Development projects leave obvious marks on the world around them: earth moved, steel erected, asphalt laid. But every building that goes up in Western North Carolina also leaves a paper trail in local government archives that, as public property, residents have the legal right to inspect.
Many of these documents are available through public databases, such as Asheville’s SimpliCity (SimpliCity.AshevilleNC.gov) or Buncombe County’s public permits portal (avl.mx/avx). Other items, such as emails to elected leaders concerning a particular project, may not be accessible online but can be obtained by submitting a request to government officials.
According to North Carolina law, “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts or other documentary material” associated with “the transaction of public business” are public record unless specifically exempted.
Here are some tips for making public records requests, as well as where to ask for records from Buncombe County and each of its municipalities.
Ask (correctly) and ye shall receive
- While the law requires public records to be provided “as promptly as possible” upon request, large or vague requests can take many months to fulfill. For a quick turnaround, it’s best to limit the scope of a request. Asking for all emails sent between a developer and city planning staff in a given week, for example, will yield faster results than asking for all emails ever sent related to a project.
- Governments are required to provide specific records that already exist, but they’re not required to provide general information or create new records in response to a request. Asking for all multifamily construction permits approved in 2021 would thus be a valid request, but asking for the total amount of money spent on tax incentives for affordable housing would not be viable.
- State law designates certain categories of development-related records as confidential. These include most personnel information about government staff, attorney-client communications and records concerning proposed economic development projects.
- Governments must generally provide records in the form in which they’re requested. However, they are not required to convert paper records to digital media.
- Fees for obtaining public records are generally limited to the actual cost of making a copy, such as the paper used in printing or a flash drive to store digital files. But state law does allow governments to levy a “special service charge” in cases involving “extensive use of information technology resources” — another reason to keep requests small when possible.
Where to look
- Asheville — The city operates an online records requests portal at mx/awp.
- Buncombe County — County public records requests can be filed through an online form at mx/awr.
- Biltmore Forest — Contact Town Clerk Laura Jacobs at LJacobs@BiltmoreForest.org or 828-274-0824.
- Black Mountain — Public records requests can be filed through an online form at mx/awv.
- Montreat — Complete the online form at mx/awu.
- Weaverville — File a request through the town’s general contact form at mx/awx.
- Woodfin — Complete the online form at mx/aww.