Buncombe County Commissioners Oct. 4, 2011 meeting
- Residents question CTS demolition delay
- $476,000 allocated for affordable housing projects
Zoning is a relatively recent arrival in Buncombe County, having taken effect in 2009 after a series of reversals and legal battles had forced county staff to go back to the drawing board and re-implement it.
And on Oct. 4, the county saw one of its first notable zoning disputes. During the meeting, the Board of Commissioners considered long-in-the-works changes allowing vacation rentals in all zoning districts. The rules would allow vacation-home complexes containing three to 10 units in denser residential, commercial and open districts as a conditional use.
County staff said they’d crafted the changes in response to requests from vacation-rental owners whose property was grandfathered when zoning was implemented. Those owners, however, were concerned that their property’s current use was nonconforming. Staff added that they’d reviewed the proposed changes with real estate agents, hotel owners and other stakeholders. Local interest in vacation rentals has increased since the economic downturn, as owners have sought ways to generate income from vacant properties.
During the public hearing, opinion was divided. Proponents, particularly current vacation-home owners, said the rules were well-crafted and the move would prove an economic boon.
“I'd hope you'd lean upon the judgment of the Planning Board: They've spent a lot of time on this, and the rules are good ones,” real estate broker Andrew Brooks told the board. “Vacation rentals don't deteriorate property values: They bring people into this community that want to spend money.”
Mike Butrum, governmental affairs director at the Asheville Board of Realtors, also endorsed the measure. Citing figures from the Economic Development Coalition, he said the new rules would generate 570 jobs and $5.9 million in additional tax revenue per year, among other benefits.
“We need clarity, and this goes a long way towards that,” said Butrum. “Much of the enforcement will fall on our organization, to make sure vacation homes are good.”
But Joe Sechler, the only Planning Board member who’d voted against the measure, asserted that the process by which it was developed lacked transparency. He also maintained that the new rules would open the door to unwelcome commercial development.
“The proposal hasn't been developed totally in the sunlight: A small group of vacation-rental owners worked it through the Planning Board to the planning staff without citizens' knowledge,” he charged. “This proposal allows businesses to penetrate and violate the integrity of homogeneous neighborhoods and to further depreciate property values — the last thing we all need now.”
Earlier in the meeting, county staff had suggested that neighborhoods that didn't want vacation rentals could adopt restrictive covenants if they had a homeowners association.
When Chris Chiaromonte, a local street preacher, got up to speak, he wanted to use the fate of defunct public-access channel URTV as an analogy to the vacation-rental situation. But Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt wasn't having it, and Chiaromonte accused the board of violating his rights.
“Are you saying I don't have First Amendment rights here?” asked Chiaromonte.
“We're here to talk about vacation rentals,” responded Gantt.
Chiaromonte then asserted that no one actually owns property; rather, they “rent” it from the government by paying taxes. He added that state laws limiting rental home inspections could be reinterpreted to affect the county's new rules.
“I say shaft the legislation; give people the right to use the land as they see fit,” Chiaromonte declared. “You know what killed the Vikings? They ended up taking over the world, if you read history. It was civilization.”
Commissioner Holly Jones proposed allowing vacation complexes in open-use zoning areas without a conditional permit. No one seconded the motion, though Commissioner K. Ray Bailey instructed county staff to review the issue after the new rules took effect. Open-use areas are those where almost any type of development is allowed.
Despite the criticisms, the commissioners unanimously approved the new rules.
A lengthy and contentious public-comment period followed the conclusion of the board’s regular business.
First up was the Rev. Lisa Landis, speaking on behalf of the ongoing Occupy Asheville demonstrations. Eight people present relinquished their own chances to speak, enabling Landis to talk for 10 minutes as a group representative rather than the three minutes accorded individuals.
“I'm not willing to give up my constitutional rights, as I've been forced to do in this room,” Landis told the board. “Speaking of our Native Americans, when I was listening to the laws and rules and permits, it's like we took this land from the Native Americans and here we are telling people what they're allowed to do. Why don't we give the land back to the Native Americans, because isn't that kind of like Hitler did, come in and genocide? And a lot of it was all because of religion.”
Landis continued: “We are occupying Asheville, but a lot of it is because of corporate greed. Corporate greed instead of human need, and then we had a little bit about health care, and it's like why do we need health care if we didn't have the genetically modified food that caused the body to degrade?”
Her wide-ranging remarks touched on pollution, the economy, corruption in the justice system, the medical cannabis and industrial hemp industries, police corruption, public-access television, homelessness and energy, among other issues. All of these matters, she maintained, are related to Hopi prophecies and the Book of Revelation.
Eventually, Landis began reading the Occupy Asheville declaration: “A democratic government derives its just power from the people. But corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the earth, and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.”
But because she’d spent so much time on other issues, Landis couldn’t read the entire declaration. UNCA student Ann Marie Hornowski subsequently finished the job.
Meanwhile Chiaromonte, still incensed over not getting to talk about URTV during the earlier hearing, kept shouting “Heil Gantt!” and accused the board of being thin-skinned during his own public-comment remarks. While he was shouting and saluting, Commissioner Carol Peterson made a motion that Chiaromonte be dismissed, which Vice Chair Bill Stanley seconded.
“Do I not have a right to roast the commissioners for three minutes if I want?” countered Chiaromonte, proclaiming , “Defend the protesters. If you don't, kiss my royal butt!”
A matter of minutes
Candler resident Jerry Rice wanted to know why the minutes for the previous Board of Commissioners meeting (which Stanley had chaired) didn’t include a summation of the public comment. Rice asserted that Stanley, angry about criticisms of him voiced during that portion of the meeting, had “lambasted” Landis when she was speaking.
“I don't want to hear this,” Stanley interrupted. “If he's going to get personal, get him out of here.”
“I'm talking about the vice chair — if that's personal, he needs to resign from office,” Rice shot back. “We need to have order behind the desk as well as at the podium.”
Gantt said he wasn’t aware of any changes in the county's policy concerning meeting minutes, but County Manager Wanda Greene said she’d made an “administrative decision” to change the approach. School of Government guidelines, she explained, require minutes to note that public comment was held and to indicate who spoke — but not what they said.
With all deliberate speed
A group of neighbors of the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site asked the commissioners about delays in demolishing the vacant factory. The current owner, Mills Gap Road Associates, has appealed the county’s plan to tear down the decrepit structure.
“We are just now starting to make headway with the EPA and with the county,” noted resident Aaron Penland, asking the county to do a better job of keeping residents informed.
“You can imagine my devasation hearing work had stopped,” resident Leanne Smith told the board. “We are concerned our efforts trying to do what needs to be done move so slowly, yet efforts to stop it move so quickly and efficiently.”
County staff and commissioners were sympathetic, saying they’re ready to proceed with demolition as soon as the appeal is resolved.
“It is frustrating,” Gantt agreed. “We have to follow the law, or we'll have even more delays.”
“When we get that condemnation [finished], it's going down,” vowed Stanley.
On another front, the board approved allocating $476,000 in already-budgeted funds for various specific affordable-housing projects, including home rehabilitation, work on Mountain Housing Opportunities' Glen Rock Depot development, homelessness avoidance and housing vouchers.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.