Despite over an hour of public comment opposed to the proposal, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to rezone 764 acres owned by Biltmore Farms adjacent to the Pratt & Whitney plant.
Biltmore Farms requested that two parcels on each side of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Brevard Road be rezoned from residential and commercial service zones to employment zoning, which allows office and industrial purposes, storage, warehousing and wholesale trade, according to a staff analysis of the request.
The analysis notes that the undeveloped parcels are slated for a satellite campus for A-B Tech to provide “specialized manufacturing instruction in support of the Pratt & Whitney, as well as potential future spinoff industry workforce.”
Protesters asked commissioners to deny Biltmore Farms’ request to rezone the land over concerns that the new zoning would allow aerospace engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney to further expand in Buncombe County. In 2021, Biltmore Farms sold a 100-acre parcel to Pratt & Whitney for its manufacturing plant near the newly rezoned area.
More than 30 people spoke during the public comment period. Many who spoke asserted that the military technology created by Pratt & Whitney was aiding in the killing of Palestinians in Gaza.
“By working hand-in-hand with Pratt & Whitney on this project, A-B tech and the county have become complicit with the killings and destruction that Pratt & Whitney enable,” said Ken Jones, local resident and organizer of the group Reject Raytheon AVL. “The engines for the F-16s and F-35s being used by Israel are made by Pratt & Whitney. I say no to preparing workers for such war profiteers.”
Others, such as Swannanoa resident Melody Shank, argued that the land would be better used to help with the issues of affordable housing.
“I am not opposed to the rezoning if it is for the site of A-B Tech training. I am a former high school counselor and I know how important job training and development are for young people,” said Shank. “What I am not really supportive of is a company-specific or war industry-specific training center. … [The land] could be used to provide a mixed-income residential development, a community with green space and ample neighborhood services.”
After the public comments, Commission Chair Brownie Newman began to explain the county’s role in reviewing rezoning requests but was interrupted by protesters yelling “free, free Palestine.” After Newman called a five-minute recess, sheriff’s deputies escorted several protesters out of the commissioners’ chamber.
“Our comprehensive plan and our economic development policies do rightly emphasize the need to support manufacturing as a key component of our economy, and it is the sector of our economy that produces the highest wages in our community,” Newman said, following the recess. “One of the most fundamental things we hear from our community is that they don’t want Buncombe County to become a place where regular people cannot afford to live here. Affordable housing is a major part of that … but even more fundamental is whether or not people can find good-paying jobs.”
Staff recommended that the rezoning be approved because “it conforms to the recommendations from the Comprehensive Plan’s GEC Character Map, the Plan Policies and Actions, an analysis of neighborhood consistency, and the equity analysis.”
Newman then called for a vote to approve the zoning request, which passed unanimously. No other commissioners spoke on the topic.
“Shame on you!” yelled one member in the audience, following the vote.
Sheriff’s Office seeks $186,000 for increased downtown presence
During the agenda briefing before the commission meeting, commissioners heard a proposal from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office regarding a $186,000 initiative that would increase law enforcement in downtown Asheville during times when it receives the most complaints from business owners and employees. The commissioners were not provided with the proposal nor its associated costs before the briefing.
Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller said the proposed initiative was in response to concerns from downtown workers.
“When we speak with the city, they say they have this under control, but that’s not the message that we’re getting from the business owners and the workers who work downtown,” Miller said. “We are just trying to do our best for our community and bring everyone to the table to find solutions that we all can live with.”
The proposal, presented by Chief Deputy Herbert Blake, would add three, two-person teams downtown from 5-7 p.m. and 10 p.m.-
2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Furthermore, the funding would support an additional deputy in the BSCO’s Real-Time Intelligence Center for remote monitoring. The proposal doesn’t call for new hires but would allow for overtime for current deputies.
Blake said that the initiative was designed to target homelessness but noted that it was not designed to deter homeless people from coming downtown; rather, he said, it is meant to deter “those who have been coming out and creating disturbances.”
“The Supreme Court ruled years ago that it is not against the law to be anywhere in America, so long as they are not breaking the law,” Blake said. “It is the individuals that are breaking the law that we are hoping to deal with.”
Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara asked for further details regarding how deputies would respond to encounters with the homeless.
“We believe that a more visible presence will serve as a tremendous deterrent for many of the homeless who come downtown,” Blake said. “If a person commits a criminal act, they will be charged accordingly. If it is someone that we find is in need of help, we can take that person to the hospital and have them assessed by a mental health clinician. If that clinician determines that the individual is in need of other services, they can make that ball begin to roll.
“The overall goal of this initiative is to treat the issue of homelessness downtown and eventually for all of Buncombe County,” Blake continued. “We want to be able to implement this so that we can take anyone that we encounter who is homeless and a candidate for help and get them that help.”
The commission did not vote on the proposal, with several members requesting more time for review. Newman said the request could be on the agenda for the commission’s next meeting in January.