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."
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.
"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."
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."
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."