- CTS cleanup controversy continues
- County sells Merrimon Avenue site for affordable housing complex
Eight months ago, the N.C. Court of Appeals struck down Buncombe County's 2007 zoning ordinance on technical grounds, saying that the county hadn't properly notified the public and that the county Planning Board hadn't had sufficient time to consider the sweeping changes.
That ruling sent county staff scrambling to craft a new zoning ordinance that would satisfy state standards. At the Nov. 17 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, staff presented a draft document that was approved 4-1, with Commissioner Bill Stanley opposed. None of the commissioners commented prior to casting their votes. A second reading is scheduled for Dec. 1, when the commissioners will vote on the ordinance once again. If it's approved, zoning will return to Buncombe County.
Although none of the commissioners commented prior to casting their votes, they'd gotten an earful before saying "aye" or "nay." The Court of Appeals ruling also breathed life back into the county's anti-zoning movement, which maintains that the practice infringes on property rights while ignoring the will of the people. Those activists showed up in force for the public hearing, sporting red "Let Us Vote" stickers and calling on the commissioners to put zoning to a referendum.
The county held a nonbinding referendum on zoning in 1999. Turnout was low, but the vote went decisively against zoning. Holding another referendum would require permission from the General Assembly.
And while Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt didn't comment before casting his vote, he did caution speakers at the public hearing to be respectful. "We're not all going to agree with one another," he said. "I don't agree with everything my wife says, and she doesn't agree with me. But I'm going to call you down if you're not respectful; we're ladies and gentlemen here." He added that he would eject people for "personal attacks."
Despite Gantt's warning, however, the atmosphere was tense, with comment veering into invective throughout the lengthy public hearing.
"This is what happens in communist countries," asserted West Asheville resident Hope Herrick, adding, "There are other ways to protect people besides zoning, which takes away our private-property rights."
Former Commissioner Dolph Robinson also didn't see eye to eye with the board. "Zoning was implemented before, but you didn't get it right, and you won't get it right this time — because there's no right way to trample down the will of the people," he told the commissioners.
Enka resident Jerry Rice framed the ordinance as an attempt to push out the poor to make way for the well-heeled. "We want to provide a haven for the rich and famous; we'll rape our mountains to give the wealthy what they need," said Rice. "This zoning isn't going to hurt the rich: They'll buy their way to the top of the mountain no matter what it costs."
He added that while the commissioners had held public meetings on the topic, he wasn't impressed with their efforts. "You didn't want to have a big audience because you didn't want to have red faces like baboons going out of here today," Rice charged. "But I tell you one thing: History will show how many baboons are sitting behind those desks."
That proved too much for Gantt, who banged his gavel, saying, "Let's go, Jerry, cut it out."
"You're the political figure and you can get it — take it or leave it," Rice replied.
"We told you the rules. You're finished," Gantt declared.
"I hope you're finished at the end of your term," Rice shot back, before a deputy escorted him out of the room at Gantt's direction.
"If you're going to be like that, we're not going to respect your right to be here," Gantt said.
Since it proved such a sticking point last time, the county took particular care to meet the state's rules on notifying the public. But conservative activist Mike Fryar said those efforts had still left a lot to be desired, comparing the relatively small size and print in the signs advertising the hearing with the signs the commissioners used during their last election.
"Can you read that at 50 miles an hour? Can you read that across the room?" Fryar asked, brandishing a sign announcing the zoning hearing. "Get ahold of Raleigh, ask them to let us vote. It's been 10 years — you might win."
County Attorney Michael Frue later replied: "You can't expect us to attach the entire zoning map and ordinance to every sign. The fact that so many people showed up to complain about the size of the signs shows that they accomplished their purpose and got the word out."
Some speakers criticized the new ordinance's ban on mobile homes in certain residential zoning districts, asserting that the provision — which wasn't in the 2007 version of the ordinance — would reduce the supply of affordable housing. "[When] I moved here, I pulled a 14-foot-by-46-foot singlewide and set it up on property that's now a Wal-Mart," said Joe Belcher, whose employer, Clayton Homes, builds manufactured housing. "This county afforded me an opportunity to grow. People need to be able to put a home on their property that they can afford."
Throughout the meeting, county staff were stationed outside the chamber to answer questions about individual properties. Before the final vote, the commissioners modified the ordinance by waiving the fee for rezoning requests for 90 days. Under the ordinance, the owner of a property that doesn't meet the new zoning rules can nonetheless continue using it for its current purpose and even double the size of the structure in most cases.
While the vast majority of speakers opposed zoning, some supporters also weighed in, asserting that the ordinance is necessary to protect their land and manage the environmental impacts of new development.
"I want zoning. I want my property to be zoned so that someone can't come and put a racecar track or a cement plant next to me," said south Buncombe resident Mary Lou Davies. "I want to have some security. I approve of the slope designation. I know it cost someone here some value on their property. But you were proposing that to stop their house from falling off the mountain. This year we've had over 50 inches of rain. I think you have been looking out for the interests of the people."
CTS controversy continues
Mills Gap Road area residents repeated their complaints that local, state and federal officials have been dragging their feet in cleaning up trichloroethylene contamination at the former CTS of Asheville site and in the surrounding neighborhood's ground water, and they called on the county to put all Chapel Hill Church Road residents on city water. This summer, a well tested there contained 168 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limit for TCE in drinking water.
"To see the way the government is taking care of the people in this community is a disgrace; it's dishonorable," resident Aaron Penland charged.
The county did put the family drawing water from that well on city water, but it has argued that other Chapel Hill Church Road residents are not in imminent danger. Penland, however, said the high level measured at the well probably indicates that the contamination is spreading.
Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone said the director of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has finally responded to the county's request for more information about the public-health risks posed by the contamination and has agreed to join the county in pressing the EPA to release more information.
Frue, meanwhile, repeated the county's assertion that its authority is limited by state and federal law and that the county cannot directly seek compensation from CTS.
"As for the imminent threat, we've been told there's no danger to wells that aren't testing positive," said Frue. "We have to trust the EPA and DENR on this: They have the expertise."
Affordable housing on Merrimon
In other business, the commissioners approved the sale of land at 786 Merrimon Ave. to Mountain Housing Opportunities, which plans to build affordable housing on the site. The complex is expected to be finished by 2012, and rents are projected to run from $300 to $750 a month.