Buncombe County Commission

The sound of whispered “Amens” filtered through the passionate, determined standing-room-only crowd in the commissioners’ chambers with a hushed, Sunday-morning fervor. Not surprisingly, the matter in question — a resolution to impose a moratorium on the licensing of adult-oriented businesses in Buncombe County — drew no opposition at the Aug. 18 meeting.

Angry pastors, concerned citizens, even a tearful teenager addressed the commissioners, asking them not only to impose the moratorium, but to craft the strictest ordinances possible to regulate the industry, before the moratorium expires.

Until this meeting, any adult business opening in Buncombe County had to pay a $1,000 licensing fee — twice the amount required by the city of Asheville. But because the original ordinance did not determine where these businesses might operate, citizens in the county have grown increasingly worried that such establishments might spring up near residential areas. While only three new adult businesses have been licensed in the county since commissioners adopted the ordinance in 1995, one business, Fantasy World, received its license this June and plans to open its doors in a Candler neighborhood, not far from a residential area — and a church.

The moratorium, which passed unanimously, will remain in effect until next Feb. 28. A new, tougher ordinance is expected by that date.

Among the residents requesting a moratorium were Pastor Jimmy Dykes, of the North Asheville Baptist Church, who is also a representative of the Council for Biblical Values. Dykes went further still, asking that the new ordinance be very bold, and that it ” … should be retroactive. [These businesses] should have to relocate away from churches and schools.”

Larry Riddle, a leader of the deacon board at Maple Ridge Baptist Church in Candler — which is located near Fantasy World’s proposed site — became emotional as he evoked the specter of some of “the most undesirable people” in the community patronizing the store, not far from an area where children play.

Enka High School Rachel West tearfully invited the commissioners to consider what Jesus would do if he were facing the situation in which the commissioners now found themselves.

And Candler resident Stan Taylor, a member of Maple Ridge Baptist Church, argued that any surrounding real estate will experience declining property values and an increasing crime rate. “This business is anti-scriptural, anti-familial, and anti-community,” he said.

One citizen urged the county to try a novel tactic: If the adult establishments cannot be regulated out of business, then the county should set the licensing fee so high that it would discourage such businesses.

Board Chair Tom Sobol assured everyone in avuncular tones that the ordinance will be “… as strict as humanly possible.”

Obviously frustrated that the commissioners hands were tied with regard to Fantasy World, Commissioner David Young asked County Attorney Joe Connolly if there is any way to prevent the business from opening.

“I don’t believe that there is,” Connolly replied, citing First Amendment rights. He said, however, that his office will look for a legal way to keep such businesses from opening — adding that without zoning laws, not much can be done.

Several commissioners also emphasized the role of zoning — or, more accurately, its lack — in allowing these businesses to proliferate near schools, churches and residential areas. Commissioner Bill Stanley was perhaps the most vocal in expressing his frustration at being caught between two unpleasantries — zoning and this type of unchecked growth. “The majority of people are against zoning,” he noted, “but that’s the toughness of this job.” He encouraged every concerned resident to attend and speak up at their respective community meetings that week about land-use planning.

Commissioner David Gantt was also outspoken. “We can put Band-Aids on this problem,” he asserted, “but without zoning, we can only put on another Band-Aid.”

Water Worries

In less emphatic matters, Bill Lapsley — of the engineering firm William G. Lapsley and Associates — reported on the Water and Sewer Feasibility Study for South Buncombe and North Henderson counties. Focusing primarily on planned expansions of the existing water and sewer systems, the study recommended that discussions begin between the two counties, to decide where and when the expansions should begin — and which organizations will have jurisdiction over them.

Because the area has seen an unusually robust population growth — 26.6 percent from 1980 to 1990, as compared to 12.7 percent for the state over the same time period — the water and sewer systems in Limestone, Avery’s Creek and Fairview townships in south Buncombe County, and Mills River, Hooper’s Creek and Hendersonville townships in Henderson County, are rapidly becoming overloaded. The issues of wastewater collection and treatment also need to be addressed, Lapsley said.

Grant opportunities available to the counties to offset this expensive project have decreased, he noted, partly because the population of the areas in question is not considered low-income.

“We have a problem,” Lapsley concluded. “It’ll cost a lot of money, and the two counties will have to work together to meet the growth.”

STEAM back in the black

Project STEAM was almost shut out of half its requested funding, until an enthusiastic commissioner intervened in its behalf. After county staff recommended that STEAM (Success Through Education and Motivation) receive just $7,500, Commissioner David Young stepped in, expressing his support for the program, which assists children with education, job training and literacy skills. He asked founder Christopher Tunstall just how far $7,500 would take the project.

That amount would last ” … six weeks, for operating services,” Tunstall replied.

Young moved that the entire $15,000 be awarded, calling STEAM a “worthwhile program.” Commissioner Stanley seconded.

Vice Chair Patsy Keever, however, remained unconvinced. “I’m an educator,” she allowed, “and I know how valuable these programs are.” But, she reminded the commissioners, the county is operating under an increasingly limited budget, and it needs to watch its balances.

The motion passed 4-1, with Keever opposing.

Eblen Foundation assisted

The Eblen Foundation Children’s Pharmacy, a program established last year to help children who need medication, requested $30,000 for “programming and administration.” Eblen Director Bill Murdock assured the commissioners that two-thirds of the funds would be used to buy medication, medical supplies and other medical aid, with the rest covering administrative costs. “We guarantee the lowest prices anywhere on medication,” Murdock declared. What’s more, the pharmacy has no stipulations about its clients’ income levels, he assured the commissioners, saying “this is not an indigent issue.”

Commissioner Gantt enthusiastically supported the program. “These people are doing this stuff privately,” he said, “taking care of the very people least likely to speak up for themselves — the children.”

He moved that the entire amount be granted. Young seconded, and the funding was unanimously approved.

Money, money, money

The commissioners also heard a report about the county’s investment portfolio. Investment Manager Matt Dotson-Smith described surprisingly robust earnings for the fiscal year 1997-’98 — up 30 percent, or almost $1 million, from the previous yeat, with the total coming in at $4.34 million. A Buncombe County Finance Department memorandum said the increase is “… the result of having more cash to invest throughout the year … and overall improvements in cash management put into place during FY ’97.”

“In 1996,” Dotson-Smith explained, “we became more aggressive in our investments.”

Placating the public?

In another of the meeting’s heated moments, Cynthia Edmonds, during the public-comment section, accused the commissioners of “placating the public” in connection with the list of bidders for the county’s annexation study, which she called “problematic.”

The charge did not sit well with Gantt, who sternly replied, “We don’t vote to placate the public. We vote to better Buncombe County and the people of Buncombe County. I’m sorry you said that.”

Chairman Sobol explained that the intent of the study was to measure the financial impacts of annexation. “We wanted to go into places where annexation was an issue,” Sobol said, “and tell people what to expect.”

Even the usually mild-mannered David Young scolded Edmonds, accusing her of making erroneous assumptions.

“All I’m saying is that this should be looked into,” Edmonds concluded. “There was no follow-up, and no follow-through,” she said.

Other county matters

County Solid Waste Director Bob Hunter reported that the low bid for the contract to open a new cell at the landfill should be disregarded. That bid, he explained, was the result of an error in calculation; the bidder has acknowledged the mistake and asked that the bid be withdrawn.

Commissioners voted to cancel that contract. The next-lowest bidder, Hunter noted, is the only bidder approved by the Minority Business Office.

Board appointments

Commissioners appointed Carl Osborne and David Hinson to the Nursing Home Board. Other board appointments expected at the meeting — for the Environmental Affairs Board, the Animal Control Appeals Board, and the Tourism Development Board — were delayed until the Sept. 1 meeting.

No change of address on Wentworth Avenue

Good news for the Wentworth Avenue residents: County Manager Wanda Greene announced that they can keep their present addresses. At the last commissioners’ meeting, several citizens expressed dismay that their residence numbers were slated to be changed, in order to make room for two new houses at the end of their street. The county, Greene said, will follow the residents’ recommendations.

Stanley wins election

Chairman Tom Sobol announced at the beginning of the meeting that Commissioner Bill Stanley had been elected vice president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and would become president in 1999, when the conference comes to Asheville.

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