Buncombe’s battle

Pickup trucks were already starting to trickle into the North Buncombe High School parking lot by 7 p.m. on July 15. Most of them sported the now-familiar red “No Zoning” bumper stickers. A lot of folks wore coveralls. The auditorium was nearly filled by the roughly 160 people on hand for a meeting held by Citizens for Property Rights, an anti-zoning group headed by local farmer Nathan Ramsey. It was one of a series of rallies held around the county last summer by opponents of the county’s zoning proposal. (A nonbinding vote on countywide zoning is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 2.)

It was clearly a rural crowd that night. Anti-zoning and anti-government sentiment seemed to go hand in hand. Fears of a countywide ban on mobile homes and a general loss of property rights segued into broader concerns about religious oppression, the specter of gay marches, ethnic cleansing and communism’s grip on Buncombe.

Asheville attorney Albert Sneed, a prominent advocate of free-market growth, proclaimed: “The little guy’s doing pretty well for himself now. He’ll be the immediate victim under zoning.” Sneed questioned the wisdom of the county’s increasingly tourism-based economy, which he feels is out of balance: “Aspen and Hilton Head are not healthy communities. They are artists’ retreats — not healthy places to live and raise a family,” he declared. Another speaker, manufactured-housing salesman Jerry Soesbee, cited a 1997 study done in Greenville, N.C., which he said had concluded that mobile homes do not lower property values. He also took a jab at wealthy people, whom he said might dislike mobiles: “There are those who are moving here to change things. You don’t move here from somewhere else unless you like it — not to change things. A guy came here from Chicago and said zoning was a thing to be admired. … Well, he can bust his buns back up there, then.” The audience applauded loudly, with lots of phrases such as “That’s right!” thrown in.

At that point, a man in the audience stood up, and everyone quieted down. He said: “Go home and get your dictionaries out. Then look up the word ‘communism,'” and sat down, without another word. After that, Soesbee concluded his remarks with a story about Noah telling God that he couldn’t build the Ark, because he needed too many permits from town zoning officials.

Next up was the Rev. Jimmy Dykes, pastor of the North Asheville Baptist Church and chairman of the Community Council for Biblical Values. Dykes cited the controversial Trinity Church expansion in Asheville, which pitted neighborhood residents and city officials against parishioners, as an example of zoning-induced tyranny. (After a bitter fight, the city approved the Trinity expansion as a conditional use; the Carrier Heights neighborhood has two legal actions pending against the city in Superior Court.) Countywide zoning, argued Dykes, could create similar problems: “They’re going to take away our right to worship as we wish, and that’s a God-given right!” he declaimed, as the audience cheered. (Note: The draft ordinance allows religious institutions in all zoned areas — see “In plain English” sidebar).

After three hours, the meeting adjourned, amid more yelling and vivid comments from the audience about the sanctity of property rights and the dangers of trusting politicians. Afterward, a man who asked not to be identified questioned Dykes’ opposition to zoning, noting that churches, themselves, are using zoning to try to regulate adult establishments out of business.

A long and stormy history

For complex reasons, hostility to zoning — and to any form of government regulation of land use — has a lengthy history, here in the mountains.

Previous attempts to institute zoning in Buncombe have had mixed results. A 1976 push for countywide zoning aroused much public resistance and fell flat after new, anti-zoning commissioners took office. In 1979, Limestone Township residents concerned about a junkyard (see Limestone Box) worked with the Board of Commissioners to authorize community councils that could establish local (not countywide) zoning, with commissioners’ approval. Community councils in both Limestone and Beaverdam (which is part of Asheville Township) did pass local zoning around that time, apparently without major fallout. Some years later, local developer Roy Ramsey (Nathan Ramsey’s father) was involved in a successful push to get the Fairview Community Council abolished, according to several sources.

During the ’90s, development pressures mounted. The widening of Hwy. 74 began in Fairview, the Reynolds community unsuccessfully sought local zoning, and Weaverville began annexing land in desirable Reems Creek. These developments — plus frustration over after-the-fact, case-by-case fixes fashioned by the commissioners, in an attempt to deal with land-use problems — helped spawn the current zoning furor.

Last March — after a year of hard work by the county’s Land-Use Plan Commission, and many public hearings, commissioners unanimously adopted the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan, as a more acceptable alternative to zoning. The plan uses incentives to try to guide county growth, rather than regulations. Now, however, three commissioners — David Gantt, Patsy Keever and Tom Sobol — have changed their minds about zoning, infuriating some county residents. Meanwhile, commissioners Bill Stanley and David Young say they feel the plan is being summarily and unnecessarily discarded.

Buncombe County Zoning Administrator Jim Coman is the official who would administer any future county zoning ordinance. He describes the proposed Buncombe zoning plan as lenient, saying much anti-zoning rhetoric relies on “hot-button issues” that have little to do with zoning. He also disputes some of the major points raised by zoning opponents: “[The zoning plan] allows mobile homes virtually everywhere. The county has held the line on taxes six years in a row, so there’s no basis in fact that taxes will go up; 86 percent of the area will be rural use for farmers; there are no church regulations, and farmers can divide their land when they retire.”

Coman also notes that about a third of Buncombe County is already zoned — a fact many county residents may not even realize. Buncombe’s six municipalities (Woodfin, Weaverville, Asheville, Montreat, Black Mountain and Biltmore Forest) are all zoned, and other areas are restricted, to varying degrees, by state and federal regulations. “Asheville’s zoning is too restrictive,” declares Coman, asserting that the county plan would be more like Limestone’s (see Limestone box).

And, whichever way the November vote goes, the ultimate decision still lies in the county commissioners’ hands. There has never been a binding referendum on zoning in North Carolina, and it’s doubtful whether one would be allowed under state law, according to county staffers. Even holding the nonbinding vote required special permission from the General Assembly in Raleigh. But, based on the five commissioners’ current public positions on zoning, if they voted on the issue today, countywide zoning would probably pass, 3-2.

Nevertheless, Ramsey remains hopeful about Citizens For Property Rights’ prospects for using the referendum to fend off zoning: “We think Sobol might go with us, depending on if there’s a big anti-zoning vote — say, 60 or 70 percent against.”

The pro-zoning commissioners

Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol says he’ll have to “look at those numbers,” after the upcoming vote. “If they are high against, perhaps part of the county will get zoning. … I don’t know.” But however the vote turns out, he maintains, it “does not excuse commissioners from doing the right thing … even if some of us might not be coming back next time.”

This summer, the commissioners held a series of public meetings throughout the county to gather feedback, and Sobol concedes that 90 percent of the comments he heard were anti-zoning. But he believes there may be a “silent majority” out there who’ll vote for zoning in November. “Of course, people who support zoning might not come out to meetings — maybe their neighbors might see them,” he speculates. Sobol also stresses that county residents are being asked to vote on the concept of land-use planning, not on any particular plan. “The [draft] plan we have now will change,” he notes.

Commissioner Gantt has gone on record saying he would not support countywide zoning. But Gantt now maintains that he has experienced enough land-use conflicts firsthand to make him change his mind: “I told myself I would see how it went, so we had meetings, and people asked for help. They wanted the government to help them. This led to our passing ordinances on a case-by-case basis.” But Gantt feels that these county ordinances, 17 so far, have had only a Band-Aid effect on local land-use conflicts. A comprehensive zoning plan that’s made clear to everyone in advance, he believes, would go a long way toward preventing future conflicts and managing the projected growth in Buncombe County.

According to the Buncombe County commissioners’ office, the population has been increasing by about 8 percent annually, and that trend is expected to continue through 2015. That means the county’s 1999 population of192,784 would increase to about 225,891 in 15 years. Those figures, argues Gantt, show the need for more planning. But Gantt says it’s not just the figures: “It’s people coming to me asking me to do something about planning for this growth that has prompted me to fall on my political sword and advocate zoning. If an asphalt plant becomes your neighbor, you’ve got problems. Communities are being ruined, and though no one wants more government control, we really have no choice.”

Gantt also points to the neighborhood shooting range on Shelby Road owned by Donald Guge, who’s now mired in a court dispute with angry neighbors. The constant noise, notes Gantt, is not merely a nuisance — someone could get killed. “This is an instance where the good of the community supersedes the absolute rights of a property owner, and it is the duty of elected officials to protect the public good and the safety of citizens.” Then he adds, as an afterthought, that staunch zoning opponent Al Sneed “lives in Beaverdam — that’s a zoned area.”

Commissioner Keever says it was the recent developments in the fractured neighborhood of Fairview that led her to support zoning: “Fairview became so divisive [over zoning] that the community councils were no longer viable. Those fighting zoning fought the councils, so they ironically forced zoning upon themselves.”

Keever sees local government as the last authority when all else breaks down, and she calls herself not so much a proponent of zoning as an “advocate for the future.” In her view, zoning opponents are mostly “affluent developers who stand to gain a lot if they win — and to lose a lot if zoning is enacted. Land could be taken out of the running for residential or commercial development, depending on its location and proposed zoned use, and zoning could raise the price of raw land as it becomes more scarce.”

Zoning, maintains Keever, would protect the “little guy’s” property rights, reducing the need for special, planned developments to act as buffers against bad neighbors. “All counties of any size are zoned,” she asserts. “Generations have lived here without change, and it [growth] is difficult for them. The best way to protect things the way they are is zoning.”

Keever also tries to dispel what she calls “disinformation” being spread by zoning opponents. Even if zoning did increase county residents’ taxes, she argues that it would also boost the value of their property — and, when they sold it, they would make more money. She adds that the proposed zoning rules would allow existing businesses to expand by up to 50 percent, contradicting some opponents’ claims that zoning wouldn’t allow “grandfathered” businesses to grow.

As a county commissioner, Keever says she’s ready to do what’s right, though she concedes that her support of zoning may cost her re-election. “I have no personal interests in all this — I’m just a schoolteacher. I just want what’s best for my county.”

The no-zoning commissioners

Commissioner David Young, for one, has not changed his stand on zoning. He still supports the county’s Land-Use Plan, which has been in effect only about six months. “We had 13 meetings around the county, and we told people there would be no zoning. We have to let the plan work.” Young believes that zoning is unnecessary, at this point: “We should take the fruit off the lower branches first, before we go for the rest of the tree. Zoning is hard to stop, once you start.” He tells of a Board of Commissioners meeting at which a resident complained that the land-use plan isn’t tough enough, saying it should require a buffer of trees between businesses and the highway, to preserve scenic beauty. Young sees zoning as an endless process: “Groups come to you and ask for changes, even minor ones, and you try to accommodate them, as an elected official … and, pretty soon, you’ve got lots of amendments to the ordinance.”

Commissioner Bill Stanley says the commissioners will know a lot more about how things stand after the November referendum: “I would imagine we would put off zoning if the vote goes against it.” But, in the meantime, his position is clear. Stanley says zoning is simply too much, too soon: “We haven’t had enough public input, and the present [case-by-case] ordinances we have put together are working fine.” He is quick to add that the county is now meeting regularly with the six municipalities in Buncombe in an attempt to control urban sprawl. And, though Stanley does believe that sprawl is a serious problem in the county, he would still rather stick with the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan.

Commissioners Young and Stanley both pushed for a special vote in Raleigh that was needed to authorize next month’s nonbinding referendum.

The free-market road

Albert Sneed has a lot to say about zoning, politicians and property rights: “People are saying Buncombe is a mess, and we need zoning. They said this in a move to zone in 1976. This county isn’t a mess: The fair market does a better job [of planning] than any central-planner genius.”

Unlike many zoning opponents, however, Sneed does offer an alternative suggestion for preserving undeveloped land in Buncombe: “Some people want green space. But there’s some farmer out there whose beautiful pasture is gonna be their green space, and he won’t get any money for it.” Instead of simply banning development and leaving the landowner high and dry, argues Sneed, “We can create a charitable land trust with the wealthy people who live around here, and negotiate with him.” The idea is to pay the farmer for development rights to his land, and leave it green. “This way, the farmer gets compensated, still has his hay field, and people have their green space.”

Sneed also sees class issues in the zoning dispute. He feels the county’s proposal is aimed at protecting a tourism-based economy, which he says will only widen the gap between socio-economic classes. A better route, feels Sneed, is broadening the economic base by recruiting new industry: “We’ve got a lot of wealthy retirees here, and the middle class is being squeezed. We’ll get to the point where there will be only lower and upper classes.”

When zoning starts, argues Sneed, it will push up land values, putting property beyond the reach of mobile-home dwellers or developers of mobile-home parks, as he says has already happened under the city of Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance. “The little guy will be driven out of the county. Then, [county government] will wring their hands and say, ‘We’ll have to raise taxes to subsidize affordable housing.'”

The fight for Fairview

Fairview seems to have become a flash point in Buncombe’s zoning battle. The fight over the future of Hwy. 74 looms large, considering the potential for massive commercial development along the newly widened road. And both Nathan Ramsey (of Citizens for Property Rights) and John Ager of Citizens for Buncombe’s Future (a new, pro-zoning group) are based in Fairview.

Like Sneed, Ramsey sounds a populist note, saying he’s only a dairy farmer and doesn’t have time to work on this zoning fight — but he has to: “The biggest developers and landowners — like George Beverly and Biltmore Farms — are for zoning. We [Citizens for Property Rights] haven’t spent $5,000 so far.”

Mobile-home parks are another sore point for Ramsey, who says he’s outraged by the zoning plan’s restrictions on mobile-home parks: “It’s ethnic cleansing from Kosovo. The zoning ordinance says more than two mobiles is a mobile-home park” (see the “In plain English” sidebar for detail about the ordinance).

“The county could strengthen existing mobile-home ordinances and standards without creating a blanket, overbroad zoning plan that gives upper-class people a chance to ban mobile homes that ruin their view,” he argues. And though appeals beyond the Board of Adjustment would go straight to the courts, bypassing the Board of Commissioners, Ramsey notes that, “If you appeal, you’ll have to spend big for a lawyer.”

Ramsey is also convinced that politics will inevitably play a major role in zoning. “Are the commissioners going to appoint me to the Board of Adjustment?” he asks rhetorically. And he adds that zoning’s protection “is often an illusion.” In the end, “the big developers are going to get what they want, whether there’s zoning or not.”

Ager casts the battle in somewhat different terms: “It’s always been the private landowner making the decisions. Who’s going to look out for the common good?”

The new highway, he says, is “a battle between developers and the community,” referring to “billboard businessmen” who want “used-car lots and blinking arrows. … The Board of Realtors just came out against zoning. It’s a shame real-estate people are devaluing their community for personal gain.” Ager adds that, since he can’t hire lawyers and start organizations to fight every new harmful development that comes along, he wants a growth plan that at least has some structure.

Ager also has a different take on Citizens for Property Rights: “The Ramseys, the family behind the anti-zoning movement, are not simple farmers. They are big developers, with five or six projects, one last year worth $1.3 million.”

But Ramsey maintains that people are confusing him and his brother with their father, a retired developer. “The land deal with Publix was a trade,” he says, adding: “We are not big developers — our money comes from the dairy. I work 70-90 hours a week, and all our cars have over 100,000 miles on them.”

A road less traveled

Asheville resident Whit Rylee, meanwhile, wonders whether there’s another option in this zoning debate. Rylee, a small developer, is part of a group working on a plan that, though still a kind of zoning, differs substantially from the county’s draft ordinance.

Rylee, along with architects, average citizens and larger developers like Biltmore Farms’ Robert Sulaski, serves on Asheville’s Traditional Neighborhood Development Committee. Appointed by the city last winter, the committee, under city planner Gerald Green, is charged with giving Asheville planners input on how to improve their own zoning ordinance, the UDO.

Based on a pre-suburban-sprawl model that has survived in small communities across the country, this kind of development is human-scaled and pedestrian-friendly. People walk to neighborhood stores, buildings are smaller and, supporters say, it fosters a sense of community. “It’s to protect what attracts people to Asheville and the county in the first place,” says Rylee.

He adds that he’s found city planners open to changing what he calls the conventional, boilerplate zoning of the UDO to accommodate such traditional neighborhoods, rather than opting for “the path of least resistance, which is conventional developments where everything is spread out — suburban sprawl.”

The Cheshire Community, in Black Mountain, is a local example of this kind of planning. Designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., Cheshire offers smaller lots, front porches, and includes a bed-and-breakfast, a village green, a chapel and even a vineyard. Developer Regan Sikes grew up in Black Mountain. He created a town atmosphere in Cheshire. Whit Rylee says Sikes likes to be called a “community builder.”

Rylee thinks the same approach could work for the county. He points to the thousands of new residents the county will have to accommodate in the coming years: “If 90 percent of the county is zoned RU (rural use), then 50,000 new residents will eat up some 25,000 acres of green space, at the two homes per acre that RU areas are zoned for. This does not preserve farmland. Let’s minimize the hit by keeping them in a more compact area.” And because people drive less, he adds, “It also improves air quality.”

John Ager is also active in another group, Smart Growth Partners, which advocates for the kind of zoning Rylee describes. Concentrating growth, they say, preserves green space — and lowers taxes. “Taxes won’t go up with zoning,” argues Ager — “the opposite is true. If you don’t have sprawl, you don’t have to pay for longer sewers, water mains, etc., so taxes are lower.”

Asheville planner Gerald Green finds this approach encouraging, but warns that if the market doesn’t accept clustering and “everybody wants an acre lot at the end of a cul-de-sac,” it just won’t work. And Rylee himself remains ambivalent about zoning: “Zoning isn’t bad in itself — it’s how we handle it. Zoning has created bad places to live; Sarasota, Fla., has had a ton of development under zoning and has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

But Rylee’s positive experience with Asheville’s zoning planners gives him hope that good land-use planning is possible in the county, if the political leadership is creative and flexible. “Around here, when you talk of the common good, it means communism, and that to me is strange,” he observes. Anti-zoning people, he notes, cry, “It will hurt the little guy,” but Rylee maintains that zoning will protect him: “Why are people buying into protected developments with restrictions? The only people who benefit from no restrictions are developers looking for cheap land without restrictions to make a lot of houses, a quick buck and move on. Developers like these don’t live in the houses they build.”

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