After a tense public hearing that saw one person thrown out of the chambers, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners reinstated countywide zoning in a 4-1 vote.
Eight months after the N.C. Court of Appeals struck down the county’s zoning ordinance on grounds of insufficient public notice, county staff had a new ordinance and maps ready for the commissioners’ approval.
But that same ruling also reinvigorated the anti-zoning movement. During a long and contentious public hearing, many speakers — some wearing “Let us Vote” stickers calling for a referendum on the issue — accused the county of ignoring the will of the people and infringing on basic property rights. Before the hearing, Chair David Gantt asked critics to “be respectful of one another.”
The rhetoric still became heated.
“This is what happens in communist countries,” West Asheville resident Hope Herrick asserted.
Enka resident Jerry Rice framed the zoning push as an attempt to push the poor out and bring the well-heeled in.
“We want to provide a haven for the rich and famous,” he said. “We’ll rape our mountains to give the wealthy what they need. 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. If you’d given the people in the community the opportunity to speak, they would have had the same questions to ask you, but you never gave them the opportunity. You don’t represent the people you claim to represent. 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. But I tell you one thing: History will show how many baboons are sitting behind those desks.”
The comparison to a simian was too much for Gantt, and he banged his gavel.
“Let’s go, Jerry, cut it out,” he said.
“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 sheriff’s deputy escorted him out of the room at Gantt’s direction. (In the picture above, Rice is shown after the expulsion.)
“If you’re going to be like that, we’re not going to respect your right to be here,” Gantt declared.
Other speakers took issues with the new ordinance’s ban on manufactured homes in some of its residential districts — a prohibition not in its 2007 predecessor — which, they said, will harm a valuable source of affordable housing. Others said the county had given insignificant notice about the issues, citing the size of signs announcing the hearing.
While the vast majority of the speakers opposed zoning, some praised the step.
“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,” South Buncombe resident Mary Lou Davies said.
None of the commissioners offered a comment before they cast their votes. Vice Chair Bill Stanley was the only dissenting vote.
In other developments at the meeting:
• The commissioners also got an earful from residents of the Mills Gap Road area, near the contaminated site of the former CTS of Asheville plant, about what they see as unacceptable delays in cleaning up tricholoroethylene in the ground 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 said, asking again for the county to place residents of Chapel Hill Church Road — where a contaminated well was recently found — on city water.
Penland said that, contrary to the county’s assertion that there is no imminent threat to Chapel Hill Church Road residents — and thus no need to put them on city water — the well had tested extremely high and probably indicated spreading contamination.
Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone did say that the director of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has responded to a county request for more information about the public-health dangers of the contamination, and agreed to press the Environmental Protection Agency to release more information.
Frue repeated the county’s frequent assertion that its powers in the situation are limited by state and federal law and that the county has no standing to directly sue CTS for compensation.
“As for the imminent threat, we’ve been told there’s no danger to wells that aren’t testing positive; we have to trust the EPA and DENR on this, they have the expertise,” Frue said.
• The board also approved the sale of county property at 785 Merrimon Ave. to Mountain Housing Opportunities to build a 60-unit affordable housing complex. The project is scheduled for completion in 2012.
— David Forbes, staff writer