Buncombe County Commission

Buncombe County voters will face a weighty question on Nov. 2: “Should the Board of Commissioners for the County of Buncombe enact zoning regulations governing the use of real property throughout the unincorporated areas of Buncombe County in accordance with the grant of power from the State of North Carolina as set forth in General Statutes Section 153-A340?”

During a brief Aug. 31 meeting, the Buncombe County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the wording of the question and to instruct the Board of Elections to conduct an “advisory countywide referendum.”

Zoning opponent Gerald Dean wanted to know what board Chairman Tom Sobol would do if 70 or 80 percent of the voters said no to zoning. Sobol admitted to feeling “a high degree of reluctance” to vote for zoning, if that high a percentage of county residents opposed it in the nonbinding referendum. “It sounds good to hear that from you, Tom,” responded Dean.

After the commissioners had set the date for the referendum, Patsy Keever remarked that, under state law, any political-action committee “that may want to influence the vote” would have to register with the Board of Elections within the next 10 days. In a complaint to the Board of Elections, Citizens for Property Rights (an anti-zoning group) had alleged that Citizens For Buncombe’s Future (a pro-zoning group) had been raising funds illegally, because it had failed to register within 10 days of July 19, when the General Assembly passed a bill authorizing a nonbinding zoning referendum for Buncombe. Keever’s statement backed up zoning advocates’ assertion that the 10-day requirement wouldn’t take effect until the commissioners had set the date for the referendum.

Meals for kids in Pisgah View

Minnie Jones, a 30-year resident of Asheville’s Pisgah View community, enlisted the help of County Attorney Joe Connolly and General Services Director Bob Hunter as she made her presentation on the Minnie Jones Family Health Center’s summer youth program. The county officials held up two large display boards showing photos of the many children who took part in the program. “A lot of those children would not have had a meal had it not been for the people who cared,” declared Jones, adding, “I work nine weeks every year, for free, as my contribution to feed the poor.”

The hot, nutritional meals, purchased from the Mission-St. Joseph’s Health System, provide continued nutritional support to those children who depend on the free lunches offered during the school year, said Carlos Gomez, executive director (and co-founder, with Jones) of the WNC Community Health Services. That’s the parent agency for the health center at Pisgah View Apartments, the largest public-housing development in the county. In a telephone interview, Gomez said the center provides free, walk-in services to Pisgah View residents and other low-income people, with support from the county’s Indigent Health Care fund. Speaking after the meeting, Jones said she originally came to Buncombe County “to make a difference.

“I was the first black person to live in the Pisgah View Apartments. I came here 30 years ago to integrate them.”

Landfill wins again

Hunter had more good news to share about the county landfill. “Two weeks ago we received the Gold Award,” he reminded commissioners. “Now we have received the Bronze Award for all of North America, including Canada and Mexico,” he added. On hearing about the award, Sobol remarked, “Asheville is the third-best landfill on the entire North American continent.”

More parking, but not enough perking

Representatives of various federal, state and county agricultural-service agencies were present as commissioners voted unanimously to acquire and renovate the ReMax building at 94 Coxe Ave. The move will allow the scattered agencies to relocate under one roof, with additional office space and parking.

Five vacant lots in the Fox Run subdivision (across from Fairview Elementary School) will be auctioned off at a starting bid of $5,203.03, commissioners decided. No bids were submitted when the Tax Office tried to sell the properties on the courthouse steps, and no neighbors in the subdivision had expressed an interest in the mostly noncontiguous lots, county staff reported. The problem, explained clerk Kathy Hughes, has been that the lots, although valued by the county at $56,100, were not deemed buildable, because the Health Department’s Environmental Health Division had determined in the late ’80s that the soil would not “perk” (support a septic tank). But the division has since advised the county that, thanks to new septic-tank technology, the lots could be buildable. Before the commissioners’ unanimous vote to set the minimum bid, Keever asked whether the lots could “become neighborhood parks and stay green.” “There is no zoning,” Hughes replied. The buyers, he said, can do whatever they want with them.

Board appointments

Commissioners unanimously appointed Stephanie Coleman of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation and Grace Dorn of the NAACP to serve on the Minority Business Commission. James Jeeter was named to serve on the Downtown Commission. During the agenda-review meeting in the commissioners’ office, Sobol announced that his term on the Regional Water Authority board, which oversees a $20 million budget, will soon expire. Keever said it would be “a waste of experience and knowledge” not to have an experienced commissioner on the Water Authority. No action was taken, however.

Consent agenda and proclamations

Commissioners approved the following consent-agenda items:

• Salary increases for county dental hygienists I and II and a dental assistant. The raises were requested because of “recruitment difficulties,” according to a memo to commissioners from Health Director George F. Bond Jr.

• New positions at the county Health Department, to be funded by grant monies or by additional revenues resulting from the positions.

• Clerical support for the early-childhood dental initiative targeting preschool children in licensed day-care and family-care homes in Buncombe County.

• A resolution setting a Sept. 21 public hearing to consider renaming State Road 3437 as Lake Drive.

• A resolution authorizing the county manager to contract with Court Architectural group to build a new swimming pool in the Owen District, at a cost of up to $66,100.

• Adoption of a $10,000 budget for advertising and other costs associated with the county schools bond referendum.

• Establishing an education assistant position at the WNC Nature Center, wholly funded by the State Grassroots Science Museum Initiative.

• Various budget amendments.

• A petition to the N.C. DOT for a road addition in Mount Carmel Estates.

• A proclamation declaring September as Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College Month, and commending the college for “raising the quality of life for the citizens of Western North Carolina for 40 years.”

Commissioners then went into closed session to discuss two matters, including the recent court judgment declaring the county’s “multiple information request” policy invalid (see box). No action was taken, according to Attorney Connolly.

Reporters overturn county policy

Investigative reporters Peter Dawes, James (Don) Yelton and Mike Morgan, representing C&T News Service, achieved a significant victory when Superior Court Judge Loto Caviness signed a judgment Sept. 1 declaring the county’s “multiple information request” policy to be “null and void” as applied to these three longtime critics of county government. The men have been persistent in scrutinizing public records and government policy and insistent in their demands for access to records. Over time, a battle of wills seemed to develop between county officials and the three reporters.

After County Manager Wanda Greene decreed that all requests from the three men for access to public information must be submitted through her, they filed suit against Greene and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on July 30, charging that the county had violated the state’s Public Records Law. In her decision, Judge Caviness ruled that the term “custodian of public records” in the NC General Statutes Sec. 132-6(a) “refers to the individual who in fact has possession of records, and not to the County Manager.” The judgment also specified that Buncombe County may require the men to submit requests for “voluminous information” in writing, to the appropriate custodians of public records. “This is a lot of work just to get information that we’re all entitled to,” commented Buncombe native Morgan. And attorney Tom Roberts, who represented the three plaintiffs, said: “I’m pleased with the decision. The judge did not allow the order to reflect any findings of misconduct.”

In the Aug. 18 hearing, County Attorney Connolly had introduced affidavits alleging that Dawes and Yelton had seemed “threatening” to county employees. Robinson had objected, calling the affidavits hearsay. “The county lobbied hard with the judge on that,” Robinson said later. Assistant County Attorney Stan Clontz said he did not know if the county would appeal the judgment.

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