Voters may decide on $70M in Buncombe borrowing this year

Rankin farm
LAND PLANS: Farmland conservation projects, such as the easement placed on Ed and Suzy Rankin's Fairview farm in December, would be among the work that could be funded with new county borrowing. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

Buncombe County residents often tell their elected officials that they want more affordable housing, protected land and greenways. But in November, the county’s voters may be asked if they’re willing to put their money where their mouths are.

During an April 19 briefing, the county Board of Commissioners heard a presentation by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land about the feasibility of issuing $70 million in bonds for housing and land conservation, which in this case would require approval through referendums of Buncombe voters. TPL conducted a study on the matter, at no cost to the county, following a November request from the board. (Full results of the study are available at avl.mx/bht.)

According to Pegeen Hanrahan, TPL’s Southeast conservation finance director, majorities of Buncombe taxpayers responding to an April survey of 400 residents backed both a potential $30 million issue for conservation and a $40 million issue for affordable housing. Support was stronger for the former than for the latter — with 71% and 63% of respondents, respectively, saying they would vote yes for each proposal — but Hanrahan said both were well above “the threshold of viability” for likely passage.

If the bonds were repaid with 4% interest over a period of 20 years, they would cost the county roughly $103 million in total, with the median household shouldering about $640 of the burden, or $32 per year. That would equate to a property tax increase of just over 1 cent per $100 dollars of assessed value.

“It’s something that I’ve heard people speak to over the past three years — both of these issues — and how important it is to them,” said Commissioner Terri Wells. “If we want Buncombe County to thrive for future generations, we need to look at doing both of these things, not just for us, but for our children and grandchildren.”

County Manager Avril Pinder said she would return to the commissioners Tuesday, May 3, for formal approval to proceed with placing the bond referendums on the November ballot. A public hearing on the ballot language would take place in early June, with final language being delivered to the county Board of Elections by Friday, Aug. 5.

The referendums would be the county’s first on public borrowing since November 2016, when Asheville residents faced three referendums on a total of $74 million in bonds for transportation, parks and affordable housing. All three measures passed with more than 70% support.

County looks to TDA for affordable housing support

As the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority reopens applications for grants from its Tourism Product Development Fund — the pool of money, funded by 25% of the county’s occupancy tax, that by law must be spent on capital projects to drive new overnight visits — county government is hoping to get its own piece of the pie. According to Tim Love, Buncombe’s director of economic development and governmental relations, part of that ask may be a $2 million recurring contribution toward affordable housing development.

In an April 19 presentation to commissioners, Love said the housing would, if funded, “be utilized by residents that are likely to be employed in the service, hospitality and other industries.” No further details were available regarding where those units would be built or what costs residents would face.

If the TDA were to subsidize housing development, it would mark a significant change from previous occupancy tax spending. None of the $44 million the authority has awarded as TPDF grants since 2001 has gone toward housing; the largest two allocations, of $7.1 million and $6 million, have funded city of Asheville transportation improvements in the River Arts District and the Buncombe County Enka Recreation Destination, respectively.

Speaking with Xpress after his presentation, Love said tourism leaders were enthusiastic about supporting housing for the area’s workforce. While he said the path forward would be “delicate,” he emphasized that the TDA believed such spending would be allowed under its current legal limitations.

According to the most recent available financial statements, the TPDF contained over $11.6 million in available funds at the end of February. TDA leaders will accept initial grant applications through Wednesday, June 1, with awards announced Wednesday, Oct. 26.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. to correct information about the TDA’s grant funding timeline.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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