Buncombe residents might as well have come bearing the banner “Don’t Tread on Me.” Outnumbering the half-dozen city residents who attended Asheville Council members’ Sept. 29 community meeting in Skyland, county residents made their position clear.
“I’m bitterly opposed to any annexation without a vote of the people being annexed,” declared Arden resident Gene Cline.
And Grant Wells Lane, who has lived in Arden for at least 30 years, urged Council, “Leave us alone — at least for a while.”
In response, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick laid out her argument: As “the hub of western North Carolina,” Asheville provides the entire region with jobs, entertainment, tourism, education, industry and more, she explained. But, to remain a vital urban center, the city must maintain its 200-year-old infrastructure and other services — and that means everyone must pay their fair share. “It’s up to all of us to support the hub,” said Sitnick.
“Are you proposing to put all [23 WNC counties] into the city limits?” countered Lane. To pay for city services county residents use — streets, buses, the Civic Center and whatnot — “We’ll send you a donation monthly, but don’t annex us. … If you put a toll gate at the city limits, I’ll be glad to pay it every time I come to town,” Lane suggested.
His remarks earned him the applause of the near-dozen county residents in attendance.
But then Council member Earl Cobb, Lane’s equal in pithy remarks, offered to “put it in perspective” for everyone. “Is it fair that those who work in the city but live in the county contribute nothing to the city?” he asked. Tourists and rural residents drive city streets, shop in city stores, and get police protection when they’re in town, but support the city only indirectly (a portion of county sales-tax and gasoline-tax revenues flows into city coffers). “It’s like someone living in your house but paying you nothing, although they use your facilities,” said Cobb.
He suggested several alternatives to annexation, all of which would require state legislative action: An additional room tax for hotel visitors; an income tax on those who work in the city but live outside it; or a one-cent increase in the sales tax.
Sitnick assured county residents that Council members don’t take annexation lightly. Calling it a hard decision, she repeated the city’s position that county residents should pay their share of infrastructure and service costs. Residents like Lane, for instance, pay the same water and sewer rates as city residents, although it generally costs more to extend and maintain lines beyond the city limits.
County residents listened politely, having heard it all before. City residents, on the other hand, applauded Sitnick’s assessment. And neither side lowered the flag.
The rocky road to annexation
Last year, Asheville City Council appeased annexation foes by promising to delay any action for a year or so. The self-imposed moratorium gave the city time to do what it usually does with any touchy topic: Study it.
Council members hired consultants Benchmark, Inc., paying them $45,000 to complete the job by late this fall.
Just how far along is the process now? At Council’s Sept. 29 community meeting in Skyland, that was the question posed by Buncombe County residents.
City Manager Jim Westbrook replied that Benchmark has completed the first phase of the study: They met with Council members earlier this year, briefing them on state annexation laws. The next step — identifying those urbanized areas abutting the city that may be densely populated enough to be annexed — is nearly done; later this fall, Council members will tour those areas, along with city staff and Benchmark consultants. Then comes determining which urbanized areas might get annexed first, and in what order, Westbrook explained.
That task may be completed by the end of the year, at the earliest, reported Interim Planning Director Doug Spells.
City officials have good reason to go slowly, making sure to dot their i’s and cross their t’s in the highly technical annexation process: One of the city’s most recent annexation attempts included a portion of the Skyland area — a move that Skyland residents fought in court in the 1980s … and won, when it was proven that the city had incorrectly calculated population densities there. CHECK DATE!
Ever tried to walk across Hendersonville Road?
Crowfields resident Ann Campbell might advise you to forget it and just get in your car, instead. “I’m beginning to feel like we’re entrapped. We can’t go across the road to a restaurant or the grocery store without encasing ourselves in two tons of steel,” Campbell told Asheville City Council members during a Sept. 29 community meeting in Skyland. She begged Council members to make the busy thoroughfare more pedestrian-friendly by reducing the 45-mph speed limit, adding sidewalks, and creating signaled crosswalks.
But since Hendersonville Road is considered a state highway, and therefore is maintained by the Department of Transportation, how can citizens get the speed limit reduced? Mayor Sitnick asked City Manager Westbrook what advice he could give Campbell.
Write or call the DOT, which has a regional office in Asheville, he replied.
Campbell also urged stricter enforcement of the city’s noise ordinance.
City staff noted that a joint staff/residents committee has been working to revise the current ordinance, particularly with regard to beefing up enforcement.
Campbell’s husband, Bob, joked, “I guess I have to endorse what my wife just said.” He added that Crowfields residents are proud to be in the city, and said he appreciates the city’s work on flood control and enforcement of the stormwater ordinance.
Other city residents, when invited to speak, professed that they were fairly happy with the city and had little to say — except for retired chemist and Air Force Col. M. H. Mixson. Speaking about the DOT’s plans to widen Interstate 240 in west Asheville and I-26 through town, this outspoken Ballantree resident remarked, “I wonder if you guys [on Council] could stop doing what we did in the service: Going along to get along.”
Mixson urged Council to fight the I-26 project, which will bring noise, traffic congestion and air pollution right through Asheville’s center, he insisted. With the Great Smoky Mountains National Park registering record ozone levels for more than 40 days this summer, “Everyone [should] recognize that this project is wrong for Asheville. … You’re going to have pollution that negates all the greenways [you’ve planned].”
As Council member Cobb has been doing for the past few months, Mixson urged Council to recommend “pushing that [highway] right out of town,” routing it through the Leicester-Erwin area.
Cobb gave him a chorus of support. “We don’t need an 8-lane [interstate] going through the center of Asheville, polluting the town. … It just makes sense to me to move the thing out of town — I don’t care where.”
But Mixson raised a little ire with his next comments: He urged Council and the press to lighten up on the Air Pollution Control Agency. Mixson said the APCA is doing a good job, and he downplayed complaints that the CP&L plant at Lake Julian has been blowing black soot on nearby residents.
“I’d like [Mixson] to come to my house and see that soot firsthand,” called out a man in the audience who lives near the plant.
“Oh, I’m invited?” Mixson replied, warming up to a debate — of any sort. On a different note, he also remarked that he, for one, is happy not to have a sidewalk in front of his home.
Mixson’s forthright approach drew out other speakers, who had been reluctant to address Council. One man said, “I’d give all City Council my vote right now, if they could enforce the noise ordinance.”
And to that, Arden resident Lane had the consummate retort: “The more city you got, the more problems you’re going to have. … We don’t have noise problems, out in the county.”