Buncombe County Commission

On Election Day, the general voting frenzy clearly overshadowed the action at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting.

In fact, the board barely took any action in their Nov. 7 meeting, which lasted slightly more than an hour before breaking up so commissioners could watch the election returns. (Later that evening, election-watchers learned that all the incumbent commissioners except board Chair Tom Sobol — defeated by challenger Nathan Ramsey — would return for another term.)

While voters scurried to the polls, the board followed up on an issue raised the previous week. The commissioners had been asked to recommend that the state Board of Transportation close two gravel roads (Avondale Circle and Walnut Cove Farm Road) in the Avery’s Creek community, to be replaced by a paved road built by a developer.

Such issues are usually relegated to the consent agenda, but this one had generated controversy among neighbors, who voiced opposite opinions on the road closings. In response, the commissioners had asked Blue Ridge Parkway officials for an opinion on the proposed changes (the Parkway overlooks the area). At the Nov. 7 meeting, Sobol read from a letter sent by Parkway officials that supported the road relocation. The board voted unanimously to abandon the road.

Board members took no other action at the meeting. They did, however, hear a report from Dr. Michael Littlejohn (the director of engineering programs at UNCA) about three programs offered jointly by N.C. State and UNCA: the 2+2 program (in which students spend two years at UNCA before transferring to N.C. State); the master’s program in engineering; and the newest one, a bachelor’s degree in engineering with a concentration in mechatronics. Mechatronics involves principles of electrical, mechanical, computer and industrial engineering.

“This new program has been in existence only one year,” Littlejohn told the board, adding that it has been growing faster than anticipated.

All three programs, however, have their share of practical problems.

Although more than 100 students are studying engineering through UNCA at the undergraduate level, graduate enrollments are declining, and fewer students than expected are enrolling from local industries.

“Those two items are somewhat troubling,” Littlejohn said, adding that those results may reflect the reduced number of manufacturing jobs in the area.

Program growth, he said, is also limited by personnel and space constraints.

In addition, these programs rely heavily on “distance education,” in which students learn by teleconferencing. But this is 25 to 40 percent more expensive per semester hour than on-campus education. And a hoped-for link between WNC industry and N.C. State engineering programs hasn’t developed as quickly as projected, either.

“I believe we can improve on that,” promised Littlejohn.

Other stumbling blocks include shortages of competitive entry-level engineering jobs and affordable housing in the area, he said.

“What can we do to help you?” asked Commissioner David Gantt.

The key, said Littlejohn, is more involvement by the two schools’ chancellors.

And reducing the cost of distance education will require signing up more students and faculty in order to justify program expansion.

Yet another challenge is inducing students who leave the area to complete their education to settle here after they graduate.

“I want to make sure that happens, and I see some impediments to that,” Littlejohn warned.

Commissioner David Young said he’d like to ask the county manager to get together with Littlejohn to discuss what the commissioners could do to help.

Before adjourning, the board spent about 10 minutes in a closed session talking about property acquisition, but they took no further action.

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