The Battle for Swannanoa

In June, state Sen. Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe) had something to say to his colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee.

"This is about the town of Swannanoa, and I know you don't want to know anything about it, but I'm going to tell you anyhow," he said, introducing legislation to put the General Assembly's stamp of approval on incorporating the town and to set a referendum for Nov. 3. "This will be the site of the first Tiger Woods golf course in North America," he continued (incorrectly, since most of Woods' Cliffs at High Carolina Course will be in Fairview). "For those of you who've been through it, I don't know why Swannanoa isn't bigger than the city of Asheville. It's the most beautiful place you've ever seen. It's got Interstate 40, it's got sewer and water."

Future founding father? Swannanoa incorporation task force leader Dave Alexander says incorporation is necessary to give the potential town control over its own destiny. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Montgomery) seconded Nesbitt's motion, and the finance committee approved the bill. The whole process, including the time senators spent laughing about the town's name and Tiger's golf course, took less than three minutes.

But to area residents on both sides of the sometimes-heated debate, the issue of incorporation is no laughing matter. The looming referendum is the last step in a three-year process. If approved, roughly 8,500 people will become citizens of the town of Swannanoa. If the referendum fails, the area will remain an unincorporated part of eastern Buncombe County.

There are strong feelings about both options.

"The No. 1 issue here is self-determination," Dave Alexander told Xpress. "The Buncombe commissioners do a good job, but with the entire county to look after, Swannanoa will never be priority No. 1. Because of what Swannanoa needs to be, because of all the development at our doorstep, incorporation is what works."

Alexander, who retired to Swannanoa in 2002, heads up the Swannanoa Incorporation Task Force. Typically, a board made up of those who have worked on incorporation governs a town until elections can be held. If the referendum passes, Alexander will serve as chair of the town's interim town council until elections in May of next year.

But there's more than one opinion on incorporation, and over the last three years, a sizable opposition has arisen, led by the group Swannanoa Truth.

"This will add another layer of taxation," says real-estate attorney Doug Thigpen, who's on Swannanoa Truth's steering committee. "It will add another layer of government. The other side says, 'Well, yeah, but it's our government.' But we still feel it's an unnecessary step. We've got our own fire department. We have police protection through the Buncombe County sheriff. This isn't going to give us anything we don't already have, and I doubt they'll be able to run a town on the [five cents per $100] new property tax they're asking for. It's going to go up."

Leading up to the election, disputes have sometimes grown fierce, with both sides accusing the other of stealing their signs. On Oct. 2, incorporation treasurer Ron Hillibrand pressed simple assault charges against another man after a physical confrontation erupted when Hillibrand tried to remove anti-incorporation signs from a property (at the owner's request, he says). On Oct. 9 the window of a pharmacy owned by Incorporation Task Force Vice Chair Mike Tolley was shattered by a cinderblock, though investigators have not definitively linked that vandalism to the incorporation battle.

Still, both Alexander and Thigpen say things have remained "mostly civil" as both sides put out signs, buy ads and try to get their supporters out to the polls on Election Day.

Service for all?

Contrary to anti-incorporation claims, Alexander asserts, Swannanoa residents will get four new services that state law requires new municipalities to provide. The town of Swannanoa will, he claims, provide road maintenance and repair, increased fire protection, street lighting and better law enforcement.

The increased law enforcement presence will initially be handled through a sheriff's substation and additional deputies specifically detailed to provide protection to the new town.

"Still a very rural area": Swannanoa resident (and anti-incorporation donor) Nancy Duggan worries about the fate of the area's forests and farms if incorporation goes through. Photo by Jonathan Welch

"We'll have a contract with the Buncombe sheriff's office," Alexander says. "Right now they've got two deputies at any given time to respond to calls in East Buncombe. Under our agreement, there will be a substation in Swannanoa [with one full-time deputy] for the town. That will cut down response times significantly."

He says that he believes property taxes can remain at the 5-cent rate — or even lower after incorporation — since about 60 percent of the town's revenues will come from sales tax money distributed by the state, franchise fees for utilities and beer and wine taxes.

Earlier in the incorporation battle, opponents had asserted that incorporation advocates were whipping up fears of annexation by Asheville to get incorporation passed. Alexander says that while annexation is not an immediate worry, it's a possibility down the road. The city of Asheville has denied it has ambitions in the area and has said that much of Swannanoa is too rural to meet its standards for annexation.

"Is annexation a threat? Not at the present juncture," he tells Xpress. "But it is a legitimate reason to look ahead. Asheville will grow, and eventually it will start annexing to the east. So while it's not an imminent threat, in 10, 15 years the city of Asheville will be here."

But Thigpen and Swannanoa Truth have been countering that Swannanoa remains mostly rural, with large swaths of the proposed town far from urban, and they have their doubts about Alexander's optimism on taxes.

"I doubt the tax rate they're talking about will even cover road maintenance," Thigpen said. "Taxes are going to go up, that's their nature. Also, I don't for the life of me see why they're starting so large instead of just taking in the more urban areas and going from there. It's hard for me to see how a 250-acre farm belongs in a town."

Alexander emphasizes that North Carolina law doesn't require a binding referendum on incorporation, though Buncombe County made their support for incorporation dependent upon a referendum and Asheville City Council would only go so far as supporting the referendum itself.

"We believe in giving everyone a say; we've been pushing for that from the beginning: letting the people of Swannanoa have the ultimate authority on this," Alexander says.

But some of the opponents see the incorporation campaign as the work of overly pushy transplants.

"There some personality clashes with the pro-group, that's for sure," Thigpen says. "A lot of these folks haven't lived in Swannanoa that long, but they want to meddle in things to change it to where they used to live. There's definitely an ego element to it. I take some issue that if this passes, until next year this unelected board is going to be running the town."

Alexander has promised that if incorporation passes, until May 2010 the interim town council will only "do what is absolutely, legally required. It's going to be up to the citizens of Swannanoa to decide what the challenges and issues are after the election."

Farm country

Within the proposed town limits of Swannanoa, there are approximately 70 farms, mostly small, family-run operations, as well as a number of forestry management areas recognized by the state.

One of those forestry areas is on Nancy Duggan's land, and researching what would happen to it led to her becoming concerned for the fate of Swannanoa's small farms if the town incorporates.

"I've talked with forestry officials, and it's almost totally unheard of to form a forestry management plan inside town limits," she tells Xpress. "I have to selectively log parts of my land as part of that plan. In many towns you have to get a permit just to cut down a single tree. That's going to make it very difficult."

Furthermore, she asserts, incorporation would remove the protections that Buncombe County has for farms, leaving them vulnerable to Swannanoa's ordinances if and when it decides to pass them, a process that few farms, she believes, would survive.

"The county farm designations would no longer exist; they would have no protection from whatever the town's whims were," she says. "This is still a very rural area, and something like [incorporation] would kill it. We don't have a town hall; we don't really have a downtown core. If you look at 'downtown' Swannanoa, it looks like a bunch of Monopoly buildings. There are farms in the core area: manure piles, cattle, hogs being slaughtered."

Different views: Dueling billboards show two very different visions on the effects of Swannanoa's possible incorporation. The debate over the topic has sometimes become heated, as the Nov. 3 referendum approaches. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Duggan has donated $1,000 to Swannanoa Truth's anti-incorporation political action committee — over half its funding.

Alexander claims that farmers won't see any change under incorporation.

"There really won't be any change," he tells Xpress. "Any forestry plans, conservation easements, farmland rules from the county would remain in place. There would be an increased tax rate, but that would only be maybe $100 or $200 more a year to most tax bills."

Farms do lose some protections when a town incorporates, David Lawrence, of the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina, confirms. Working farms are largely exempted from county zoning rules, but not from those passed by cities or towns.

"Certainly they become more susceptible to being regulated," Lawrence told Xpress. "Though while their taxes may rise, the way their property value is calculated would remain different from most property."

Meanwhile, Peter Marks, the director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's local food campaign, says that if farmers in Swannanoa are worried about incorporation, they're keeping it quiet.

"There haven't been any concerns raised about that from any of the farmers I've had contact with," he tells Xpress.

Moving to Election Day

In the end, the voters of Swannanoa will weigh the arguments and make the decision.

"This has been three years of really hard work," Alexander says. "It's time for the citizens to tell us, in the open, which way they want to go. There's a lot of potential in Swannanoa, and I think that's best captured and protected by an incorporated town."

On Oct. 22, Thigpen and a group of about 20 residents holding anti-incorporation signs gathered near the Board of Elections, before going in to vote early on the referendum. He announced a list of ways the group had been misrepresented, asserting that no member of Swannanoa Truth has ever stolen a sign. He also questioned how much better services would actually be after incorporation.

"It is our objective to present the truth to the citizens of Swannanoa," Thigpen said. "We feel that if the people are presented with the truth, what we view as an unrealistic and poorly thought-out proposal for a town in Swannanoa will not pass."


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23 thoughts on “The Battle for Swannanoa

  1. A.B.

    It sounds to me like some really bored folks are trying to create themselves some gainful employment…

    To bad it as their neighbors expense.

  2. frankwhitehorse

    The sneaky Martin Nesbit and David Alexander have long been connected. Interesting the disrespect shown by Mr. Nesbit to Swannanoans and the attempts by David Alexander to assume control of Swannanoa. Mr. A speaks of his long, hard three year attempts but doesn’t tell you he has arranged to be repaid for his efforts from your tax dollars! Those of us who have spent three long years defending our lives and properties and town from the likes of David Alexander, Martin Nesbit, and other interlopers can not hope for such largesse from our fellow taxpayers. Way to go Dave.

  3. I think there are valid arguments being made by both sides on the issue of incorporation. However, There are a small number of folks who are trying to create fear and tension by gross exaggerations about taxes, loss of farmland, etc.

    I think the article above does a great job of letting BOTH sides have their say. No matter what the outcome of the incorporation vote…Swannanoa WILL change. Growth is inevitable when an area is ideally located just outside the bounds of Asheville, has scenic splendor, and easy access to the interstate.

    The CLIFFS is only one type of development happening in the Swannanoa corridor. One only need look at Hendersonville RD and south Asheville to see what the future may hold for Swannanoa (whether it’s incorporated or not).

  4. sweetrosieog

    the only self-determination Mr. Alexander is concerned with is his own. He speaks of three years of hard work- does he admit his expectation of repayment from the tax dollars dragged out of our protesting pockets. Would that the rest of us could be repaid for our efforts fending off this lunacy. Also, Peter Marks tells us no farmers have complained to his of worry over their farms. Check out and see the live statements of concerned citizens-see how many of them are farmers! Sorry we don’t have time to take you into our confidence, Mr. Marks. We are busy defending our property right now.

  5. Heaven forbid Swannanoa should EVER turn into a “South Asheville” or Hendersonville Rd. They still continue to build out there in that congested area.

    It does seem that the anti-incorporation message seems primarily based on emotional slogans, while the pro-incorporation message provides well documented facts.

    On this issue, it is most important that all registered voters exercise their rights and go to the polls and vote!

  6. sweetrosieog

    David Alexander claims in this article that there will be “four new services”. Is that true? They propose to provide the same fire protections currently enjoyed at the same rates. That’s one(though not new!) They propose to maintain our roads ( though not at the current state standards enjoyed at current tax rates) the cost being at least the $800,000.00 spent by Black Mountain for almost 2/3 more miles of roads than Swannanoa has. That’s two. They will provide one cop per 12-hr shift to replace the two county cops at current tax rates. This will cost $400,000.00+ per year. Oh yes there are the few streetlights. Not a big bang for the buck.

  7. frankwhitehorse

    Farms and forrests are at the heart of this issue. Over 60% of the proposed annexation area is totally unoccupied. Much of the land is in forrestry management plans and there are over 70 farms. Over and over the pro group repeats that farms and forests will be unaffected. Yet they also repeatedly speak of state revenue shares needed to make up budget deficits. To gain control of these shares(the county already uses them to our benefit) the town must join the League of Municipalities, which requires adoption of stacks of regs. rules and statutes. They can’t have it both ways-either we don’t get the $ they so desire, or OUR FARMS AND FORRESTS ARE SERIOUSLY AFFECTED.

  8. Debra R

    From the way I understand it, there are a few that is all for this and they have not lived here for YEARS. But they have moved back here or resign in Black Moountain. And it seems like the ones that are all for this are the ones that has the money to pay out for whatever the needs are. Everyone needs to think about the poor people of Swannanoa. What are they going to do when it comes to paying extra for anything?

  9. invisiblefriend

    Here video in response to that video:

    and there are about 5 other videos on that have to do with david alexander admitting on camera to taking an anti sign up and putting another pro sign up at the same time, Martin Nesbits horrifying audio clip as he passed the bill, etc. Its on film. Its not emotional slogans, Celebrateswannanoa, if you get a scientist to disproove raw film footage, i wont believe it anymore. (other info besides trying to scare people into believing about annexation)

  10. I hate to see the anti-incorporation folks turn this into a personal attack on David Alexander. This is not about one man….this is about a community and it’s future. The continually personal attacks and name-calling reeks of the same “town hall” politics which I despise.

    I also hate to see the anti-incorporations folks trying to turn this into an “Us vs Them” debate. I’ve heard many Swannanoa natives speak out in favor of incorporation so it’s not just a bunch of “outsiders” as has been claimed.

    Name-calling, personal attacks, and fear-mongering are causing unneccesary divisions which will not soon heal….no matter what the outcome of the referendum is.

    I can see valid, rational arguments both for and against incorporation and wish the debate hadnt’ slunk to emotional rants. Whenever one side turns to personal attacks and name-calling it does nothing to strengthen their case.

    As others have said, it is essential that folks study the facts and go out and vote.

  11. sweetrosieog

    In answer to:1. Celebrate Swannanoa- news flash-Terry Bellamy says there is NO plan to annex Swannanoa in the next 20 yrs. 2′ Jeff Forbes is the webmaster for Swannanoa Pride- So much for the separation of the two pro-inc. entities! 3. Don Talley- Just keep your opinions to yourself- you live in Black Mountain- not Swannanoa, until you know the people here better, including David Alexander, you should stay out of this

  12. sweetrosieog

    I know I’ve made a lot of comments here, but I need to correct something I said in a previous comment. When talking about services, I was commenting on the roads and the costs of their maintenance. I meant to point out that Black Mountain has ONLY 1/3 the miles of roads that Swannanoa has, and that they pay over $800,000.00 a year to the state to maintain them . I realize David Alexander admits the new government will not maintain roads to state standards, but still we have 2/3 thirds more miles of roads than Black Mountain does. Is the budgeted amount even close to realistic?-NOT! That, and there is no contract in place for this road work, and no guarantees there will be one. NC is dumping maintenance of roads for towns as fast as it can right now.

  13. noiewooden

    With all due respect, Mr. Talley, your concern that David Alexander has been maligned is misplaced. My opinion is that if you are going to put yourself out there as a spokesperson for any group you’d better be prepared to tell the truth. Mr. Alexander has been caught out telling whopper after whopper- a sampling:1. His claim that his group has worked diligently for three years to bring a referendum on the issue of inc. See for a video of Mr. Alexander refusing to consider a referendum at a public meeting in 2007 2.Several times in the past two weeks, David has claimed that we are going to be annexed by Asheville. See the same website for what he really knows to be the truth. and 3. His recent claim in the A-CT that 75% of Swannanoa wants to incorporate- but I guess you”ll have to wait until Nov. 3rd to learn what the REAL 75% of us know. I say, if you can’t tell the truth there will be heat. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the fire.

  14. invisiblefriend

    It is funny to hear all the people who act all respectable and mature talk about the anti incorporation people acting up and “turning it into an us vs them”, and its not David Alexander, and all that, and the real issue is to get to the polls”.
    Never have I ever heard of anyone sticking up for their fearless leader, David Alexander, and we are not the ones trying to invade their lives and their pocketbooks. Thats what this is. It is an invasion. So luckily the real issues of incorporation are enough to vote this down. But yes, people are pissed off for the fact that other people have wasted so much of their time and money fighting these tyrants.

  15. My primary concern is not David Alexander has been maligned.

    My concern is that there are valid points on BOTH sides of the issue which deserve to be aired and debated. The debate should be about ideas and not specific people.

    Focusing attention on negative criticism of an particular individual (or group), obscures the more important issues in the debate over the merits of incorporation ( or lack thereof).

    I commend those on BOTH sides of the debate who have focused on the ISSUES…and the future of Swannanoa.

  16. noiewooden

    So Don, on Oct.29 at 9:21 you DIDN’T say that you thought it was unfair to target David Alexander? I must have read that wrong. I think everyone ought to go back and check what you said! David Alexander has come under attack because he is the putative spokesperson for the incorporation. He has repeatedly lied, been caught with his hands on other peoples property, and changed his perspective on the intent of incorporation. He has presented an everchanging screen of reasons to incorporate, called press conferences to place blame on innocent people and misrepresented himself as one of the local people. There are numerous other people on the pro side who haven”t behaved this way, and no one has called them to task- they still have the respect of friends and neighbors-even those on the other side of the fence. David Alexander does not and doesn’t deserve to. I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but you need to leave Black Mountain and your usual little group of friends, and speak to the population at large in Swannanoa before you start criticising their defense of their property and their lives, or their dislike of liars. One Martin Nesbitt is enough for us.

  17. Audrey Godshall

    Aren’t Swannanoa roads currently maintained by the State? My dead end dirt road certainly is kept in excellent shape by the state and I wouldn’t want it paved.
    Isn’t Swannanoa’s fire and police protection adequate now? I haven’t heard of any problems…
    And personally, there’s plenty of street lights around. I moved to the county to enjoy the ruralness of living out side of a town, after all.

  18. buzzscreendoer

    Wow- I just saw a mailout sent to local people from Mike Tolley of the Incorporation Task Force. He signs himself off as the task force leader- I guess even the pro folks finally got sick of David Alexander. The info in the bundle just sent is very emotional. It claims that Asheville and Black Mountain get the bulk of county money and poor little Swannanoa doesn’t get any. What a crock. I hope you all know better than that. The straight story is that the state pays the county a per capita share of all sales and franchise tax revenues. Only people in the county get this share. Asheville gets their per capita share directly. So does every other town. And of course Asheville gets much more money, they have many more people- get it?- per capita, or by the person. Swannanoa will not get any more than our 10 or so thousand are entitled to and we will be subjected to a two-inch thick stack of regs, statutes and laws in order to qualify-just like Asheville has. Pretending that other areas are getting our revenues is dishonest and misleading. And never once has any pro-person addressed the nightmare of urban rule with which we must comply to gain direct control of our share. The county collects and administers this money for us at current tax rates. No wonder people are so mad with all the deception poured over them by Mike Tolley and the rest. Shame on you guys.

  19. annica2

    the claims from the pro incorporation task force have been debunked beyond thunderdome. i will definitely be voting no on this fascist scheme.

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