The Buncombe County Commissioners’ Sept. 15 meeting was brimming with conflict and drama, which sometimes threatened to overshadow the proceedings themselves. Late in the meeting, tempers flared as board member Arliss Queen of the WNC Air Pollution Control Agency questioned the commissioners’ denying any knowledge of why the city of Asheville was asked to withdraw from the embattled agency.
Referring to a May 5, 1998 City Council meeting during which County Manager Wanda Greene had asked the city to withdraw from the inter-local agreement that established the APCA, Queen asked Greene to come before the APCA board and explain why she had done so. (City Council members refused to honor the request.)
Greene replied that she had given an interview to Bob Gettys of the Mountain Sentinel and that, even though some of the information in Gettys’ story was wrong, Queen should obtain the tape of the interview and listen for himself.
Earlier in the meeting, swords were crossed over the question of spending $250,000 to repair and renovate McCormick Field, with the money coming from the interest on funds earmarked for future construction at A-B Tech. “This was a tough budget,” asserted Greene. “We had to work hard to find … $250,000. We had to dig pretty diligently.”
She reminded the board, however, that the county is legally bound to pay for the repairs. “We agreed we would provide a suitable [playing] field,” she noted, referring to the county’s contract with the Colorado Rockies.
In the first of several tense exchanges with the Board of Commissioners, Queen asked about the $3.1 million that had already been spent to renovate the field several years ago. “I wonder why this field was not fixed at that time,” he said.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Sobol replied that most of that money had been spent ” … on the stadium itself. It had nothing to do with the field.” As for the money that was earmarked for the field, Sobol speculated that either the contractor didn’t follow the specifications or that the commissioners hadn’t allocated enough money to do everything that should have been done.
Queen, who is also a member of the citizens’ watchdog group Taxpayers for Accountable Government, also took umbrage at the notion that taking $250,000 from the interest on funds already set aside would not hurt anybody. “It will hurt somebody — it will hurt the taxpayer,” he declared.
Sobol, though, maintained that there is “no negative impact. Our interest earnings on our investments have been substantially greater in the last three or four years. Just this past year alone, [the earnings were] in excess of a million dollars. There is no negative impact to the taxpayers as the result of having to repair this field.”
County resident Don Yelton, meanwhile, wondered aloud whether this sum of money would actually solve the problems with the playing field. “I want to know if this will make the maintenance on the field be less the next year,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. If a quarter of a million’s not enough, why play around? If you need more money, fix it once and for all.”
And Rachel Queen, the head of Taxpayers for Accountable Government, emphasized that the problems should have been handled sooner. “We have been hearing about drainage problems for some time now. I would hope that, when something like this happens in the future … we can get a handle on it a little quicker.”
But Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton defended the work of county staff, saying that the Recreation Services Department has “basically spent the least amount of money and time to keep the field serviceable.” He added that poor soil and the unusually dry weather are also partly responsible for the park’s patchy grass. “Our staff has worked real hard, but the field is primarily clay, and it’s very, very hard.”
Commissioner Bill Stanley moved that the entire amount be awarded. Vice Chair Patsy Keever seconded, and the motion passed unanimously.
The commissioners also discussed what to do about the proliferation of cellular-phone towers in the county. One possible solution was presented by Susan Rabold, a consultant from Metrosite Management. The Arkansas-based company advises municipalities on this problem.
“We come into jurisdictions — towns, villages, counties, cities — and we help identify what your public properties are,” she said. “We help to structure your zoning ordinances, or if you are a county that doesn’t have zoning, we help with an overlay zone, or a text amendment for a telecommunications section of your ordinance. Then we market the property to the carriers in your jurisdiction.”
Coordinating and marketing county properties, Rabold explained, should reduce the number of antennas — or cell sites — in the community.
“We have three goals,” she said: “To reduce the number of cell sites, to give this technology to the citizens, and to help you to generate some revenue by using your public sites.”
Carriers, she explained, try to build their systems where the traffic is. So they study state maps, paying special attention to population distribution and the locations of interstate highways and travel-and-tourism sites. Each company, however, generally wants its own towers. “If Carrier A builds a site,” noted Rabold, “then it will automatically not want its competitors on their site. Carriers get possessive of that site, due to the amount of money and work put into it. But by operating public property, you take that competition out, and you can allow as many carriers as can fit on your site.”
Metrosite Management, she explained, charges no money up-front to initiate this program; the company gets paid only when an actual lease with a carrier is signed. “In the last six months,” she reported, “we’ve generated over $2 million for the municipalities that we’ve worked with.”
In seeking optimal cell-tower sites, continued Rabold, the company considers “about 25 different possibilities of sights: 911 towers, fire stations, existing rooftops, ball parks, schools, solid waste-management facilities, landfills, animal shelters, impoundment lots.” And the towers themselves, she noted, can be made less conspicuous: “We incorporate a stealth design — don’t laugh, but towers can be built to look something like a tree.”
As if on cue, east Asheville resident Clarke Merrill then read a lengthy statement on her problems with an unwanted tower near her property, detailing a saga of inadequate notification, falling property values, corporate greed at the expense of individual landowners, and unsightly structures marring the landscape. “To landowners,” she read, “I implore you to be proactive. BellSouth is systematically placing these towers all along the I-40 and I-26 corridors. Take action, and enact specific zoning, place a restriction on the deed of all land sold, or set up a neighborhood covenant to ensure that placement of a tower does not ruin your property value.”
County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman addressed Merrill’s concerns, admitting that ” … there are a substantial number of limitations [on what] a county government can do about this problem without some type of zoning in place.”
Commissioner David Young commented that he thought “that work was not supposed to start until folks were notified.”
Coman agreed. “As far as as erecting a tower, that is correct. This particular contractor began clearing trees and building a road into the site before obtaining a permit. They didn’t have a permit to construct a site, but they’ve done no work whatsoever on the tower itself. That was just land-clearing activity.” It’s not uncommon for a developer to clear a site before obtaining a building permit, he explained, adding that many more towers will be coming our way. “Several major companies are about to enter this market.”
When Yelton asked about passing an ordinance requiring that all towers be concealed, Coman answered that such a law would make sense for an area with ” … very flat topography, that has a lot of tall structures — water towers, tall church steeples. But in here in Buncombe, county property tends to be in low-lying areas, areas that are not popular with these cell-tower companies. They don’t provide the best coverage.”
Coman wrapped up his comments by noting that the recent federal Telecommunications Act ” … effectively ties our hands [as to] what the board can do without zoning. It spells out, with very specific parameters, what a local government can include in tower regulation.”
During the meeting’s public-comment period, Rachel Queen asked the county to make public any written communication — letters, memos, e-mails — that has to do with the county’s failed attempt to convince the city to withdraw from the regional Air Pollution Control Agency. Greene and Sobol both agreed that whatever documents exist would be made available.
With tempers beginning to unravel, Arlis Queen jumped to another touchy topic, grilling commissioners about their previous “intercity visits” — notably, to Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. — and the lack of any reports afterward describing what they had learned. Queen’s comments came the day before Sobol, Gantt and Keever were scheduled to leave on another intercity visit — this one to Boise, Idaho, for two days.
Sobol replied that commissioners had often been guests of private foundations, at no cost to private citizens. “Nobody asked us for a report,” he added.
Gantt pointed out that, ” … any trip I’ve been on, sometimes they lead to ideas and sometimes they don’t.”
Sobol, obviously irritated, then asked Mr. Queen if he ever had anything positive to say about the Board. This prompted Ms. Queen to stand up from the back of the room and say, “That’s harassment, Mr. Sobol.”
As the atmosphere grew still more tense, Keever made her position clear, saying, ” … public citizens have a right to speak their minds, but I’ve heard people trash our county manager over and over, and I want everyone to know that Wanda Greene does a good job.”
Rachel Queen replied from the back of the chamber that ” … we are not trashing anyone. We are asking questions to know what’s going on with your [intercity] trips.” She then demanded an apology from Sobol.
Sobol allowed that if he had done something wrong, he would apologize for it, but he failed to see what that was.
Money is good; more money is better
During the county manager’s report, Greene outlined the Economic Development Commission’s strategy for bringing new businesses to Buncombe County. “We’ve had a very good relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and the city of Asheville,” she said. “We’re always interested in bringing as much business as we can to this county, in raising wages and the tax base of Buncombe County.”
For every dollar invested between July 1995 and June 1998, Greene explained, the county’s tax base has grown more than $34. “We’ve been really aggressive about trying to get businesses to come to our county, sitting down with them and being very diligent about getting them into our area. But we recently lost a very large [prospective] company [with] 500 employees. The company ended up going to the state of Virginia” — a state that, Greene said, is being extremely aggressive in its attempts to recruit businesses.
“For a long time, South Carolina was very aggressive,” she added, “but I’d say in the last four or five months, Virginia is being more aggressive.” She wrapped up her presentation by saying, “we’re very open to suggestions about how to be more aggressive”
“On a scale of one to 10,” Gantt asked, “how would you rate the efforts of Asheville to land new businesses?”
“I would put us very high up the scale,” Greene replied.
Greene distributed a hand-out detailing how average annual wages in Asheville have risen, from $21,647 in 1992 to $25,845 in 1997.
Commissioners appointed Bonnie Love to the Minority Affairs Board.