Buncombe County Commission

His hand resting on his great-grandmother’s well-worn Bible, Nathan Ramsey was sworn into office last week as the new chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, before a crowd of enthusiastic supporters at the Buncombe County Courthouse.

Ramsey, a Republican, and the four returning Democratic commissioners all took their oaths of office on Dec. 4 in a brief ceremony conducted by Superior Court Judge Ronald K. Payne. About 60 people turned out for the occasion, the first official event to be held in the fifth-floor courtroom since its recent extensive renovation was completed.

Although each of the commissioners received a round of applause, only Ramsey’s arrival signaled a major change. He defeated veteran Tom Sobol, who had served as chairman for the past four years of his 16-year tenure on the board. The remainder of the incumbents were re-elected.

After the swearing-in, Ramsey also was treated to a less formal ceremony in the hallway outside the commissioners’ offices. About 20 supporters circled around to watch Leicester resident Peggy Bennett present Ramsey with a card and a nameplate on behalf of Citizens for Change, a political action committee that supported the Republican slate.

“He can reach out and touch it if he gets to feeling a little down and know we’re here for him,” Bennett said later.

Bennett also reported that Citizens for Change has metamorphosed into a citizens’ action committee that will support Ramsey and the other commissioners as well.

“We want to help and be here for all of them,” Bennett noted.

The entire board was treated to a small reception outside their offices, where they mingled with county department heads, members of the public and former candidates Gerald Dean and Mike Morgan. (Dean, who was a Democrat in the spring primary and a Reform Party candidate in the fall general election, revealed that he has recently switched his party affiliation to Republican.)

After snacking on holiday munchies, the commissioners headed down the hallway to hold their organizational meeting. Board members shared their first chuckle as the county’s TV monitor showed Ramsey’s name and title under a swimming otter in the recorded segment that opens the meeting’s TV broadcast. Once the recorded segment ended, Ramsey received an assist from Commissioner David Young, who noted, “You’re on.”

Despite the new mix of one Republican and four Democrats, the board unanimously agreed on all of the items put before it — including the decision to reappoint Clerk to the board Kathy Hughes, County Attorney Joe Connolly, Finance Director Nancy Brooks and Tax Director C. Jerome Jones.

Commissioner Patsy Keever (who held the position of vice chair on the previous board), nominated Commissioner David Gantt to be vice chair of the new board. The rest of the board agreed.

Commissioners also approved specific performance bonds for Jones, Brooks, Register of Deeds Otto DeBruhl and Sheriff Bobby Medford, and a blanket bond covering all other officers, employees and agents.

On the routine topic of setting the board’s meeting schedule, Ramsey noted that he favored changing it to the evening and to a day that wouldn’t conflict with the Asheville City Council’s meetings. Currently, the board holds a “pre-meeting” at 3:30 p.m. — followed by a 4 p.m. regular meeting — on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.

Dean — along with Steve Tucker, Pat Reid and Danny Roberts — told the commissioners they also favored changing the meeting time to allow more public participation.

“I’m also a working person, and I’d love to see a different time,” Roberts said.

But Hazel Fobes reminded the board that they’d tried changing the meeting time in the past and it didn’t seem to have an impact on the turnout. Gantt agreed, noting that it made “absolutely no difference.” Fobes suggested that the board consult the county’s activities calendar before switching meeting times, to avoid other conflicts.

Ramsey reported that the commissioners had decided to wait until the upcoming board retreat to discuss the matter further, and the board voted to keep its previous meeting schedule for now. The only change is the location of the pre-meeting, which will now be held in the commissioners’ chambers while the usual meeting room is being renovated. The board’s retreat will begin at 4 p.m. on Jan. 5 and will continue at 8 a.m. on Jan. 6 in the county’s training room on College Street.

The commissioners also agreed to appoint Ramsey to the county Audit Committee and to the Blue Ridge Authority (a regional board governing the agency that provides mental-health, substance-abuse and developmental-disabilities services).

“I look forward to working with the other fellow board members, and I think we can accomplish a lot of great things for Buncombe County,” Ramsey declared, before adjourning the meeting.

Zoning issue raised

While the organizational meeting was marked by change, the new board’s first regular meeting, held the next day, brought up a persistent issue: zoning.

Charlotte Lackey and several other residents of Woodland Hills, a development at the New Stock Road exit off U.S. Highway 19/23, pleaded with the commissioners to do something about a 228-unit apartment complex proposed for 17 wooded acres nearby.

“This proposed development is completely inappropriate for this site and would be devastating to our community,” Lackey stated.

She and other residents complained about potential traffic problems and environmental impacts from the proposed apartment complex, which would be built at the junction of New Stock Road, Weaverville Highway and Leisure Mountain Road.

In addition, Lackey noted that when Woodland Hills developer Jack Barfield sold the land to the Board of Education in 1966 (for $20,000), deed restrictions stated that the land was to be reserved for school and/or recreational purposes. The county Board of Education sold the land, in 1987, to Woodland Hills Associates (a partnership of commercial investors) for $475,000, Lackey pointed out. And now, apparently, the original deed restrictions aren’t being followed.

Gloria Carbonaro told the commissioners about the streams and wetlands on the property and suggested that the land could be used for a neighborhood park — not for commercial purposes.

And Charles Spear reported that the complex would almost double the neighborhood’s population, adding to the area’s existing traffic problems.

“Must Asheville be another Atlanta?” Spear asked.

Jim Eaker expressed concerns about new development increasing the possibility of flooding.

Two board members who support land-use regulations told residents they sympathized with their plight.

“I think we all support you in our hearts,” Commissioner Patsy Keever told the group.

But Gantt said commissioners’ hands were tied.

“You know we don’t have enforceable land-use planning, so there’s not anything we can do about your concerns,” Gantt told the residents.

Nor does the law require that residents be informed about planned new development nearby, he advised.

“You couldn’t be talking to more sympathetic ears,” Gantt said, adding that the county has been wrestling with the zoning issue. “We don’t have [zoning] in Buncombe County — the people have said they don’t want it.”

Connolly said that, although he hadn’t seen the deed, he didn’t think the county had standing to challenge the lifting of the deed restrictions.

“I just don’t know of any theory that the county has rights to step in and insist that the restriction be honored,” Connolly said. “We are simply not in a position to enforce this.”

Gantt, who is also an attorney, appeared to agree with Connolly, and he hinted that the commissioners may discuss zoning again soon.

“We might revisit [zoning],” Gantt said. “I hope we do in the near future.”

But that provided scant consolation for Woodland Hills residents.

“It’s terribly disappointing, because it seems as if the only other alternative is to go to court to stop the developers, if they continue to persist in their efforts,” Carbonaro reported after the meeting.

Resident Mary Rodman said the situation “underlines the need for some kind of zoning.”

But Jan Wiegman, a member of SW of Asheville (which proposes to develop the apartment complex), took issue with the neighbors’ concerns. The developers have an option to purchase the land and are awaiting financing, he said after the meeting.

Wiegman noted that the lawyer hired by the developers has concluded that the deed restrictions are no longer valid.

“I think the main objective of the people there is to close the door and say, ‘Go away,'” Wiegman said about the development’s critics. “That’s one we can’t honor. There’s a great need for housing in the Asheville area.”

He pointed out that the developers have tried to work with residents. They held a meeting to inform neighbors of the plans for the property, Wiegman noted, and have followed some of their suggestions, including eliminating direct access from the apartment complex to Leisure Mountain Road (except during construction). At the request of the state Department of Transportation, Wiegman said his group has moved the main entrance farther from the intersection and plans to add a turning lane. Developers have also been working to follow regulatory requirements covering erosion control and stream protection.

Wiegman (who said he personally favors zoning) believes the development fits the area.

“We feel it’s a good project, and it’s badly needed,” he stressed.

An incentive to leave

County Personnel Director Rob Thornberry asked the board to vote on an early-retirement incentives package for county employees. Similar plans the commissioners had approved in the past had saved the county about $266,000 per plan, he said.

“We’re looking forward to the same type of savings,” Thornberry reported.

He noted that 116 employees would be eligible to participate in the voluntary plan, which would allow them to receive a lump-sum payment equal to half of their current annual salary if they took early retirement. But those employees could not be rehired by the county for five years (except for retiring directors or supervisors, with whom the county manager could contract with for a limited period of time).

The plan also calls for a hiring freeze on any vacated position (or a comparable alternate position), to provide the cost savings to pay for the incentive — unless exempted by the county manager.

The offer would be extended until Jan. 31, and employees would have to retire by March 1.

The board voted unanimously to approve the plan, then moved on to other issues.

Commissioner Bill Stanley nominated Ramsey to take over Stanley’s role as a voting delegate for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners’ legislative-goals conference.

“What am I getting into, Bill?” Ramsey asked.

Stanley replied that the lengthiest discussion he recalled at a legislative-goals conference was over whether cockfighting should be reclassified as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor. He and the other representatives from eight mountain counties opposed the move, he noted, since it might affect some residents who raise chickens.

“I’m going to hear from Friends for Animals, I know,” Stanley predicted.

The board unanimously voted to send Ramsey to the conference.

Weaverville library, public comment and more

The commissioners also awarded more than a half million dollars in contracts for renovations to the Weaverville Public Library. The library’s 1920s facade will stay the same, but renovations will modernize the building and allow the county to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act by adding a stairway and an elevator, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton reported.

The improvements also will include a new ground-floor meeting room. Work should begin on Feb. 1 and take about a year to complete, Creighton told the board.

The commissioners awarded the following contracts (based on an architect’s recommendation) for the library renovations: Carolina Cornerstone, $365,327 (general contract); Evans & Schuster, $44,000 (plumbing); Bolton Corporation, $63,500 (mechanical) and Emory Electric, $92,024 (electrical services).

During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Candler resident Jerry Rice wished the new board the best, but said he’d like them to develop a formal agreement holding the county Board of Education accountable for the $10 million in teacher supplements given annually.

“We have not one shred of paperwork holding the Board of Education responsible for the money being spent,” Rice complained.

Dean reiterated his long-standing concerns: lowering taxes and creating jobs for young people in the county.

“I’ll be praying for everybody, and you pray for me, because we need it,” Dean concluded.

In other business, the board also made the following appointments: William Mance, Workforce Development board; Janette Morrow, Jennifer Ryder, Darlene Sneed, George Kushner, Eric Wolf and Jean Calloway, animal-cruelty investigators; and Bruce Ullerup, Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee.

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