The public-comment stretched nearly three hours at the Feb. 3 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting, as a tsunami of local residents expressed their displeasure with two recent and highly controversial county decisions — the planned closure of the county’s only indoor aquatic center, Zeugner, and the equestrian revisions to the animal-control ordinance. Citizens — including goggled swim-team members — overran the chambers, with 25 or so moving to the overflow seating set on the first floor.
Two weeks ago, County Manager Wanda Greene had announced that the decades-old Zeugner Center was going to close for good. Almost immediately, swim fans and supporters mobilized to make their voices heard. The group “Save Zuegner Center, Save Our Swim Teams” was created around Jan. 23, with organizers urging people to come in force to the commissioners’ meeting.
Before they got to speak, Greene reminded commissioners about the current state of the old pool, which has become difficult to maintain, and the possibilities for a new facility. The biggest issue is, in fact, not a new pool itself — whatever form it will take — but where to put swim teams while one is being constructed.
“We are finding practice and competitive pools for the next swim season, working with a number of people who already have pools, some open, some closed, but we’re trying to see what we can do to get those in place,” said Greene.
But swim coaches, fans and athletes all pointed out the impossibility of this plan.
“There were 13 meets at the [Zeugner] pool this season, with 1,191 participants,” said Jim Cottam. “There were 24 teams that participated in at least two meets. Other coaches and I have conservatively estimated that over 60 percent in all of Western North Carolina — not Buncombe, but all Western North Carolina — took place at Zeugner. Once you send these teams out looking for more pool time, there’s going to be a bloodbath, because all of us are going to be going for the same pool time.”
“There is nowhere,” he continued, “that you’re going to put these three teams for 60 percent of these swim meets.”
“Don’t close it and give these kids nowhere to go,” said Donna Caudle, whose daughter is a swimmer. “You wouldn’t close a football field down and say, ‘You need to practice at another school,’ but that’s basically what you’re doing. You’re saying, ‘We’ll find somewhere you can fit in.’ But you’re not going to get the time. Nobody’s going to get the time.”
The Zeugner Center is utilized every school day during the season, with the three local teams rotating usage of the facility for practices, in addition to regular meetings. Everyone agreed that a new facility needed to be built, but that the center should stay open until that happens.
“I’m not asking to keep Zeugner open forever,” said Michael Kirby, a swimmer at A.C. Reynolds High School. “I know it needs to be shut down. But let’s build the pool first before we shut down what’s already existing, so we can transition.”
“We have been to five or six swim meets at Zuegner,” said Amy Davis, whose son is a swimmer. “It is — like my son would say, he calls it ‘the dungeon’ — it’s not the best pool. All we ask, really, is that you keep the pool open until you come up with an alternative.”
“We all know the [center] needs to be replaced,” said Camille Long, a sophomore at T.C. Roberson High School who swims both for that school and the year-round YMCA Piranhas. “We know because we swim there everyday. It needs to be shut down, but not before we have another place to swim.”
Long went on to take commissioners to task for what could be interpreted as a lackadaisical approach to building a new indoor facility: “It’s public record that the county knows these problems [with the center], as evidenced by capital plans as far back as 2005. Every year, it’s on the capital plan to replace Zuegner; seeing it there feels like Christmas, only to be let down every year.”
“As a whole, the swimming community has been patient and refrained from complaining about the conditions in which we train. The result is that the county has overlooked our need. We have watched as soccer fields and baseball fields, parking garages and greenways, have been erected, knowing and expecting that the honorable commissioners would give us our goal: a new facility. We ask that you allocate funds for the aquatics center that you have put on the capital plan for years. We’re asking you to give us the opportunity to succeed … with an aquatics center we can all be proud of.”
Commissioners took no action on the comments, however, taking a short recess before returning for round two of public comment, this time on the recently approved amendments to the animal-control ordinance. Unlike the focus of previous meetings, this one focused on the plight of horses.
The equestrian amendment was an entirely new section of the ordinance and drew the most ire for its description of “adequate shelter,” which included requirements for erecting three-sided or fully enclosed shelters with a minimum of 100 feet per animal, requiring that any three-sided, open-front shelter had to have enough space for the animal to “comfortably stand-up, lie down and turn around simultaneously.”
“’Comfortably stand-up, lie down, and turn around simultaneously,’” joked Bruce Peterson, a horse owner. “I don’t know if [horses] can do [those things at the same time]. I’m sure you [commissioners] can.”
Speakers asked that the ordinance be rescinded or, at the very least, delayed.
“We were not aware this ordinance was going to be put before this body, and there would be provision affecting the horse industry,” said Doug Tate, board member of the North Carolina Horse Council. “We’re asking for a 60-day reprieve. There are 5,670 horses in Buncombe County alone, and these shelter requirements will have a major impact not only on horse owners, but the industry as a whole. We’d like to entertain a dialogue with [commissioners] so we can have a reasonable ordinance that makes sense.”
Tate, among others, also pointed out conflicting definitions of equines in state and county definitions and ordinances.
“Horses are not companion animals,” said Tate. “They’re equine — livestock. The proper care and management of horses does not mandate a manmade shelter or three-sided enclosure. The vagueness and enforceability of this ordinance is suspect and needs to be reviewed. It’s at best subjective and not based on facts supported by industry experts who represent equine welfare.”
Several veterinarians were in attendance as well, and backed up Tate’s words.
“Horses have lived outdoors with natural windbreaks as their only housing for centuries,” said Dr. Beverly Hargus. “Human environmental needs and wants play a major role in designing horse facilities. Often human wants may be in conflict with the environmental needs of the horse.”
Dr. Hargus researched care procedures in different states, including Maine and Minnesota, both “a lot colder than we are. Horses acclimate extremely well. Our goal is to take care of horses, and in taking care of them, we’re not worried about three-sided shelters. [We] need to concentrate on food, water and space for these horses. We don’t need to restrict them to a shelter that is not natural for them. I recommend we revisit this ordinance, and that you might ask some of these people here tonight for help.”
“[Horses] do not require manmade shelter in order to thrive,” said veterinarian Vicky Bochynek. “They instinctually know how to find natural shelter. … They are naturally a … species designed to see far distances and flee from the perceived danger, not to seek shelter and hide. … Caves and dens are where predators can be found, and a three-sided manmade shelter mimic the very thing their natural instincts tell them to avoid.”
Others brought up the human cost of the new shelter requirements as well.
“Thirty-four percent of horse owners have a household income of less than $50,000, and 46 percent have an income of $25,000 to $75,000,” said Justin Gillespie, the agricultural education teacher at North Buncombe High School. “They’re not going to [build shelters]. They’re going to give those horses up, and the [horses] will have nowhere to go.”
“Horses are expensive,” said Jessica Freeman, from Leicester. “And a farm doesn’t bring in a lot of money. It’s paycheck to paycheck. The things also in this ordinance — teeth and hooves — are going to be neglected, because we’re going to have to have the money to build a shelter they’re never going to go in. When I see a neglected horse, I think bones and ribs, and an inability to eat because their teeth haven’t been cared for, and an inability to walk because their feet haven’t been cared for. So I just urge you to think about how individuals are going to deal with this financially [while continuing] to take care of horses in the way they do need to be taken care of.”
In other business
- Commissioners approved 7-0 a rezoning request from Lifeway Christian Industries to change two parcels from an R-1 Residential designation to a Conference Center/Resort.
- The Land Conservation Advisory Board made its annual report and asked the Board for $35,000 to cover transaction fees for a new 241 acre conservation easement in Sandy Mush. The other $750,000 is being covered by landowner donations and private donations. Commissioners approved this 5-2, with Joe Belcher and Mike Fryar opposed.
- Commissioners approved the reappointment of Paula Gerber and Judy Olevnik to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee by a 7-0 vote; that board still has three vacancies. Commissioners resolved before the meeting to conduct interviews for the Historic Resources Commission and the Planning Board.
The next commissioners meeting will be another day-long doozy on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at 9 a.m., when Commissioners will hear several nonprofit funding request presentations in anticipation of the upcoming budget cycle. The next regular meeting will be Tuesday, March 3, at 4:30 p.m.