Conservation matters dominated the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ first—and last—December meeting. In a show of institutional largesse, the board committed more than $1.6 million in public funds to new conservation easements around the county, which will help preserve nearly 850 acres of open space.
“I’m proud to serve on a board that is concerned about conservation,” Commissioner David Gantt declared, after the board approved the funding on a 4-0 vote (Commissioner David Young was out of town). “We’re not going to be here forever, but we have to set a pattern—set a goal—that we’re going to set aside land for the future.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey seconded Gantt’s enthusiastic remarks. “These easements will last forever,” he said. “Very little else of what we do will.”
Most of the projects in question are in the Sandy Mush community in northwest Buncombe County, whose boundary, the Newfound Mountains, presents an unspoiled ridgeline that’s visible from downtown Asheville. In each case, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy shepherded the deal. Under conservation easements, landowners retain their property but give up the right to develop it. Besides the money, they typically get tax advantages—plus the satisfaction of knowing their land will remain undisturbed.
Conservation easements with individuals now protect 3,200 acres in Sandy Mush, and an easement with Progress Energy shelters another 2,600 acres, according to Carl Silverstein, the conservancy’s executive director. “A number of the projects we’ve done this year are located in Sandy Mush,” he noted, showing the commissioners a photograph of the Newfound Mountains ridgeline. “The efforts there really will have a lasting benefit for the citizens of the county.” Silverstein identified property visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway; larger, open tracts that support wildlife; parcels that are close to already-protected land; ecologically sensitive areas and working farms as the best candidates for protection via conservation easements.
The county typically contributes cash to cover transfer and survey fees in these transactions; the state Farmland Preservation Fund also helps. Matching funds for the Sandy Mush projects have come from philanthropists Brad and Shelli Stanback.
That’s vice chair to you
Commissioner Gantt got his own moment in the sun when the board voted 4-0 to elect him vice chair. Outgoing Vice Chair Carol Peterson nominated Gantt, adding, “I don’t know that anyone has enjoyed this [role] as much as I have.”
Also recognized during the meeting was Erwin Gunnells, this year’s recipient of the N.C. Library Association’s William H. Roberts Public Library Distinguished Service Award. Gunnells is a children’s librarian at the Asheville-Buncombe Library System’s north Asheville branch.
Library system Director Ed Sheary called Gunnells “the conscience of the library’s children’s program.”
Spread a little sunshine
During public comment, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell presented a proposal from the Vance Policy Institute, a newly formed public-policy think tank. “This policy I’m proposing is for transparency in government, and we’re asking that both Buncombe County and the city of Asheville pass ordinances embracing this,” explained Bothwell, who co-founded the institute.
Both governmental bodies, he said, “have a long history of meeting in closed sessions or in subquorum groups, in violation of the spirit and/or letter of North Carolina open-meeting laws.
“More troubling still is that decisions reached in such closed sessions have repeatedly resulted in actions that run counter to the welfare of the public.” Among other examples, Bothwell cited the county’s controversial decision to lease land to Progress Energy for a power plant in Woodfin (since canceled).
Bothwell urged both governmental bodies to emulate Florida’s sunshine law, which he said is “widely considered to be the most effective and successful such legislation in the United States.
“The main change we’re proposing is that … if any two public officials or their representatives have a meeting intended to discuss matters which will come before the body, that that constitutes a public meeting.”
Bothwell gave a copy of the proposal to each commissioner, as well as County Manager Wanda Greene.
And when longtime gadfly Jerry Rice rose to speak after Bothwell, Chairman Ramsey said with a smirk, “Are you gonna say that if me, myself and I meet together that it’s a violation of open-meeting laws?”
In the rezone
Three parcels in Limestone Township, near Arden, south of Asheville were rezoned on identical 3-1 votes with Gantt opposed. The three contiguous lots are owned by Edith Reems, Michael and Letha Hinman, and Rita Cotter respectively. In each case, the landowners wanted the zoning changed from residential to neighborhood services, which would enable the owners to convert the property to light-business uses.
Although the Planning Board had recommended vetoing the requests, the Planning Department was in favor of the changes.
In other business, the board unanimously authorized a contract for site development at the planned animal shelter on Pond Road. The property, which was donated to the county by Bob Lewis and his wife, Ann, will also house the Asheville Humane Society’s Adoption and Education Center. Because a portion of the site was once used as a “borrow pit,” 32,000 cubic yards of dirt will be needed to level it, reported Planning Director Jon Creighton. A retaining wall will also be required on the east end.
“What’s the timetable for this work?” asked Ramsey.
“It’s a 120-day contract to do the work,” said Creighton, weather allowing.
The low bidder, JLS Co., was awarded the $699,587 contract.
The board also voted 4-0 to approve a “declaration of intent” to reimburse itself for capital expenditures related to several projects: building and equipping the animal shelter, buying land at 40 Coxe Ave. in Asheville to build a parking deck for the Department of Social Services, and the pending acquisition of the Leicester Crossing property on the New Leicester Highway as the future home of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. Revenues from the bond issue financing the projects will pay back the county.
In a final move before going into closed session to consider a legal matter, the commissioners unanimously approved two appointments: Max Haner to the Community Action Opportunities Board and Meredith E. Powell to the Land Conservation Advisory Board.