Thanks to open-space bonds passed in 2022 and generous landowners, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted to conserve 360 acres at its meeting Feb. 6.
The county used $400,000 in bond funding to bolster the conservation of about $3.4 million worth of parcels near Leicester and Black Mountain.
“These are beautiful pieces of property, and it’s really exciting that they’re going to be preserved for our future,” said commission Chair Brownie Newman after the 6-0 vote. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was not at the meeting.
The larger tract, 336 acres adjacent to Lake Eden and the site of the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain, was ranked a top priority by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, which will complete the “bargain purchase” of the property, said Michelle Pugliese, land protection director at SAHC.
The tract is special because of its seven headwater streams and its location surrounded by three protected ridgelines, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pugliese said.
Purchase of the conservation easement at Lake Eden Preserve was valued at $3 million. The landowner donated $1.5 million of the purchase price, and the rest was covered by a $550,000 grant from the N.C. Land and Water Fund, a $700,000 donation from a private philanthropist and $250,000 from the bond fund, according to a staff presentation.
In Leicester off South Turkey Creek Road, 30 acres of a working farm were conserved along the Farm Heritage Trail, said Ariel Zijp, farmland preservation manager for Buncombe County. The acreage has 54% “prime agricultural soils,” Zijp said.
“That’s really productive soils that are fantastic for farming. It’s also a working farm producing hay and beef cattle on pasture land, and it also has a great scenic benefit,” she said.
The county is spending $150,000 of bond funds on the Leicester property, matched equally by the landowner for conservation.
Landowners retain ownership of both parcels, but with the easement, the county controls any development rights, essentially protecting the land in perpetuity, said Jill Carter, open-space bond manager for Buncombe County.
“This is exactly the reason for these bond funds. Both of these projects really speak to what these bond funds can do,” said Commissioner Terri Wells.
Commissioners receive legislative update
During a biennial update to commissioners Feb. 6, government relations attorney Whitney Christensen of the Ward and Smith law firm told commissioners they had “fared better than most” on their 2023 legislative agenda.
“Call it a winning season,” she said.
Christensen cited the $2.8 million the county received from the state to alleviate flooding issues in Barnardsville, $2 million to help move farms farther from the French Broad River to improve water quality, $7 million for continued construction of the Interstate 26 interchange project and a portion of the statewide $59.4 million in supplemental funding for teacher salaries, among other items.
Christensen and Trafton Dinwiddie, also of Ward and Smith, highlighted increased funding for state employees — including for K-12 and community college education — and funding for McCormick Field among top priorities in 2024.
Other priorities included opposing any proposals to limit local government authority to regulate short-term rentals and evaluating methods to modernize occupancy tax guidelines “to meet the evolving visitation and infrastructure needs of Buncombe County,” according to the firm’s presentation.
Overall, Christensen commended commissioners for their work to build and maintain relationships with their state delegation, saying that is the “secret sauce” to getting things done in Raleigh.
Wells asked if the county had any chance at getting state funding for a sewer line extension in Candler, which would help with water quality issues in the western part of the county.
“For so many reasons, I think that project would be probably the best appropriation that you could seek in 2024. Of all the things that we’ve discussed, water projects have been at the very top of the list of what could be funded with state dollars over the last three budget cycles,” she said.
Newman also mentioned the possibility of state funding for the county’s Ferry Road development project, which includes recreation, infrastructure and affordable housing components.
Ward and Smith is paid $75,000 annually to help develop the legislative agenda. The 2024 short legislative session is scheduled to begin April 24.
County to consider donating laptops
Buncombe County may soon be making its retired laptops available to county residents.
In a presentation at the commission briefing before the regular meeting Feb. 6, commissioners expressed support for a program that would send the 450-500 laptops the county decommissions every year to the Land of Sky Regional Council to distribute to households in need.
Currently, the county gets between $17,000 and $23,000 per year on laptops no longer used by the county’s 1,600 employees by selling them on GovDeals.com, said Tim Love, director of economic development and governmental relations for Buncombe County.
In the proposed program, the county would provide them to the regional council, which would collect data on who receives devices and how they are used, he said. Only Buncombe County residents would be eligible.
According to 2021 census data, more than 10% of Buncombe County residents do not have access to computing device, Love said. That limits residents’ ability to get online, access telehealth services, access education and look for jobs.
Love recommended commissioners consider passing a resolution directing staff to donate all surplus laptops to the Land of Sky organization for three calendar years, when they would be able to check in on the program’s effectiveness.
Commissioners Newman, Wells, Martin Moore and Amanda Edwards expressed support for the program. The board will take the program up at its regular meeting Tuesday, Feb. 20.
School nurse program to receive funding through year
Buncombe plans to send $100,000 in unused funding from the county’s homeowner grant program to help make up a shortfall in the school nurse program.
The Mountain Area Health Education Center provides 31 nurses across the county’s public schools, which costs about $3 million per year. The program is projected to come up about $231,000 short this fiscal year, in part because of a loss of COVID-related funding and less-than-anticipated staff turnover this year, said Ellis Matheson, Buncombe’s public health director.
The homeowner grant program — which provides financial assistance with housing-related costs such as a mortgage, property taxes or insurance for qualified homeowners — is in its second year and has spent $230,000 serving 622 residents of Buncombe County and Asheville, leaving $113,000 unspent, according to Matheson’s presentation. The application period for the grant program ended Sept. 30.
MAHEC has identified $131,000 it can contribute to the school nurse program and will guarantee no reduction in student services for the remainder of the school year, Matheson said.