Local activists are asserting that the interviewing process for open seats on the county Planning Board lacks transparency and is tilted towards developers, after the county disqualified a number of applicants based on an unwritten rule. WNC Alliance is meeting tonight to plot strategy about the board, while the county has announced that it may also interview for a seat representing the Asheville City School district.
The nine-member board has final approval over subdivisions and some developments in the county. Its recommendations also carry weight on such important — and controversial — issues as rewriting development rules or interpreting them in connection with matters like steep-slope development.
Four members of the board appointed in 2002 were kept on past their usual term without being formally reappointed, while one, landscape architect Jay Marino, was formally reappointed in 2005. Board members are allowed to serve up to two three-year terms.
Also, of 21 original applicants, the commissioners chose to interview 12, citing the fact that the others didn’t live in the same school districts as the four members who are stepping down. Though it’s not a written rule, the board has one member from each of the six school districts and three at-large seats. The commissioners are currently interviewing applicants for the Erwin, Enka, Owen and Roberson districts — the four seats representing the members who had been kept on past their terms.
That came as unwelcome news to activists like Al Gumpert, who blasted the commissioners at their Sept. 2 meeting.
“Citizen groups such as the WNC Alliance, Mountain Voices Alliance and Friends of Town Mountain are advocating for a balance between development and community interest on the Planning Board,” Gumpert said. “Among the remaining 12 applicants are three or four real-estate agents, a developer, a contractor, a mortgage broker, a landscape architect and a construction executive. It would appear that the majority of the applicants, if appointed, would not bring balance to the Planning Board but would maintain the current bias towards development and have significant conflicts of interest. For example, a real-estate agent might approve a developer’s subdivision plan at a Monday Planning Board meeting and solicit that developer for a listing on Tuesday.”
Tom Alexander originally applied for an at-large seat but was not disqualified, and is now being interviewed for the Roberson seat. Alexander works for highway-construction company Taylor & Murphy, the vice president of which is Bill Newman, who is also the current chair of the Planning Board (Newman is one of the members being replaced).
“Is it just a coincidence the current Planning Board chairman works for the same company?” Gumpert asked.
He also said he couldn’t find the rule about members having to reside in certain districts.
“That’s not a written policy,” he said. “It’s not the county code. It seems like something you made up out of the blue.”
“It wasn’t from out of the blue,” Commissioner David Young shot back. “When we first set up the Planning Board, that was our intent. Granted, we didn’t make it a formal policy because we wanted leeway, but by doing that we make sure, for example, that we have someone who understands the Erwin district. It seems to be good from a balance standpoint.”
After the meeting, Gumpert pointed out that Marino had also reached the end of his term, and Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes e-mailed him agreeing and noting that would mean the county may take applications for Marino’s seat, representing the city.
“Unless the commissioners decide to waive the two-term limit rule and allow him to continue to serve,” Hughes told Xpress. “It is their rule and they can do that. We haven’t advertised for that seat yet, but the board will probably announce that we’ll be interviewing for it soon.”
Hughes said that the remaining four members, who were all appointed in 2005 and are eligible for a second term, have indicated that they want to continue serving on the board and thus will most likely be reappointed by the commissioners.
“They [the commissioners] haven’t indicated that they want to open those seats up for interview,” she added.
The applicants who were disqualified based on their location are: former Biltmore Forest Mayor Ramona Rowe; Claudia Muse of the WNC Health Coalition; green builder Richard Soderquist; Dennis Michele of the Asheville Civitan Club; retired builder Steve Norris; conservationist Barbara Clough; Joe Sechler, former president and one of the co-founders of Friends of Town Mountain; Tony Hauser, founder of the green-design firm Ambient Design; and attorney Stephen Lending.
If Marino’s seat is opened up, Sechler, Hauser, Lending and Soderquist could apply for it, Hughes indicated.
Lending, who was surprised at initially being disqualified, told Xpress that he’d regularly attended Planning Board meetings before deciding to apply.
“I’d hope to bring some balance; I’m pro-development, but [pro-]responsible development,” he said. “I don’t like what I’ve seen from the planning board. They really bend over backwards to help the developer.”
Yesterday, WNC Alliance sent out an e-mail announcing that one of the focuses of their regular meeting (held in their offices at 7 p.m. tonight) would be the board appointments.
“It appears as if our commissioners have ignored our requests for a more diversified planning board and a balance between development and community interests,” the e-mail read. “It’s time to talk strategy.”
The commissioners are expected to vote on the planning board appointments in October.
— David Forbes, staff writer