The Planning Bunch

True, its members don’t go in for after-school high jinks, appear in musical revues or travel to Hawaii much. Sure, the job description — “make studies of the area within its jurisdiction; develop and recommend policies, ordinances, administrative procedures and advise the commissioners” — might make you want to change the channel. Right now, though, no governing body in the county is more closely watched than the nine-member Planning Board.

A lot of the attention has to do with to the large number of new subdivision plans submitted just before a stricter slope-development ordinance took effect July 1. The Planning Board is now judging the merits of those plans one by one, and some county residents maintain that the board is too easy on proposals that flout county ordinances or pose environmental risks.

Some people with conservation and “smart growth” on their minds think the board is too cozy with developers. Mountain Voices Alliance member B.J. Snow believes it’s time for a casting call. “The first thing there needs to be is some new blood,” she says. “For starters, a couple of women wouldn’t hurt. All public bodies need diversity — of gender, of race, of experience. But on this board, there’s just this preponderance of developers.”

Former Planning Board Chairman Jim McElduff, while agreeing that more diversity wouldn’t hurt, says board members do need a certain amount of technical savvy. But that’s because the commissioners don’t adequately fund the Planning Department, he maintains.

“The citizens on the Planning Board should not be relied on for their technical skills,” says McElduff, an environmental consultant by trade. “The county staff is supposed to provide the technical expertise, and if they were adequately funded, they could do that. But if that’s the way the commissioners chose to run the Planning Department, then you do need Planning Board members with technical background.”

At the same time, he notes, people in the industry don’t have a lock on expertise. “There are plenty of technical people in the community who have those skills but aren’t necessarily conflicted because of their income sources.”

The Buncombe County board is also more powerful than some of its counterparts across the state, whose recommendations are passed up to the commissioners for a vote. In Buncombe, however, the Planning Board has the final say-so in approving subdivision plans.

Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt admits that he’s watched only one episode of The Planning Bunch firsthand, getting most of his information from other viewers. But he says: “There’s a real concern in our community that the board is skewed toward an anything-goes approach to growth and development. We have to look at who’s on the board: Is it a cross section of the county? There’s a need for balance — between people who have expertise and a personal interest in development, and people who have the community’s interest at heart.” Still, Gantt adds: “It’s a tough line they walk. They’re volunteers. They work hard and spend hours looking at plans and issues.”

Chairman Nathan Ramsey of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners says the commissioners have “a lot of confidence in the Planning Board. We would have removed members by now if we didn’t. We’ve done that in the past.”

Brian Bartlett

Brian Bartlett

Home: Arden
Occupation: Land surveyor, subdivision designer
On board since: 2005
About the recent citizen attention: “I think that anytime you get citizen involvement it improves our process. This is the first time we’ve had people interested in what we’re doing, and overall I think it’s a good thing.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “Frankly, the media has escalated that idea based on some very early comments from the planning staff about the number and percentage of variances [we’ve] given. I’d say most of the variances are very, very minor. Planning Board members devote their time to this volunteer board without any agenda except to improve the quality of living in Buncombe County. … We are all long-term — many lifelong — residents of this county first, and Planning Board members second.”
Challenges for the future: “Preserve what we have and, at the same time, give those folks who want to do quality developments the chance to do them. We have to address as many of the citizens’ concerns as we can, but at the same time we can’t make it impossible for this county to grow. The construction-and-development industry provides jobs for 35 percent of the residents here. One of the challenges we face when creating more and more restrictions for development in Buncombe County is the fact that it will inevitably drive up the cost of housing. Developers will pass on additional costs — storm-water control, for instance — to the consumer. Keeping restrictions in check with the desire for affordable housing is a constant balancing act.

Roy Chapman

Roy Chapman

Home: West Asheville
Occupation: Trailer-park owner, home renovator
On board since: 2002
About the recent citizen attention: “I think it’s all just a classic case of NIMBY-ism. As long as it’s on the other side of town, it’s OK. Nobody is interested in redoing the laws or anything else until it hits their neighborhood.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “We’ve got a surveyor on the board; we’ve got an engineer or two. [Chairman] Bill Newman runs Taylor & Murphy [Construction]. But if you don’t have someone on there who knows what they’re talking about, then you come up with really bad decisions. Are you going to have a transmission mechanic and a guy who drives a garbage truck and a logger on the medical board? Probably not. To say that anybody in our crowd favors a developer … I think they’re sadly mistaken.”
Challenges for the future: “Growth that does the least damage to the environment. We haven’t got but one set of mountains, and none of us wants to see them destroyed. We’ve got to enforce the rules. The steep-slope ordinance has been changed twice in the past year, and in my opinion, that’s a good thing. We certainly don’t want to see another Reynolds Mountain.”

Rod Hudgins

Rod Hudgins

Home: South Buncombe
Occupation: Structural engineer
On board since: 2005
About the recent citizen attention: “I don’t think they truly understand what our function is. We’re more of a technical board — that’s the way the commissioners set us up. I do think that that public deserves to get a little comment. Unfortunately, we can’t address all of their concerns; it’s just not what we’re laid out to do.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “I don’t believe that.”
Challenges for the future: “Our challenge is to make sure that the ordinances that we use are followed. I think they’re pretty good right now, pretty stringent. We’ll find out as we go along just how good they are. I think the main thing is to make sure that the contracters build structures that maintain the soil.

Scott Hughes

Scott Hughes

Home: North Buncombe
Occupation: Certified public accountant
On board since: 2005
About the recent citizen attention: “If people have an interest in a particular development, it’s always been their right to come out and express their opinion. I encourage them to do that; I think it’s great.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “I’ve done a small development in Weaverville, but I make my living as a CPA. We have a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge about development activity, and this is a technical-review board. Our responsibility is to weigh the plans submitted against the ordinances, without emotion. Either it meets it or they don’t.”
Challenges for the future: “One of the things that’s coming out of the land-use plan is that there will be a certain amount of countywide zoning, and there will be a whole lot more control than when you’re doing things with individual ordinances. People are pro-development and people are anti-development. We’ve got to find a balance, and people on the board take the job very seriously. We don’t just go in there and shoot from the hip.”

Karl Koon

Karl Koon

Home: Asheville
Occupation: Petroleum salesman
On board since: 2002
About the recent citizen attention: “I am glad that citizens take an interest in our county. I do believe that there is a misunderstanding of the responsibilities and function of the Buncombe County Planning Board by the general public.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “The current members of the board are professionals in their fields of expertise and … take their board responsibilities very seriously and apply their knowledge and training in the course of every review. We review the technical merits of subdivisions and are not responsible for making subjective or emotional decisions as to if we personally like or agree with the development. The requirements … necessitate that we have the ability to read and understand technical and engineering drawings and have knowledge as to the costs and feasibility of installing the infrastructure as shown on the plans, suggest possible improvements to the design, and that performance bonds that may be posted will protect the county and residents should the developer fail to complete the work as required.”
Challenges for the future: One of our biggest challenges is balancing the need for growth and jobs while protecting our environment. This area relies heavily on construction and service jobs to feed our families. We cannot just stop this economic engine and let working families suffer with job losses.

Jay Marino

Jay Marino

Home: Asheville
Occupation: Landscape architect
On board since: 2002
About the recent citizen attention: “I think it’s always great when citizens get involved with the process. Planning Board meetings haven’t been a public forum, so it’s difficult in that sense. But it’s nice to know that people are willing to come out and offer their opinions.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “The board should have people on it that can read architectural plans and find mistakes and faults with them. It’s not easy; it takes a trained eye. Yes, there are people on the board — contractors, landscapers, myself for instance — who benefit at least peripherally from development. But I don’t think it’s a problem; I think it’s a plus.”
Challenges for the future: “We’re hitting all the major issues right now — the hot button issues — with growth and development in the county. I don’t see that changing. We need to make sure the county grows responsibly and, of course, making sure that the ordinances are followed is a big part of that.”

Les Mitchell

Les Mitchell

Home: Fairview
Occupation: Retired
On board since: 2005
Statement: “I cannot, under the advice of counsel, even talk to the media. Past distortions by the press lead me to no comment.”

Bill Newman (chairman)

Bill Newman

Home: Candler
Occupation: Site development, highway and bridge contracting
On board since: 2002
About the recent citizen attention: “I think a lot of those issues have come up because of the changes in the steep-slope ordinance. And that’s fine.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers? “To me, it’s smart. If you have people who are working in those fields, who have the expertise there, then they can use that expertise to help out the county.”
Challenges for the future: “I think a lot of the situations then will be answered by these ordinances, these guidelines that are being put into place right now. I think we all want to make sure that the county grows in the right direction and the right type of development, but at the same time we do have to have development to continue to grow.”

David Summey

David Summey

Home: Arden
On board since: 2005
Occupation: Land surveyor
About the recent citizen attention: “I think it’s good. The July 1st deadline brought a lot of attention to the process, but I think the attention has done some good things. People have a better idea of the work we do.”
Is the board unfairly weighted with developers?: “Not at all. This is the best board I’ve seen. They work better together. It’s a good cross-section of the community. We don’t agree on any one item — ever. We’ve got lots of points of view. A lot of people tell me it’s a thankless job. Most of us are not on there for some hidden agenda. We’re on there trying to do something good for the community.”
Challenges for the future: “I think county zoning is something we’re going to have to deal with. And the sheer volume of time involved in that is going to be a real challenge. I don’t know what [the county is] going to do in the future — I hate to say they’ll have to pay people [to deal with zoning], but it’s going to be a really time-consuming thing.”

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