A zoning controversy pitting residents against a big retail project landed in front of the Buncombe County commissioners last week.
Although it’s the kind of battle that’s become almost commonplace within the Asheville city limits, the county typically doesn’t face the same type of heated controversies — even in the two townships that have land-use regulations.
The dispute at commissioners’ Dec. 19 meeting centered on property along Long Shoals Road in Limestone Township, which (along with Beaverdam Township) has its own zoning regulations.
Steve Nesbitt of Spake Real Estate (representing four property owners) asked commissioners to rezone 13.43 acres on Long Shoals Road from residential to commercial service. Ingles Markets has an option to buy the property for a 65,000-square-foot grocery store at CP&L Drive, between the I-26 exit and Hendersonville Road.
Complicating the matter was the Limestone Community Council’s 9-2 recommendation against rezoning that property and an adjoining parcel.
Neighbors opposing the project worried about increased traffic and the impact of adding a large commercial building to the neighborhood.
It was the first tough issue to confront the newly constituted Board of Commissioners. In the end, board members voted 4-1 (with Chairman Nathan Ramsey opposed) to rezone the property for the Ingles store and deny the rezoning for the adjacent property. But that decision came only after a lengthy public hearing — and spirited discussion among board members.
Buncombe County Zoning Administrator James H. Coman told commissioners that Ingles has an option to buy the land just west of CP&L Drive. That property is owned by R.V. and Kelly Witherspoon, Ronnie V. Witherspoon, Joseph R. Nesbitt and the WNC Veterinary Clinic. Eddie T. Sasser and Harvey W. Sasser own and have options to buy a total of 7.28 acres on the east side of the road, Coman said later.
He also told the board that if the commissioners voted to rezone the property, the county Board of Adjustment would have to approve certain design standards for the structure (since the proposed store is big enough to qualify as a “planned unit development”). The Board of Adjustment could add conditions governing exterior lighting, buffering, entrances and exits, Coman said.
Board Vice Chair David Gantt remarked that the Limestone Community Council’s recommendation carried a lot of weight and that he didn’t recall the council splitting its vote very often.
Nesbitt said it was his understanding that the commissioners had identified the area as a commercial corridor.
“We wholeheartedly agree with that assessment,” he affirmed.
The proposed Ingles — similar to the company’s new Fletcher store — would include a pharmacy, bookstore, video store, bakery, cafe and an automated gas station, Nesbitt said. Half of the tract would stay wooded, he added, and the all-brick structure would have two rows of pine trees along the side and rear. There would be an 8-foot fence in back, and attachments would be added as needed to keep the outdoor lights from bothering neighbors.
Nesbitt also noted that the state Department of Transportation plans to widen Long Shoals Road; road construction, he said, is expected to take 18 months after the contracts are awarded (which is scheduled to happen in 2002).
The store would serve nearby apartment complexes (including a proposed new one), said Nesbitt.
“Ingles usually does not create traffic on roads when they build stores,” Nesbitt maintained. “They just serve the traffic that’s already there.”
He also noted that the county currently receives $6,850 annually in property taxes on the parcel. Ingles estimates that the project would generate $39,300 in taxes and create 200 new jobs. If approved, Nesbitt guessed that the store would probably open by mid- to late 2002.
But Gantt worried about the impact of traffic on three nearby schools: Estes Elementary School, Valley Springs Middle School and Roberson High School.
“There’s too much traffic there,” Gantt complained, a concern echoed later in the meeting by Candler resident Jerry Rice.
Gantt went on to grill Nesbitt about lighting and possible neighborhood impacts, including what would happen to neighbor Wendel Burton‘s pond.
“We’re trying our best to work with him, and we certainly don’t want to dry his pond up,” Nesbitt said.
Commissioner David Young remarked that Ingles is a good corporate citizen.
Nine others spoke in favor of the project, including Al Hughes of the WNC Veterinary Clinic, who admitted that he would benefit if commissioners approved the rezoning. Hughes also observed that, despite neighbors’ concerns about changing the character of the area from residential to commercial, this has already happened.
“We have no desire to harm our neighbors, and as far as I know, neither do the Ingles Markets folks,” asserted Hughes.
But Burton, the pond owner, disagreed about the proposed store’s impact on the traffic situation, especially since there’s no light at the intersection. Traffic, he said, routinely backs up on Long Shoals Road because of the schools and the Biltmore Technology Park.
“I call this a hazardous situation,” Burton complained.
Neighbor Haywood Plott agreed, adding that the current traffic already snarls during the weekday rush hour.
“You’ll see absolute gridlock,” Plott warned, adding that the project would only add to the traffic woes.
Burton, a 13-year neighborhood resident, also talked about the pitcher plants he has on his property, along with muskrats, beavers and other critters that come to his land. But he added that he wouldn’t be bothered by the project if Ingles keeps the mud out of his pond.
“I do have a nature center, and I would like to preserve it,” Burton said.
Limestone Community Council member Frances Briggs, the third person who spoke against the rezoning change, said the township’s zoning ordinance is aimed at protecting the area from unwanted, unregulated growth as well as preserving property values.
“A change to commercial services will destroy the livability and integrity of the whole neighborhood,” predicted Briggs.
Her property lies next to the Sasser tract, and she said she didn’t want to be forced to relocate if the neighborhood became too commercial. She said later that she’d given the commissioners the names of nine families opposed to the change.
“We do not want to move,” she insisted. “We don’t feel we should be forced to move.”
In answer to some of the questions raised at the meeting, Nesbitt told the board that Ingles would request a traffic light at the intersection. In addition, Nesbitt said Ingles is required not to damage endangered plants.
Limestone Community Council member Dave Ogren — one of two members who favored the rezoning — told the commissioners that he understood Briggs’ feelings and agreed that the traffic seems to be “horrendous.”
But he noted that much of the discussion at the Community Council’s Oct. 3 meeting had hinged on the timing of the store opening in relation to the road-widening project.
“It appears that the corridor is steadily going toward business,” Ogren argued. “We just feel that it’s going to happen, and that’s the orderly way.”
After the public hearing ended, Commissioner Patsy Keever proposed that the board rezone the property for the Ingles project but not the Sasser property. Ingles is a known entity, but Sasser has no plan at the moment, she said.
And Gantt, while noting that the community is divided, said that adding a commercial-services district would limit sprawl.
“When you weigh it out, it’s probably good for the community,” he mused.
Commissioner Bill Stanley also favored the idea, saying he thinks the Ingles store is needed there.
Ramsey said he sees the area as a commercial corridor that shouldn’t have been zoned residential to begin with. Nonetheless, he opposed the motion, arguing that both pieces of land should be rezoned as commercial services.
“What we’re doing is, we’re picking winners and losers,” Ramsey asserted.
But Young disagreed, saying the Sasser property feels more residential than the Ingles parcel.
“I think a mix is good,” he added.
Although Ramsey insisted that the vote didn’t seem fair, Keever said the Sasser property would have another chance to become commercial if the city annexes it.
Stanley also added that, when a plan is developed for the Sasser property, the commissioners could look at it again and would probably vote to make it commercial services as well.
Both Briggs and Burton said after the meeting that they were disappointed by the board’s action.
Clean Air Trust Fund
County Attorney Joe Connolly updated the board on the status of the Regional Air Quality Agency’s Clean Air Community Trust Fund. County residents Betty Donoho and Albert Sneed filed a lawsuit last summer seeking to block formation of the trust fund and redirect its money to local schools, rather than using it for projects aimed at decreasing local air pollution.
Connolly said he expects the case to be resolved within the next six months. But in the meantime, he advised against appointing members to the trust fund’s board.
In the “pre-meeting” (held immediately before the regular session), Commissioners Young and Keever both mentioned that they’d gotten calls asking when the appointments would be made.
Although the plaintiffs argue that Buncombe County and the city of Asheville had no right to set up the trust fund, Connolly thinks otherwise.
“We strongly disagree,” Connolly said. “We think we’ll be successful.”
He added, however, that a small portion of the trust fund’s money might end up going to the school system.
But Connolly’s advice on appointments didn’t sit well with Ryan Pickens, the volunteer chair of the WNC Alliance’s Mountain Clean Air Task Force. He told the commissioners that they ought to appoint a trust-fund board immediately. Waiting, he argued, would leave the trust fund another six months behind schedule.
“We really feel the board should go ahead and be appointed,” Pickens urged.
After the meeting, he noted that the task force meets at 5:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays each month at 70 Woodfin Place, suite 326. He urged people interested in attending the meetings to call 258-8737.
School plans, United Way and more
In other action, the board unanimously approved the long-range facilities plans for the city and county schools.
The county also unanimously agreed to authorize the city of Asheville (on behalf of the Regional Water Authority) to issue $13.4 million in water-revenue bonds, to fund water-system improvements. They include enlarging the spillway at the Bee Tree Lake Dam, rehabilitating and improving a water-maintenance building, building a new 16-inch line from Smokey Park to Case Cove, and other capital improvements.
The Water Authority can’t sell bonds in its own, but the city can sell bonds on the Authority’s behalf if the city, county and Authority all agree to it, Water Resources Director Tom Frederick said later.
In other business, county employee Leronica Casey told the board that county employees had donated $76,346 to United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, exceeding their goal by $1,346.
“We’re very proud of the county’s United Way efforts,” she reported.
Keever presented Health Center officials with a plaque recognizing their exceptional efforts. About 44 employees donated $16,780, surpassing last year’s departmental total by $5,400 — the highest departmental increase in giving over last year.