Buncombe Commissioners

  • Site problems could add $1 million to cost of new animal shelter
  • Fewer unwanted animals killed

Controversy over the Buncombe County commissioners’ approach to Planning Board appointments continued at the commissioners’ Sept. 2 meeting. Critics questioned both the makeup of the powerful board and the lack of transparency in how the appointments are being handled.

“Bring balance”: Al and Betty Gumpert, vocal critics of the county’s approach to appointing members to the Planning Board. Photo By Jonathan Welch

The commissioners disqualified nine of the original 21 applicants, based on an unwritten rule requiring that all school districts be represented. Before the meeting, the commissioners interviewed six of the remaining 12 applicants for four seats on the nine-member Planning Board. The four board members up for replacement have already served a second three-year term—the maximum number allowed—without ever having been formally reappointed (see “Changing of the Guard?” Aug. 27 Xpress).

The next day, however, Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes announced that another seat—currently held by landscape architect Jay Marino—may also become open. Activists, she said, had called attention to the fact that Marino has also been on the board since 2002. Marino’s seat represents the Asheville City District.

Meanwhile, some activists also say the board is tilted too heavily toward development interests at the expense of broader community concerns.

“Citizen groups such as the WNC Alliance, Mountain Voices Alliance and Friends of Town Mountain are advocating for a balance between development and community interests on the Planning Board,” Al Gumpert, president of the Friends of Town Mountain, said during the public-comment period before the formal meeting.

“Among the remaining 12 applicants are three or four real-estate agents, a developer, a contractor, a mortgage broker, a landscape architect and a construction executive. It would appear that the majority of the applicants, if appointed, would not bring balance to the Planning Board but would maintain the current bias toward development and have significant conflicts of interest. For example, a real-estate agent might approve a developer’s subdivision plan at a Monday Planning Board meeting and solicit that developer for a listing on Tuesday.”

Confusion about the rules governing the selection process also sparked criticism. Wondering why they’d been rejected, the disqualified applicants contacted county staff before the meeting and were told it was because they don’t live in the school districts—Erwin, Enka, Owen and Roberson—where the four members who are stepping down respectively reside. Although it’s not a written rule, the Planning Board has traditionally had one member from each of the county’s six school districts plus three at-large members.

Of the 12 remaining applicants, 11 had actually applied by district. The twelfth, Tom Alexander, was the only at-large applicant who was not disqualified. Instead, Alexander was allowed to remain under consideration for the Roberson district where he lives. Professionally, Alexander is in charge of business and development for Taylor & Murphy Construction Co. The board’s current chair, Bill Newman (one of the members being replaced), happens to be vice president of Taylor & Murphy.

“Is it just a coincidence the current Planning Board chairman works for the same company?” Gumpert asked the commissioners.

He also said he’d been unable to find any evidence of the rule about board members having to reside in certain districts. “That’s not a written policy—it’s not the county code. It seems like something you made up out of the blue,” asserted Gumpert.

“It wasn’t from out of the blue,” Commissioner David Young shot back. “When we first set up the Planning Board, that was our intent. Granted, we didn’t make it a formal policy because we wanted leeway; but by doing that we make sure, for example, that we have someone who understands the Erwin District. It seems to be good from a balance standpoint.”

The nine disqualified applicants are: former Biltmore Forest Mayor Ramona Rowe; Claudia Muse, director of the WNC Health Coalition; green builder Richard Soderquist; Dennis Michele, past president of the Asheville Civitan Club; retired builder Steve Norris; conservationist Barbara Clough; Joe Sechler, co-founder and former president of the Friends of Town Mountain; green engineer/landscape architect Tony Hauser; and attorney Stephen Lending.

If Marino’s seat is opened up, Sechler, Hauser, Lending and Soderquist would be eligible to apply for it, said Hughes. But she added that there was still some uncertainty about whether that would happen.

“The commissioners [could] decide to waive the two-term limit and allow him to continue to serve,” Hughes told Xpress. “It is their rule and they can do that. We haven’t advertised for that seat yet, but the board will probably announce that we’ll be interviewing for it soon.” The process, she admitted “is all a little confusing.”

The remaining four current members, all of whom were appointed in 2005 and are thus eligible for a second term, have indicated that they want to continue serving on the board and will most likely be reappointed by the commissioners, said Hughes. “They haven’t indicated that they want to open those seats up for interview,” she added.

The Planning Board has final approval over subdivisions and some other developments in the county. Its recommendations also carry weight on such important—and controversial—issues as rewriting development rules and interpreting them in connection with things like building on steep slopes.

The commissioners are expected to vote on the Planning Board appointments in early October.

Give ‘em shelter

Animals were the focus of much of the remainder of the meeting. A 40-minute presentation lauded the county’s efforts to eliminate the killing of healthy, unwanted animals by 2011 through the “Countdown to Zero” campaign, launched last year.

Lt. Helen Hall of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, who oversees the animal-control program, reported on the county’s partnership with the Asheville Humane Society (which runs the animal shelter) and the Humane Alliance (which oversees the spay-and-neuter program). Together, said Hall, they have improved coordination, found ways to offer low-cost spay-and-neutering services, and even placed reminders in property-tax bills that a county ordinance requires pets to be spayed or neutered.

Since 2003, when the county began efforts to address the problem, the number of animals euthanized in Buncombe County has declined from nearly 7,000 in 2003 to just under 5,000 during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the report.

Young complimented Hall, noting, “We used to get a lot of calls about animal-control issues—that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Later in the meeting, however, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton delivered the news that preliminary work on the new animal shelter on Brevard Road is behind schedule and over budget.

“We ran into problems with some unsuitable soil to support the retaining wall, so we had to bring in new soil [and] we had to build a larger wall,” Creighton explained. “The wall should have been finished by now, but we were delayed by some bad weather.”

All told, the delays and additional costs will boost the shelter’s price tag by an estimated $1 million, bringing the anticipated cost to just under $4 million.

“By the end of the month, we should have completed all the site work, and we can put the construction of the shelter out to bid on Oct. 1,” reported Creighton.

During the end-of-meeting public-comment period, animal-rights activist Stewart David praised the county’s efforts to keep the animal population in check, calling the tax-bill inserts “a giant step forward.” But he also challenged the optimistic assessment of the program’s success to date.

“I’m an accountant, so I just look at the numbers,” said David. “I just want you to realize that in the first fiscal year since Countdown to Zero was announced, 4,892 were euthanized, down from 4,974 the previous year. That’s a reduction of 82 animals, or 1.67 percent. The target date for Countdown to Zero is January 2012, but at this rate, it will take until 2068 for the killing to stop. I hope, at the next update, the positive message will be accompanied by some positive numbers. I think we tend to sugarcoat it a little bit.”



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