The last time the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners took one of the many steps required to reinstate zoning throughout the county, they faced a roomful of zoning opponents, many demanding a referendum.
Not so during its Aug. 18 meeting. The commissioners voted unanimously to pass the new zoning maps for the unincorporated areas of the county, as well as the Limestone and Beaverdam townships, to the Buncombe County Planning Board for review. There was little opposition this time, with only one speaker criticizing the move towards zoning.
The commissioners passed a zoning ordinance in 2007, but in March the N.C. Court of Appeals struck it down, declaring that there had been insufficient public notice and insufficient time for the county planning board to consider the ordinance. That sent the county back to the drawing board and zoning opponents back to the barricades.
The new county zoning map, displayed on TV screens around the room, has now emerged from the drawing board, as have some changes to the overall zoning ordinance.
"We have made some changes since the Court of Appeals overturned our ordinance," said Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton, noting that the reworked zoning ordinance will place fewer restrictions on mobile homes and duplexes. The new ordinance also tightens public-notice requirements to ensure that they conform to state law.
One of the court's criticisms of the old ordinance was that hundreds of changes to the zoning map were made in the period just before the ordinance was approved. To avoid a repeat of that scenario, Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue noted that any parcel changed late in the process will be designated "open use," the least restrictive zoning classification. In total, 748 properties will have different zoning from before.
But most properties — over 64,000 — would have the same zoning they had before the ordinance's repeal.
"The vast majority is identical to what it was a few months ago," Frue said. "We're going to make it as easy as possible for citizens to find out what their zoning will be. The problem was, we were dealing with three sets of ordinances and a set of statutes, and they just weren't consistent."
Chair David Gantt reaffirmed the board's commitment to bringing zoning back, saying it gives people an important voice in the future of the community — although he acknowledged that some see it as "the end of the world."
Hope Herrick, speaking in the public comment portion at the end of the meeting, compared zoning to a dictatorial, centrally run economic system.
"With all these laws already on the books, why would you all want to zone our county," Herrick said. "It gives local government more power over the people, to restrict their personal property rights. Several years ago that would have been called communist, socialist. Of course now it's called progressive."
The commissioners agreed to send a letter to Gov. Bev Perdue calling for better communication between state and federal authorities and the county-appointed council that's monitoring the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site.
The board also agreed to send another letter to the governor expressing commissioners' concerns about the closing of the Environmental Quality Institute, which did soil and water testing. Activists who live near the CTS site have criticized the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources for what they see as a lack of action in cleaning up groundwater contaminated by the chemical TCE, a possible carcinogen.
Last month, the EPA's inspector general's office announced that it would investigate the conduct of the Southeast regional office in the case.
"What we would like to see is a letter asking that our [citizen's advisory group] be notified anytime someone from the EPAs inspector general's office is in town," said Aaron Penland, who lives near the CTS site and has been active in calling for a complete cleanup. "Our group needs to be kept in the loop. A lot of things have transpired, and we've been left in the cold. We'd like the opportunity to speak to the inspector general, to give him our point of view, instead of him just getting that from the EPA. No one in our community has faith in the EPA; we've lost it."
Penland also told the board that area residents were distressed by the announced closing of the EQI due to UNCA's budget crunch, noting that the center filled a vital role and would be invaluable in providing independent testing around the contaminated area.
"The EQI lab has done tremendous work over the last 15 years, and they're funded primarily by grants," Penland said. "They've done work all over the area; they really deserve a second shot. We're losing a really vital piece of equipment, not just for the community, but for future generations. They are the independent tester we wanted."
The board agreed to send the letters.
"It's a shame they did that," Gantt said about the EPA neglecting to inform the citizen's advisory group.
Carbon footprint smaller
Turning to more positive environmental news, county General Services Director Greg Isreal touted the many steps the county has taken to reduce its carbon footprint — steps that have also sharply reduced the county's energy expenditures.
"In Buncombe County you have to blend fiscal responsibility [and] state and federal mandates with environmental stewardship."
The county is in the process of replacing the courthouse windows, something Isreal said will further increase energy savings. The replacement of 600 lights in the courthouse with more modern, environmentally sound fixtures in 1997 paid for itself within three years, he said. It has saved a quarter of a million dollars in energy costs and was equivalent to taking 21 cars off the road in terms of reducing carbon emissions.
Now, he said, "this sort of effort has become routine," with light fixtures, automated systems, air conditioning and vehicles all geared toward saving energy and reducing their environmental impact.
URT… wait a second
The board also ruled Alan Rosenthal out of order when he asked them to rescind the appointment of Joe Scotto to the board of local public access channel URTV.
"I'm here to ask you [to] rescind that, and I've provided the information to do that," Rosenthal said, asserting that Scotto made false statements about his URTV experience in his application to serve on the board.
That's when Commissioner Holly Jones called for Rosenthal to stop because she had a problem with where his comments were heading.
"Nobody supports public comment more than me, but I'm uncomfortable with a person being talked about that's not us," Jones said.
County Attorney Joe Connolly agreed.
"What's appropriate is that you've provided that information to the board, and I'm sure they will direct our office to review that information and see if the board needs to follow up on that," Connolly told Rosenthal. "Making accusations about false information in public comment is not a place we should go."
"With all due respect I'm a citizen and I'm due my voice in these chambers," Rosenthal shot back. "When I bring information to you that you took a board's and commission's application and did not vet it, that you just took the person at their word, I'm bringing information that I worked hard on. I'm not making silly comments. I demand my time to make my case."
At that point Gantt struck his gavel.
"Sir, you're out of order," he said. "Our county attorney has made a ruling and we're not going to have any personal attacks. I'm going to refer this to the county attorney and if there's been something improper, they'll advise us on that. If you have a comment to make that doesn't involve a personal attack, we'll hear you. Otherwise, you're through."
Gantt promised that he would contact Rosenthal to inform him of the results of the attorney's inquiries.
Rosenthal has been an active critic of URTV, sending out many e-mails highlighting what he believes to be significant prior criminal charges that were filed against URTV producers who support the station's management.
Scotto is currently treasurer of the URTV board. The county and the city of Asheville both appoint two members to the station's board, and they also distribute the cable franchise-fee funds that make up the majority of its funding.
In recent months, critics of URTV's management have asserted that the station has violated open-meetings law and that its management has sought to silence critics. Supporters of management, meanwhile, have said that the station is being run more effectively than before and that the critics are pursuing personal vendettas. Both supporters and critics have turned out at Asheville City Council and commissioners' meetings over the last month.