Elections in Woodfin are normally less contentious affairs. The same six people have sat on the town’s Board of Commissioners — known as the Board of Aldermen until last year — since at least 2011. Only two of the six nonpartisan elections for the board since 2009 have had more candidates than open seats. Mayor Jerry Vehaun hasn’t faced a challenger since first winning office in 2003.
Things are very different this time around.
As Election Day approaches on Tuesday, Nov. 2, eight candidates are vying for three seats on the governing body for the town of roughly 8,000 people to the northwest of Asheville. Incumbents Jackie Bryson, Debbie Giezentanner and Don Hensley face hopefuls Ellen Brown, Eric Edgerton, Jim McAllister, Linwood Nichols and Hazel Thornton. Of those challengers, only Nichols has previously sought elected office, placing last in the four-person Woodfin board race of 2019.
Asked why this year’s race is so contested, challengers and incumbents alike agree: concerns over development, primarily triggered by a proposed residential project of nearly 1,400 new apartments known as The Bluffs at River Bend. Many residents of both Woodfin and Asheville’s Richmond Hill neighborhood have fiercely opposed the project, which remains under consideration by Woodfin’s Planning and Zoning Board of Adjustment and has yet to go before the town commissioners.
“The increased participation this election cycle can be attributed to the disgust most Woodfin residents feel after watching their town commission prioritize the profits of developers over the well-being of residents for decades,” says Edgerton, who works as an attorney for the city of Asheville. “Our town has become the landing spot for developers who are either unwilling or uninterested in taking the steps needed to ensure their project doesn’t harm the surrounding community.”
As the town’s vice mayor, Giezentanner similarly flags the role that decisions over land use play in the race. “The election demonstrates the public’s fear that the town of Woodfin is going to be too easy on developers,” she says. “It is important to all Woodfin commissioners to have balanced growth, which keeps taxes low, along with protection of our environment and our small-town way of life.”
Rules and regulations
Giezentanner notes that she and her colleagues on the board have already made some moves to manage development. Woodfin hired its first dedicated planning and zoning employee in 2020, she points out, and the town is working to revise the Mountain Village zoning district that applies to the property slated for The Bluffs.
But Woodfin also committed a major zoning misstep earlier this year. On May 18, the town revised its code of development ordinances to align with the requirements of a new state law, Chapter 160D. However, as reported by the Citizen Times, the revision was found to be invalid in August because Woodfin did not have a comprehensive plan in place, as mandated by the state. Although commissioners had considered such a plan in 2009, according to Town Administrator Eric Hardy, it was never formally adopted.
That oversight, Thornton suggests, casts Woodfin’s current leaders in a very bad light. “No one in town government noticed the lack of a general plan, or if they did, nothing was done about it,” she says. “In the world of municipal government, that is a catastrophe.”
Following the discovery of the oversight, Giezentanner says, someone placed flyers in the mailboxes of Woodfin residents alleging that all town zoning actions since 2009 were illegal. That claim is untrue, she says: North Carolina municipalities did not have to comply with Chapter 160D until July 1 of this year, so the law would not have applied to the town’s prior decisions. But she believes the rumors have fueled criticism of the current board.
“I have been trying to reach out to people individually with what I consider to be the correct information,” Giezentanner says. “I believe that it is very difficult to ‘turn the tides’ when there is so much misinformation and negative comments being communicated.”
(Bryson and Hensley, the two other incumbents up for reelection, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Xpress also did not receive comment from candidates Brown, who serves as an alternate on Woodfin’s Planning Board, or Nichols.)
McAllister, a retired sales manager who recently served as campaign treasurer for Democratic U.S. House candidate Moe Davis, says Woodfin’s lack of a comprehensive plan speaks to a broader lack of vision among the town’s leadership. If elected, he hopes to hold public hearings on what the municipality should look like in 10 years and if it should develop a denser town center for commercial purposes.
“Look around at the other towns surrounding Woodfin, and most of them have an identity. And we really don’t,” McAllister says. “I’m afraid if we don’t have that discussion and don’t take some action, we’ll be seeing dozens of proposals for high-rises and mixed uses along the river, and we need to get ahead of that.”
Thornton agrees. She claims that Woodfin’s current zoning designations for The Bluffs as proposed and other areas are irresponsible and “will harm public safety if implemented.” In response, she hopes to strengthen the town’s land use plan and seek extensive public input on the topic.
More at stake
Beyond issues of development, Edgerton says, Woodfin’s government should become more transparent, including its Police Department. Because of the town’s small size, he continues, state law doesn’t require Woodfin to report the racial breakdown of people its police stop or arrest. He says the police should do so voluntarily as a way to build community trust.
And Giezentanner says her focus in her next four-year term would be completing several recreation projects underway in the town. Proposed greenways would link the town with Asheville’s River Arts District and offer a route along Beaverdam Creek, while an expanded Riverside Park would feature an artificial whitewater wave in the French Broad River for paddlers.
Giezentanner adds that the past two years have been challenging for Woodfin, citing the 2019 death of longtime Town Manager Jason Young from cancer, the COVID-19 pandemic and “very difficult times” for law enforcement. But she hopes voters recognize how the “Board of Commissioners and our mayor worked together to solve the day-to-day management problems of our community” in those difficult circumstances.
McAllister argues that Woodfin residents should consider the future more than the past. He’s personally knocking on the doors of 200 potential constituents — more people than voted for any of the incumbent board members in 2017 — to spread his message.
“Woodfin is an amazing little green jewel that really hasn’t been discovered by the rest of the world,” he says. “We need to all stand up together and make sure that we don’t let it be ruined.”