- Board supports Craggy wilderness designation
- Grant funds sought to help low-income homeowners make repairs
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Sept. 21 meeting
Two conflicting trends — increasing urbanization and wilderness preservation — were evident during the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 21 meeting. A report underscoring the need for a more extensive mass-transit system shared agenda space with a resolution aimed at gaining permanent federal protection for the Craggy Wilderness Study Area in Pisgah National Forest.
Funded by the state Department of Transportation and conducted by HDR Engineering of the Carolinas, the Asheville/Buncombe/Henderson Regional Feasibility Study assessed current public-transit services in those areas while considering ways to better coordinate and consolidate them. About 12,000 commuters travel between Henderson and Buncombe counties daily, the report found.
"Individuals that are traveling don't pay much attention to political boundaries," Robert Bush of HDR Engineering explained. "They go where they need to go and work where they need to work and live where they choose to live."
He outlined a number of suggestions for improving service: hiring a regional mobility manager, establishing a regional transit council, marketing services jointly, coordinating routes and schedules more effectively, adopting common passenger and employee policies, instituting joint procurements and seeking dedicated funding sources.
Bush also touted the advantages of regionalizing transit services. "By creating a larger organization, you're able to realize greater economies of scale, you're able to implement technologies that require a big capital investment, and to ultimately provide better services to the general public — which is the whole reason for doing this," he explained.
Through most of the presentation, the commissioners listened intently, but some balked when Bush outlined potential funding sources for these initiatives, including levying an $8 bi-county tax on every registered vehicle.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable with each person that owns a car in Buncombe County being assessed eight more dollars unless I know this is something that everyone's in agreement with," said Commissioner Carol Peterson. "I feel very hesitant to say that I would [formally accept] this feasibility study; I've got too many questions. … How's it all going to be meshed together? Is the service going to be delivered to the people who need the service with the same value that they have now? Where's the money going to come from?"
Trying to address those concerns, Bush assured the commissioners that adopting the study wouldn't commit them to implementing any new funding sources. "Let me see if I can back up, perhaps, a bit," he said. "All we're recommending is that we start down the road to ultimately combine the city of Asheville and Buncombe County services and unify the organization structure probably four years from now."
But that wasn't enough to assuage some board members’ fears. "We just want to make sure we're not walking into something we don't know," noted Commissioner Holly Jones.
Commissioner K. Ray Bailey then proposed accepting the report on the condition that the board would not be required to follow any of its recommendations until county management discusses the plan with the other governmental agencies involved and reports back.
Bailey’s motion was approved 5-0.
"We have to think about the future. … But it's a matter of taking the steps in a way that everyone has a seat at the table," board Chair David Gantt observed as he cast his vote.
Wild and Craggy?
The commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution endorsing permanent federal protection for the Craggy Wilderness Study Area, a high-elevation, 2,380 acre tract that adjoins Blue Ridge Parkway land about 11 miles northeast of Asheville. Designated as a study area since 1987, it's been found to harbor a variety of rare plants and animals while serving as an important watershed and recreational site.
After approving the resolution, the board said the endorsement should be forwarded to Rep. Heath Shuler's office. Congress would have to act to make Craggy the county’s first designated wilderness area.
"This is really what we're all about," Peterson declared after the vote.
"Craggy is a special area," Gantt agreed, adding, "I certainly support it."
Not everyone present approved, however. During the public hearing on the matter, Don Yelton, who is second vice chair of the local Republican Party, warned that the designation could increase the risk of wildfires.
"That's a beautiful area, and I'm all for conservation. But when you leave it alone and you don't have forest roads in it and you get a fire, you know what you get? You get what you get in California or Utah, because you've got a lot of Btu there," said Yelton.
"So just keep that in mind when you put things aside and put fences around them and you say, 'We're going to leave it alone, and it's going to stay beautiful,' because that's impossible."
On other fronts, the commissioners also:
• Approved a grant application seeking $200,000 from the N.C. Division of Community Assistance to fund emergency home repairs for low-income residents;
• Approved a contract to hire American South General Contractors and Turner Construction Co. to oversee a planned addition to the county courthouse that’s been dubbed a “life-safety tower.”
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.