Buncombe County Commissioners

In an otherwise routine meeting on Aug. 21, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners heard from two descendants of local benefactor George Willis Pack. During public comment, both Barbara Pack Holcombe of Shallote, N.C., and Louise Pack Metcalf of Asheville raised questions about the county’s sale of public land to developer Stuart Coleman last November. In an all-but-unnoticed action, the commissioners sold a slice of parkland in front of the Asheville City Hall to the developer.

The Pack family’s possible involvement in the deal stems from a clause in a deed signed by George Pack on July 24, 1901, which stipulated that the land he was donating to the county for a courthouse and a park would forever remain public. “No part of said lands shall ever be sold or conveyed or rented or leased by said party of second part [Buncombe County] or its successors,” the deed states. In a subsequent clause, the deed states that if any of the terms of the conveyance are violated, the land will revert to Pack or his heirs.

Homemade

by Kent Priestley

Richard Sharp Smith was a decade into his architectural career when he moved from his native England to New York. In 1886 he went to work for high-society architect Richard Morris Hunt, who’d been hired to design a new house near Asheville. While Hunt remained in New York, Smith traveled south to become the point man for the construction of George Vanderbilt’s mountain mansion, Biltmore House.

This old house: The commissioners awarded an historic-property designation to the Richard Sharp Smith house, built circa 1902 in Chunn’s Cove.

Smith was evidently pretty good at what he did, because by the early 1890s, Vanderbilt had expanded the young architect’s role well beyond the estate’s grounds, asking him to design much of Biltmore Village; Smith also worked on assorted other structures around town. Throughout, Smith’s design preferences are on display: a classic English Arts-and-Crafts blend of stout timbers, brick, ponderous lintels and pebbledash exteriors.

But an architect also needs a home to call his own, and in the fall of 1902, Smith and his family secured a piece of property at the head of Chunns Cove with the purpose of building one. Today, the Smith House stands on 2.4 well-groomed acres. Built in the English cottage style, it features dry-stacked stone, leaded-glass windows and a brick chimney that would elicit an approving grunt from Henry VIII, if he were still around.

On Aug. 21, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners designated the Richard Sharp Smith House a local historic landmark, which will protect its architectural integrity over time and give its owners a measure of tax relief. A plaque for the building is forthcoming, says Buncombe County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman, the staff liaison to the Historic Resources Commission.

“Smith was incredibly prolific,” says Coman. “He designed and built most of Biltmore Village, as well as a lot of the big and beautiful houses in Montford.” Other Smith designs include the Young Men’s Institute, downtown, and the Masonic Hall at the corner of Woodfin and Broadway.

Some years ago, a stash of Smith’s architectural drawings inexplicably turned up in an orange crate in a barn in Gerton. “The owner called us and said, ‘Do you want these?’,” Coman recalls. “Of course, we said, ‘Oh yeah.’” A testament to Smith’s workaholic tendencies, the designs, done on fine linen paper, would “probably stand 4 feet high if you stacked them in a pile,” says Coman. Many were never built.

Under the new designation, changes to the Smith House will have to be approved by the Historic Resources Commission—a wise measure, Coman maintains, considering the structure’s ” impeccable workmanship.”

 

Holcombe told the commissioners that she was born and raised in Buncombe County and that she’d become alarmed about the property sale “because of an article I read in the Mountain Xpress” (see “We Screwed Up,” July 25). “All citizens, whether they are relatives or nonrelatives, should be concerned about this sale,” she declared. “The land was given by George Willis Pack for the use of the people.” Holcombe explained that she had only lately learned about the existence of a second deed, signed in December 1901. “I have heard that the second deed didn’t include the stipulations in the first deed, and I understand that that is the reason why the county commissioners could sell it.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Chairman Nathan Ramsey. “But it wasn’t the intent of the board members to sell parkland.”

The conveyance to Coleman, noted Holcombe, was via a nonwarranty deed. “I understand that a nonwarranty deed can be challenged,” she added.

County Attorney Joe Connolly asserted that the nature of the deed makes no difference. “The Board of Commissioners cannot void that deed,” he insisted.

Holcombe also said she’d learned that county officials had discussed the sale as far back as January of 2006. Public notice wasn’t given until last October, when a single classified ad reported that Coleman’s Black Dog Realty had submitted a bid on a parcel identified only as PIN 9649.19-50-0341. That was enough to satisfy the legal requirements.

Taking her turn at the lectern, Metcalf said, “I was wondering if any board members cared to look to see if any Pack family members were still in Buncombe County.” Ramsey replied that the recent contact initiated by the two women was the first time he’d been aware that Pack relatives still lived here. Metcalf then asked: “How would a high-rise benefit the citizens of Buncombe County? I think it should be left as a park.”

Ramsey replied: “Good, bad or indifferent, from a legal standpoint, Mr. Coleman owns the property. Our only option would be to go through condemnation proceedings.”

Commissioner David Gantt interjected: “Coleman already owned the Hayes & Hopson Building; he had a right to build anything on that property that he wanted to. We made a mistake, but we’re still going to have a world-class park. We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation.” Gantt added, “You know, he’s not going to build a building on two-tenths of an acre.”

After the meeting, Holcombe told Xpress that she would reserve further comment on the sale pending consultation with an attorney “tomorrow.”

Making history

The commissioners held a brief public hearing on a proposed historic-property designation for the Richard Sharp Smith House in Chunns Cove (see sidebar, “Homemade”). Zoning Administrator Jim Coman explained that any future changes to the house would have to be approved by the Historic Resources Commission. There was no public input, and the resolution was unanimously approved.

In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved a rate increase for GDS, which handles trash pickup and recycling in parts of the county. Representing the company, John O’Neal explained that increased costs, particularly for fuel and insurance, had prompted the request to raise its base charge from $13.50 to $14 per month. There was some discussion of boosting recycling in county offices and of the county schools’ successful efforts to recycle.

Gary Higgins, director of the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District, reported on his organization’s work with landowners and farmers over the past year, and Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone gave an overview of work-force development efforts in the county.

County asked to partner in affordable housing

A proposal by developer Rod Hubbard led to an extended discussion of affordable housing. Hubbard, who has already completed two such projects locally, wants to build a 300-unit affordable condominium project just outside the area currently served by the Metropolitan Sewerage District. A 7,000-foot sewer-line extension would be required, and he’s asking the county to help with the cost.

“The concept he has put together is good,” Planning Director Jon Creighton told the commissioners. “The problem we’ve got is that a lot of places that are good [for affordable housing] need sewer lines.” He continued, “The question is whether we want to run utilities into less developed areas.” As a quid pro quo for help, noted Creighton, the county could place restrictions on the deal, such as requiring that the units be sold only to full-time residents, requiring buyers to live in the units for at least five years, and/or prohibiting subleasing or multiple-unit ownership. Many other questions would also need to be addressed, said Creighton. “Where does the funding come from? Do we set aside money from tax rate? Do we implement fees? There’s a lot of ways to do that.”

Commissioner David Young said he would like to see a proposal from staff, and Creighton said they would present ideas at the commissioners’ Sept. 20 retreat.

MSD spokesman Tom Hardy noted that his office would be updating its master plan over the next nine months, saying, “We need to put prospective lines on the county master plan, and we are developing a plan for future easements.”

John Isgrig of Isgrig Mortgage Group, which works with Hubbard, told the commissioners that in Hubbard’s The Grove at Appeldoorn project, preconstruction prices started at $69,900 for a one-bedroom unit—well within most definitions of affordability.

Scott Dedman, executive director of Mountain Housing Opportunities, also spoke in support of the project. “About 70,000 people in Buncombe qualify as needing affordable housing,” he said, and rising housing costs are pushing people out of the county. In addition, noted Dedman, “The environmental impact of commuting out of county is large. At present, 26 percent of employees in the four surrounding counties are commuting outside their county, mostly to Asheville.” Reducing the number of commuters would have a long-term beneficial effect on air quality, he said. MHO is not involved in the project.

Other business

The commissioners also made the following appointments: Julie Herren, Bill Mance and David Price (Economic Development Commission); and George Lycan (Board of Adjustment).

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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