With little fanfare, the Buncombe County commissioners voted unanimously to cancel Progress Energy’s long-term, dollar-per-year lease of river frontage in Woodfin. Approved Jan. 16, the deal sparked controversy because the low-cost lease on prime property specifically allowed the utility to use the land for any purpose it chose. (Although commissioners and county legal staff insisted last spring that the lease contained language that would automatically cancel the deal if Progress Energy failed to build a proposed power plant, the contract in fact contained no such provision, and a separate termination agreement was required. The power plant was effectively vetoed in April when the Woodfin Zoning Board of Adjustment declined to issue a conditional-use permit. And in a May 15 letter to the commissioners, Progress Energy stated that if “it is determined the we no longer need this property, we plan to release our legal right to [it].”
After the vote, Chairman Nathan Ramsey said the termination proved that the many community activists who’d criticized the open-ended lease agreement had been wrong.
The commissioners also amended the county’s animal-control ordinance including mandatory injection of ID chips into stray pets and modified its contract with the Asheville Humane Society, which runs the animal shelter. The county is also moving forward with plans for a new animal shelter (see sidebar, “Breaking Ground”).
Otherwise, the commissioners’ Sept. 18 meeting passed swiftly as they worked through a light agenda before proceeding to their planning retreat. The few votes cast were unanimous.
Acting Executive Director Dave Brown of the HUB Project reported on the group’s change of direction, which had been decided earlier that same day.
The commissioners adopted the group’s 17 strategic goals during their October 2005 retreat, instructing County Manager Wanda Greene to take whatever steps were necessary to move the project forward (see “Commissioners’ Retreat Covers Wide-Ranging Topics,” Oct. 12, 2005 Xpress). At the time, Greene said it would take two to three months to come up with an implementation plan.
According to Brown, however, the 3-year-old HUB board had decided that very morning that it needed to hire an independent consulting firm to “provide a strategy for collaboration among existing organizations.” Laughing, he said, “We did a terrific job coming up with a vision, but we didn’t do very well at initiating that vision.”
Brown’s message seemed to conflict with the one delivered by then HUB Director Dan Ray, at the commissioners’ 2005 retreat. Ray had said the project would not require any county funds, but in his update, Brown noted, “We’ll be coming back to you for more money.” He estimated the total cost of the “initial phase” of the work at $890,000.
In the past, HUB board members have stressed the importance of things like health initiatives, handmade crafts, a weather museum and, as Jack Cecil put it, building “communitywide collaborations that would bring about synergy capable of harnessing public-, private- and nonprofit-sector support to further implementation.”
Now, however, the group has changed its focus. “The first major project is a climate initiative [that would] take data from [the National Climatic Data Center] and push for integrated applications and entrepreneurial use of climate data,” Brown announced. The group, he said, hopes to garner substantial federal funding for the initiative, though he warned that other regions have a head start on Asheville—particularly Boulder, Colo., “which is already the climate capital.” Like Asheville, Boulder is home to a branch of the National Climatic Data Center.
Brown also told the commissioners they would need to “enforce collaboration,” noting, “You are the one group that is funding all of the agencies involved. You are the only group that they will listen to. They will not take painful actions unless they are pushed by the entity that funds them. I’m asking that you ensure that all of the entities that you fund are rowing together on this project.”
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Nathaniel Cannady and Tom Cathey (Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission); Sam Banks, Winakay Caffrey and Chuck Milner (Parks and Recreation Advisory Board).
The commissioners then moved to the training room at the Chamber of Commerce offices, just across town, for a retreat. Greene, the county manager, kicked off the discussion by reviewing the goals established in 2006 and reporting on the extent to which those issues have been addressed. The two outright failures, said Greene, involved the extension of water and sewer lines “to protect the water tables and ensure health standards are maintained” and resolving the ongoing water fight with the city of Asheville. Greene also cited a number of areas where she said the county has made progress: protecting ridge tops and steep slopes, addressing animal issues, improving the energy efficiency of county-owned buildings and vehicles, making health care more affordable, and addressing taxation and school issues.
A report on demographic data and projections included the perhaps surprising fact that population growth in Buncombe County has averaged just 1.3 percent over the past several decades.
Commissioners engaged in a brainstorming session concerning their priorities for the next 18 months. Although each commissioner pitched as many as a dozen ideas, these were their first choices: David Gantt—health care for every resident; David Young—greenways and bike paths; Carol Peterson—satellite county services; Bill Stanley—affordable housing; and Ramsey—work-force training that addresses the need for well-paying jobs. Staff will distill these ideals into goals for the next year-and-a-half.
On a more detail-oriented level, County Attorney Joe Connolly suggested a few procedural changes for Board of Commissioners meetings, and Gantt suggested that the meeting agendas be posted further in advance. Agendas are currently posted the Friday before a Tuesday session.
In addition, the commissioners discussed policy issues affecting the availability of affordable housing, including both past successes and failures and prospective projects. The Board of Commissioners’ next regular meeting is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 2, at 4:30 p.m.