Buncombe County Commissioners

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners continued its hard slog through a pile of rezoning requests at its Sept. 4 meeting. This time, the board considered 11 such requests from property owners unhappy with the results of the zoning ordinance passed last spring.

Zoning rubber hits the road

by Cecil Bothwell

Cabin feever: Jim and Kelly Kelton’s dream of a vacation-rental business has run afoul of new county zoning regs.

When the Buncombe County commissioners approved countywide zoning earlier this year, they acknowledged that the move was only a beginning and that the new ordinance would require fine-tuning. One potential tuneup came before the board at its Sept. 4 meeting.

The proposal would have added a conditional-use category for land zoned R-LD (low-density residential). Aimed at “areas where topographic or other constraints preclude intense urban development,” the ordinance sets a minimum lot size of one acre, noting that such properties are unlikely to have public water-and-sewer services available. Designated on the county’s land-use plan as sensitive areas or open space, they are characterized by steep slopes, fragile soils and/or flooding.

Permitted uses on such properties include: single-family homes and mobiles, home businesses, outbuildings, utility stations/substations, bed-and-breakfasts or inns and cemeteries. Planned-unit developments, day nurseries, recreational facilities, radio and TV towers as well as water and sewer plants may be permitted as conditional uses. But rooming houses and vacation rentals are not allowed.

Beginning in 2000, Jim and Kelly Kelton acquired 21 acres in Starnes Cove, seeking to establish a vacation-rental business to generate retirement income. As of last May, when zoning took effect, the couple had three rental cabins and plans for several more. In the run-up to zoning, they became concerned about its impact on their plans and attended one of the county’s information meetings at Enka Middle School.

“I talked to [Zoning Administrator] Jim Coman at that meeting and asked if vacation rentals would be permitted in R-LD districts. He said, ‘Yes,’” Jim Kelton told Xpress.

When the final zoning rules excluded such use, Kelton complained to the county Planning Department, which drafted a proposed amendment that the Planning Board subsequently approved. That document came before the commissioners Sept. 4. However, after extended discussion, they turned down the proposal on a 3-2 vote, with Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Commissioner Bill Stanley in the minority.

During the discussion, Commissioner David Gantt asked Coman if the Planning Board had approved the proposed change. Coman inaccurately answered, “No.”

Asked if Coman’s mistake had affected his vote to block vacation-rental use, Gantt told Xpress: “Absolutely not. The concept of R-LD revolves around the desire of the [Board of Commissioners] to isolate steep slopes and ridge tops from the same general, run-of-the-mill development rules as [apply in] flatter and more accessible parts of the county. R-LD recognizes the unique topography of these critical areas. I do not intend to support any changes in the current zoning ordinance that increase the types or amount of development on environmentally sensitive areas of the county.”

Discussing that decision with Xpress, Kelly Kelton said: “It doesn’t make sense. We can build a huge B&B, and it would be legal. Our guests have less impact than full-time residents.”

Her husband added: “I figured this was my retirement. We’ve got all our eggs in this basket. Because we are paying for it as we can afford it, we have only gradually developed our property. If we’d come in here with lots of money, we could have built a dozen cabins years ago, and they would all be grandfathered. It doesn’t seem fair.”

At press time, Coman had not returned phone calls concerning the matter.


After weighing both the recommendations of county staff and the Planning Board’s opinion in each case, however, the commissioners approved only one—Greystone Properties’ request that two parcels in Ridgecrest be reclassified from R-2 to “public service,” a more liberal category that, in the words of Zoning Administrator Jim Coman, permits “a wide variety of commercial uses.”

“Have you gotten any objections from the neighborhood?” queried Commissioner David Gantt.

“No, sir, I haven’t heard a word,” said Coman.

During the public-comment period, Candler resident Jerry Rice urged the commissioners to take a considered approach to rezoning requests. Otherwise, he warned, the county “is going to look like a speckled hen.”

Among the requests that failed to gain approval was one from Starnes Cove property owner Jim Kelton (see sidebar, “Zoning Rubber Hits the Road”). He wanted the zoning ordinance amended to allow the construction of rooming houses and vacation rentals as a conditional use in areas classified R-LD (low-density residential), which are “deemed valuable for their scenic value and situated on slopes and fragile soils.”


“It seems to me that we’re making a big change for one person,” said Commissioner David Young. That view narrowly prevailed as the board upheld the Planning Board’s recommendation, rejecting Kelton’s request on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Gantt and Bill Stanley on the losing end.

In a related matter, the board approved an amendment to the zoning ordinance prohibiting the use of travel trailers as permanent residences but allowing them as temporary single-family homes. Chairman Nathan Ramsey was on the short end of the 4-1 vote, observing, “We had a neighbor who lived in a travel trailer for a very long time.”


Flood watchers

Mary Leonard White and James Fox of the Flood Damage Reduction Task Force gave a presentation on the group’s recommendations for upgrading the county’s ability to deal with the kind of major flooding experienced in September 2004 in connection with Hurricane Ivan. White pinpointed several areas where the county needs to do a better job of coordinating with the city of Asheville: installing and maintaining physical flood-control measures; educating area residents about flood hazards; improving city/county communications during crises; and amending the emergency-response capability.

Sleeping giant: In its report, the Flood Damage Reduction Task Force recommends an integrated strategy for dealing with flooding.

More than half of Asheville lies within the Swannanoa River watershed, which was hit hard in 2004, with flooding in much of Biltmore Village, south Asheville and points east. In order to mitigate the dangers of future flooding, said White, the task force recommends that no new construction be allowed in flood-prone areas. She also urged the county to allocate money to buy at-risk properties, which could be converted to green space or buffer zones.

“If we don’t look ahead, we’re making a big mistake,” said Gantt. “We’re going to end up paying if we don’t make some changes.”

White agreed, adding that the specter of future floods “haunts me.”

A brilliant strategy

General Services Director Greg Israel delivered a dose of good news as he took stock of the county’s ongoing energy-conservation efforts.

Since 1997, he noted, Buncombe County has replaced 1,000 conventional light fixtures in county buildings with compact fluorescents. To date, this has saved the county nearly $250,000, with continuing monthly savings of $2,400. “We’re trying to get completely away from incandescents,” said Israel.

The county is also switching to premium-rated electric motors in heating and air-conditioning units. Often using ceramic rather than metal bearings, they yield 8 percent energy savings, he said. Although they cost roughly 15 percent more per unit, Israel explained, the lower energy costs pay off over time. Other energy-saving strategies include more aggressive maintenance of the county’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units; replacing conventional roofing with reflective (light-colored) roofs; upgrading building insulation; switching to propane-powered lawnmowers; and computerizing the HVAC controls.

“In some buildings, we’re getting a 30 percent reduction in HVAC costs,” noted Israel.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort, though, is replacing the roughly 500 windows in the Buncombe County Courthouse. The ongoing is projected to cost $1.3 million, all told—which was the building’s original cost in 1923 dollars, noted Israel. He expects the thermal-pane windows to generate savings of 30 percent.

Winding down

The commissioners also unanimously appointed four members to the Weaverville Board of Adjustment: Wilma Carlisle, Jim Eaker, Zane Cole and Ann Franklin. At 6 p.m., the board went into closed session to consider a legal matter. Due to a scheduling conflict, the commissioners’ next meeting, on Tuesday, Sept. 18, will start at 3:30 p.m., with public comment beginning at 3 p.m.


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One thought on “Buncombe County Commissioners

  1. Nam Vet

    I am thankful that there are some on the county planning commission who stand up to over development Let’s not ruin our beloved Asheville area. Only allow development after very careful consideration and without ANY thought of future tax revenues.

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