Buncombe Commissioners

While the lion’s share of public attention was focused elsewhere on Election Day, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners tackled three major issues, all left over from their last meeting on Oct. 6.

Nov. 4 was also the current board’s next-to-last session. Later that night, Chair Nathan Ramsey lost his seat to Vice Chair David Gantt, and former Asheville City Council member Holly Jones and former A-B Tech President K. Ray Bailey were elected. They’ll take their seats at the new board’s first meeting in December, along with Bill Stanley and Carol Peterson, who won their re-election bids.

Nonetheless, the commissioners dealt swiftly with the remaining business, unanimously agreeing to borrow more than $41 million to finance a downtown Asheville parking deck and Human Services Center. They also unanimously approved a controversial rezoning on Mills Gap Road near the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site.

In addition—and over Gantt’s objections—the board appointed five new members to the powerful county Planning Board and reappointed the remaining four.

Planned out

The commissioners’ approach to Planning Board appointments sparked continuing controversy, with some county residents asserting that the influential board has been stacked with whose livelihood is connected to development. After having kept four Planning Board members on for a second three-year term without ever formally reappointing them, the commissioners once again drew criticism in September, when a number of applicants without strong ties to development were disqualified out of hand based on an unwritten rule (see “Buncombe Commissioners,” Sept. 10 Xpress).

Gantt proposed holding off on the appointments until after the election, noting, “These are three-year terms, and I’m not sure we should appoint them on our last meeting as this board.” (Because Gantt and Ramsey were competing for the chairman’s seat and David Young did not seek re-election, it was a given that the board’s makeup would change.)

But no one backed his suggestion.

“I’d want to go ahead; we’ve had the interviews over several weeks, several months,” said Peterson.

Stanley agreed, saying, “They’ve been in limbo too long: Let’s get it done.”

Ramsey added that if the next board didn’t like the appointees, they could appoint someone else.

Such a step would be against precedent, noted County Attorney Joe Connolly, but since “the Planning Board does serve at your pleasure,” the move would be legal, he explained.

After reappointing current board members Les Mitchell, Brian Bartlett, Rod Hudgins and Scott Hughes, who have each served one three-year term (board members are allowed a maximum of two), the commissioners unanimously appointed retired Progress Energy executive Vernon Dover, Michelle Pace Wood, a real-estate broker specializing in second homes—and Joe Sechler, co-founder and former president of the Friends of Town Mountain.

On a split vote, the commissioners also appointed Tom Alexander, the head of business and development for Taylor & Murphy Construction Co., with Gantt and Peterson supporting landscape architect Scott Melrose instead.

The final appointee, Greg Phillips, a developer with Mayfair Partners, won the votes of every board member except Gantt, who favored real-estate agent Darcy Wilson.

Both Wood and Phillips were appointed to three-year terms on the county Board of Adjustment in 2007. There is no rule preventing someone from holding seats on both board, but Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes said Phillips has already agreed to step down from the Board of Adjustment, and Wood may do the same.

“We may very well have two open seats on that board,” she told Xpress. “We’re going to have at least one.”

Decked

On another front, the commissioners unanimously approved borrowing $41.7 million primarily to fund construction of a new Human Services Center and parking deck on Coxe Avenue.

The board had held off on making this decision to allow time for receiving bids and seeing if the financial markets would settle down. The wait paid off, Finance Director Donna Clark reported. “The municipal-debt market has stabilized, buyers have returned to the market and interest rates have gone down,” she said, noting that the commissioners would still have to vote again on Nov. 18 to formally award the bids and issue the debt after some of the final financial details have been worked out.

Young said this is actually a good time to take on such debt. “The bond markets are fleeing towards safety, and we offer a very attractive alternative to corporate bonds—here you know we have a great, stable, long-term base,” he said.

Parking-deck revenues are expected to cover most of the debt, said Clark.

Reassured on rezoning

Back on Oct. 6, county planning staff had recommended against rezoning two parcels on Mills Gap Road on the ground that the area is primarily residential. the requested “Employment” zoning would allow a wide range of uses, including a used-car lot. But Young, who said at the time that he wanted to check out the site for himself, now supported the rezoning.

“I’ve been by [and] looked: It’s just not suitable for residential there,” he said. “I’d also like to see a future board adding some other options, so there can be a designation for something like a small office.”

The property owner, Ed McGinnis, said he wanted to turn the duplex apartments on the site into “something like a daycare, a CPA or an insurance office. I don’t have any specific plans right now; I’m just having trouble renting it out right now due to the traffic on the site.”

Gantt, who had previously expressed concerns about the rezoning, voted for it this time but said he wished McGinnis had more concrete plans. “I appreciate you being proactive,” said Gantt. “Maybe we should get a study of some other zoning; we need some in-between options.”

Other business

The commissioners also unanimously approved forming a joint city/county advisory board to oversee the Homeless Initiative, an ongoing effort to coordinate the various local entities, both public and nonprofit, working to combat the problem of homelessness.

With the economy in decline, the homeless population is increasing, explained Angela Pittman, a program administrator at the Department of Social Services. That translates into an increased need to coordinate efforts between city and county departments, to keep things from getting worse.

“We’re looking to wrap more services with each other,” said Pittman, adding, “We’re taking this to the city next week too—a joint endorsement will really help.”

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