Not ready for prime time

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Nov. 16 meeting

  • Conservation easement preserves Upper Broad River farmland
  • County finances sound, auditor reports

At their Nov. 16 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners held off on adopting an incentives policy for developers building work-force housing, saying it needed further tweaking.

The policy was written in response to last month’s request by the Frontier Syndicate for $1.8 million in tax breaks for its Montford Commons development. Several commissioners had voiced enthusiasm for the project during the board’s Oct. 26 session, but they wanted to have a guiding policy in place before granting the request.

In general, the draft policy defines work-force housing as costing no more than 30 percent of household income for a family earning between 80 and 140 percent of the median for the area (currently $55,400, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development figures). The goal is to assist police officers, nurses, teachers and other workers with household incomes between $44,300 and $77,560, who might otherwise have trouble finding adequate housing at affordable rents.

But in practice, the proposal caps qualifying rents at well below the 30 percent threshold: $504 for an efficiency, $589 for a one-bedroom, $672 for a two-bedroom and $900 for a three-bedroom unit.

The draft outlines a variety of tools for encouraging such projects, including grants, tax breaks and deferred construction loans. The incentives would be considered on a case-by-case basis, and applicants would have to provide at least 100 residential units that only full-time county residents could rent.

Despite expressing general support for the policy, however, several commissioners felt it needed more work, and staff agreed. "We've been fairly thoughtful, but we had to do this very quickly," County Manager Wanda Greene explained. "So we'd like to ask you to give us a little more time … so we can look at what developers are doing across the country, ask local developers and incorporate some additional feedback."

Vice Chair Bill Stanley immediately moved to grant her request, saying, "I think we want this to happen, but we want to do it right."

Commissioner Holly Jones agreed, though she wondered aloud how a delay might affect Montford Commons. "I guess my concern is that part of the reason we were speeding it up is this project opportunity right in front of us, and I want to make sure that's still moving forward," she said.

Jones also addressed criticism that the policy would amount to a handout for developers.

"It's not lining the pockets of developers, which I've heard, and that's just outrageous," she declared, pointing out that the incentive payments would come out of the additional property-tax revenues a project would generate. “We're not out any money at the end of the day. … I think we can do ourselves a world of good, and people who need affordable housing a world of good too.”

In addition, Jones emphasized that any changes to the policy draft should "be in sync with where the city is … because that's one of those things that makes developers crazy, when there's two sets of regulations."

Vince Smarjesse of Frontier Syndicate expressed his appreciation, saying, "I just wanted to thank you for paying attention to the policy that's going to move us forward. … We're anticipating your assistance, very much so."

The commissioners said they would revisit the issue during their Dec. 14 retreat.

"I can't think of a better time … when we would have time for some give-and-take with new situations that we come up with," Commissioner Carol Peterson observed. "The staff can give us some information, and we can talk among ourselves. It would be an excellent time to have this discussion."

After the meeting, however, Smarjesse admitted feeling some concern about the postponement. "It's a bit nerve-racking to see them talk about delaying," he confessed.

Keeping it green

Shifting gears, the board unanimously agreed to cover the roughly $14,000 in transaction costs for a conservation easement on 78 acres of pasture and woodlands in the Upper Broad River community in Fairview.

The parcel, which includes a portion of the Broad River’s headwaters, is currently being leased for cattle and hay; the easement would allow this use to continue while prohibiting development.

Although property owners often receive payment for waiving their development rights, these owners weren’t seeking reimbursement. "The family would like to do this to keep it a farm and keep it green, without all these houses creeping up all over the place," explained Chuck Fortune, whose mother, Edith Fortune, owns the land.

Board Chair David Gantt thanked Fortune for his efforts to preserve the property, garnering applause from the commissioners and several in the audience.

"Mr. Fortune, this is probably the greatest gift you could give to the community: to keep a farm viable, to keep a beautiful place like this in its current state," said Gantt, adding that preserving family farms is "a tiptop priority for this board."

A clean audit

The commissioners also heard an audit report by Chuck Killian of the Gould Killian CPA Group. As of June 30, the county’s fund balance stood at $158.5 million, the audit found, up roughly $28.1 million over the last fiscal year. But more than half of those reserve funds (about $81.5 million) are already designated for continuing activities and capital expenditures such as courthouse, landfill and Department of Social Services improvements.

Nonetheless, "The county is very well-managed," Killian told the commissioners.

"In a nutshell, the audit findings were extremely good," he continued, summarizing the 188-page document. "I'm not going to bore you with the issues in here, because on every issue, the county turned out good."

That seemed to sit well with the board members, who thanked Killian and county staff for their time and efforts, while taking the opportunity to pat themselves on the back.

"The bottom line is that we're really good at what we do," asserted Commissioner K. Ray Bailey.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at

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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