy rich come here and say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful place.’

“Our children’s jobs are service-type jobs,” she declared. “With all the [concern about] smog, the factories will be gone. …We’re going to end up a big retirement community for the filthy rich. Is this what we really want?”

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