For years, Woodfin, a town of nearly 4,000 just north of Asheville, has been something of a redheaded stepchild among Buncombe County municipalities. Need a prison? Put it in Woodfin. A landfill? Ditto. A sewage-treatment plant? Woodfin’s got room.
This second-shelf treatment has left the town with more than 150 acres of unusable land — a “brownfield site” that is, in part, the legacy of a former county landfill — and town leaders say the vacant property is holding back economic progress.
But the winds of change are blowing in Woodfin. On Nov. 7, after hearing testimony from Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun, town administrator Jason Young and Cherokee Investment Partners (a Raleigh-based company brought in to help with the project), the Buncombe County Board Of Commissioners scheduled a public hearing for Nov. 22 to consider an ambitious redevelopment plan for the town.
The $210 million plan would create an entire downtown “main street” on the former landfill site, with 300,000 square feet of “village” shops and retail space; 27,000 square feet of restaurant space; 170,000 square feet of business/medical space; 120,000 square feet of municipal parking; and 400 homes.
The roughly 45-acre former landfill, which a project spokesman said is stable and produces little methane, would be used as open space for the project. The remainder of the site is a former golf course. The property in question comprises a 230-acre site on the north side of Beaverdam Creek, between Weaverville Highway and Riverside Drive.
The money for the massive project — a partnership involving the town, the county and Cherokee Investment Partners — would come from “tax-increment financing,” a recent addition to North Carolina municipalities’ options for funding redevelopment. Narrowly approved by voters last year, it allows local governments to issue bonds with the expectation that the increase in tax revenues stemming from the revitalization will pay them off.
A lawsuit challenging the amendment to the state constitution that allows tax-increment financing was filed Nov. 6 in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. The suit claims the state violated the federal Voting Rights Act and failed to clearly inform voters what the amendment’s effects would be.
If the Woodfin project defaulted, Cherokee Investment Partners would have to pay off the bonds, said County Finance Director Donna Clark. According to Managing Director Kinsey Roper, the company has $1.6 billion in funds under management and, over the past 16 years, has done $250 million worth of environmental remediation.
Cherokee Associate Matt Young said the town center would “truly be a pedestrian-oriented community,” adding, “This is not a place for big-box stores, the Anytown U.S.A. commercial mix. We want it to match the cultural values of this area.”
Besides pumping up Woodfin’s tax base from a very modest $5 million to a projected $250 million, backers say the project would help prevent sprawl in the riverside town. “For every acre of brownfield property that is revitalized, four acres of greenfield property [uncontaminated, undeveloped land] are saved,” said Young.
Cherokee Investments has similar but considerably larger projects under way in northern New Jersey and in South Carolina along the Ashley River, near Charleston.
Heil Planning Board?
During the public-comment period that preceded Tuesday’s meeting, complaints about the Buncombe County Planning Board were as abundant as the fallen leaves outside.
Joe Sechler of the nascent community group Friends of Town Mountain branded the Planning Board “a dictatorship.”
“It acts as an independent board with no need to answer to anyone,” he said, adding that public comment isn’t heard until the end of the board’s monthly meetings, “after all the decisions are made.”
That came as news to Commissioner David Young, who said, “Maybe they should move that to the front of the meeting.”
Asheville resident Heather Rayburn echoed Sechler’s concerns. “The people who tried to speak at yesterday’s meeting got the hand,” she said, adding, “It was pretty rude.” Four of six subdivisions under consideration at the Nov. 6 Planning Board meeting were filed by The Cliffs Communities Inc., whose new project in Swannanoa has recently garnered criticism.
“We’re hearing time and time again about these problems with the Planning Board,” noted Commissioner David Gantt. The commissioners directed the county planning staff to look into a number of matters, including: moving public comment to the beginning of Planning Board meetings; posting comprehensive information about the meetings on the county Web site; and making master plans for proposed developments available at the meetings, so county residents can have a look at the projects themselves.
The commissioners turned a sympathetic ear to a presentation by Lt. Dale Den Ouden of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department on the need for four new school-resource officers. Currently, SROs are assigned to all six county high schools and all but three middle schools. Besides keeping the peace, the officers provide law-enforcement help when needed and, in some cases, act as mentors and coaches to students.
But if the commissioners were enthusiastic about the program itself, they were somewhat less so about the added expense. The Sheriff’s Department was asking for $324,000 to cover salaries, benefits, uniforms, supplies and vehicles (which accounted for roughly half the requested amount).
“I like the idea; I just have a problem with the cost of the cars,” said Young.
“They got to get there somehow,” responded Vice Chairman Bill Stanley.
A marked patrol car parked outside a school is “a big deterrent,” responded Den Ouden.
The board unanimously approved the request, directing County Manager Wanda Greene to work with the sheriff to minimize the cost of the added officers.
“Try to find efficiencies where possible,” instructed Chairman Nathan Ramsey.
Hep, hep, hooray!
Buncombe County Health Director George Bond asked the board to cut the price of hepatitis-A vaccinations in half for local food-service and daycare workers. The disease is spread both through contaminated fresh vegetables or other foods and through contact with an infected person.
Halving the cost of the shots could cost the county $40,000 in annual revenues, said Bond, but the peace of mind and public-health benefits would outweigh the expense.
The board approved the move on a 5-0 vote.
In other matters, the commissioners heard a report by Charles Dickens, a delegate to the Senior Tar Heel Legislature, on senior citizens’ top priorities for state legislation.
The commissioners also appointed William McElrath to the Board of Health and Joyce Elliott to the Abandoned Cemeteries Board of Trustees.
The meeting adjourned just after 7 p.m.