Rip Van Woodfin is waking up. On the eve of the elections, the hamlet that long seemed to slumber obscurely in Asheville’s shadow is being roused by noisy controversies.
A proposal by the board of the Woodfin Sanitary and Water District to log its watershed has prompted a coalition of Woodfin and Reems Creek residents to mount a full slate of candidates to run against the incumbent board members — and citizens’ new scrutiny of the board has forced a long-neglected cleanup of the district’s voter rolls.
In the battle for Woodfin’s mayoral seat, scandal-scarred incumbent Homer Honeycutt and powerful county official Jerry VeHaun are trading accusations of conflict of interest and lack of public input.
Woodfin Water Board incumbents Hugh Roberson (the chairman), Russell Rhodes and Danny Tolar say they need to cut timber on the Water District’s land to raise $4 million of the up to $10 million they estimate is needed to repair and improve the water system. Faced with a chorus of opposition from citizens and environmentalists, however, they’ve backed off — for now, anyway — and agreed to seek grants from state forest and clean-water funds. But “if we receive no grant money,” vows Roberson (a 20-year board veteran), “we will proceed with removing the timber sometime about March or April.”
There’s no question that the water system needs upgrading, says challenger James Lattimore, who propped a urine-yellow bottle of water from a Woodfin tap beside a crystal-clear bottle of Candler water at an Oct. 13 candidates’ forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. But he and fellow challengers Henry Chandler and write-in candidate Robin Cape maintain that logging the watershed should be the board’s last resort, not its first, asserting that the board’s aggressive logging plan will pollute Woodfin’s water supply at its pristine source, the head of Reems Creek.
The Water District’s election procedures, meanwhile, have proved more turbid than its water. Residents opposed to the logging discovered that neither the Water District nor the Buncombe County Board of Elections could provide an accurate list of eligible voters (causing Cape to miss the filing deadline, because her name was incorrectly left off the list). Even the 1927 charter defining the district’s boundaries had been lost until logging opponent Barry Durand, co-owner of the neighboring Camp Sequoyah, unearthed a microfilm copy in the county archives. The mounting confusion prompted district Director Charles Rector to request a last-minute emergency meeting of the Board of Elections, which finally officially fixed the district’s boundaries, determining that all registered voters living within the district’s original bounds are eligible to vote for the board.
Although Woodfin’s and Asheville’s water-delivery systems have come to overlap during the intervening decades of development, state election law’s strictly geographical definition of voting districts means that Woodfin water customers who live outside the boundaries can’t vote for the water board, but non-Woodfin customers living within them can. (If you’re still not sure whether you qualify, say election officials, you can request and complete a “provisional ballot” at your polling place, and your eligibility will be determined afterward.)
Mayor’s race stirs up mud
Mayor Homer Honeycutt’s first term has been marked by a scandal few locals will soon forget: After Woodfin’s then-police chief recorded Honeycutt claiming he could fix traffic tickets, a confidential memo detailing the chief’s private sexual practices was leaked to the media.
But the real scandal, Honeycutt maintains, is his challenger’s conflict of interest: Mayoral candidate Jerry VeHaun is also a high-level Buncombe County official (director of emergency services).
“I feel like it’s a hostile takeover by the county manager,” Honeycutt told Xpress, “so that [Vehaun] can answer to the county — because there’s always a conflict between towns and counties” on issues such as animal control, cable-franchise taxes and, in Woodfin’s case, tentative plans to annex county land north of the town.
Honeycutt is proud of the 30 percent tax cut he says he’s given Woodfin residents.
“Me and my whole board — we’ve been doers, not talkers. We’ve had to make tough decisions. … We’ve cut $200,000 down on the payroll of this building [City Hall].”
But at the League forum (which Honeycutt did not attend), VeHaun — a Woodfin native — charged that excessive budget cuts have dangerously gutted the Woodfin Police Department — and that important town decisions are being made with far too little public input.
As for conflict of interest, it’s a “non-issue,” VeHaun told Xpress. “I don’t particularly care for the annexation process. … I don’t like going out and taking people where they really don’t have a voice.”
To loud applause, VeHaun told the forum audience: “I have a problem with going to a town board meeting and having only three minutes at the beginning to speak. If I’m elected mayor, I want [public] input … [even] if I have to sit there till midnight.”
— Steve Rasmussen