But what’s the policy?

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Oct. 26 meeting

  • State lottery funds to help pay local teachers’ salaries
  • Alcohol banned on all county property
  • Burned historic properties lose landmark status

In the wake of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ marathon Oct. 5 meeting, which focused on revising the rules governing construction on steep slopes, the hourlong Oct. 26 session featured a relatively brief agenda. Topping the list was the Frontier Syndicate’s request for $1.8 million in tax breaks for its Montford Commons work-force-housing development.

"This is exactly the kind of housing Asheville needs," developer Vince Smarjesse declared as he stepped up to the lectern to make his case for the incentives.

The massive project would comprise a 210,362-square-foot, 250-unit apartment complex and a 390-space parking deck; the mostly vacant site sits between the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce on Montford Avenue and Isaac Dickson Elementary School on Hill Street. The apartments would range in size from 540 to 1,146 square feet, with rents running from $765 to $1,146 per month (the latter for a two bedroom, two bath unit).

That's a big change from the original plans four years ago, which called for building "exactly what we don't need: $400-dollar-a-foot, high-end condos," noted Smarjesse.

After "the world turned upside down" due to the Great Recession, the developers reoriented the project to emphasize affordable housing, thus qualifying for a $28.35 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he explained.

But in order to break ground on the project, Smarjesse said they still need $3 million worth of incentives from the county and city to help cover the cost of infrastructure such as water and sewer lines and streets.

"The project will likely not succeed without your assistance," he told the commissioners, urging them to act immediately. "There's an open window right now, and it's not staying open very long," he warned.

Nonetheless, several commissioners seemed reluctant to grant the request absent a clear policy on economic incentives for such projects.

"I don't have a concern about helping with work-force housing — it's in our strategic plan, and I think everyone up here supports it," Commissioner Carol Peterson explained. "But my concern is working within a time frame [suggested] by the group that's asking for this proposition when we don't have a policy."

After a brief discussion, the commissioners directed county staff to draft an economic-incentives policy and hold a public hearing on Frontier Syndicate’s request during the board’s Nov. 16 meeting.

"We want a policy, as Commissioner Peterson said, but we want this to happen," asserted board Chair David Gantt. "These folks have been working on this for four years, and I don't want them to get off track."

Meanwhile, the Asheville City Council was voting to waive half the project's fees and, for the first five years, any property-tax increases resulting from the project itself, in exchange for a commitment that the apartments will be available at work-force-housing rates for the next 15 years (see “Softening the Blow” elsewhere in this issue).

The deal with the city is contingent on Buncombe County’s agreeing to provide equivalent or greater support, and County Manager Wanda Greene said, "I'd like to talk to the city manager to get feedback" that could guide her in drafting a policy for consideration at the November hearing.

Developers hope to break ground on the long-delayed project early next year.

An educational gamble

In a nod to continuing economic uncertainty, the board unanimously approved allocating $1.2 million in state lottery funds to help pay local teachers’ salaries. The school system requested the money to help offset decreased funding in the General Assembly’s current budget.

Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin thanked the commissioners for allocating the funds. He also explained that still more lottery revenue may be needed next year to make up for what’s expected to be an even tighter state budget.

"We're hoping for as much flexibility as possible because of the gravity of what we're going to be facing in 2011 and 2012," he said.

"Next year is going to be terrible," acknowledged Gantt. "We do want to support you. … We've got to take care of teachers; we've got to have good schools."

"We can be your advocates," Commissioner Holly Jones chimed in.

Burning issues

In other business, the board also unanimously approved a ban on alcohol consumption on all county property and repealed historic-landmark designations for a pair of burned buildings.

The county's alcohol ban had previously applied only to parks and other recreational facilities. Exceptions to the policy will continue to be granted by the Parks and Recreation Services Department on a case-by-case basis.

Both the John A. Lanning House and the Richmond Hill House have been severely damaged by fire in recent years. The Historic Resources Commission had recommended the move, which will allow the ruins of the homes to be razed.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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