A lot of county residents support zoning, and those living in already-zoned areas seem pleased about it, the chair of Buncombe County's Land-Use Planning Steering Committee told commissioners during their Feb. 17 meeting.
"We have an exceptionally diverse group of citizens, with different ideas about what's best for the county," said Scott Hughes, recapping the issues raised by citizens during a series of six community land-use meetings in January.
"No one likes annexation," but most folks in Buncombe "want to preserve the county's natural beauty," he said.
About 500 people turned out for the six meetings.
At Erwin High School on Jan. 20, nearly 200 people gathered to discuss everything from mobile homes to the county's shortage of ballfields. The county's population-growth spurt was a major issue.
"Let's slow growth down," pleaded one man during his turn at the mike. "Let's maintain for a while and see what happens."
"You can't turn the clock back," countered the next speaker. Growth happens, he argued, and the county needs to "keep at" its land-use plan.
County Planner Jim Coman likes to stress that land-use planning is not zoning. Unlike zoning, the county's land-use plan will not dictate the future, Coman said. Instead, it will "give you a real good idea of what the future is going to involve."
Besides showing private landowners how their areas are growing (and where new utility lines and roads will probably go), the overview is vital to planning infrastructure improvements, Coman explains.
The Metropolitan Sewerage District, the Buncombe County Board of Education, the N.C. Department of Transportation, and virtually every other local service agency will use the plan to predict where growth is headed and where services are needed, he said.
The land-use plan should be completed by October, at a cost of about $140,000.
There's still time for residents to make suggestions or voice complaints about land use in their areas. Hughes and Coman suggest that citizens visit the county's Planning Department, where they can look at maps showing everything from the present use of each individual parcel in the county to locations for proposed sewer lines.
You can reach the county Planning Department at 255-5777, or e-mail your suggestions or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fix the bricks (before they fix you)
No bricks have fallen yet from the nine-story Vanderbilt Apartments -- but that's not to say they won't, if the building doesn't get some help.
"We are concerned about the bricks on that building falling without notice," said Jim Sawyer, one of several Vanderbilt Apartments board members who appeared before the commissioners (along with a bag of loose bricks plucked from the building). The board asked commissioners for $100,000 to help with repairs, plus an additional $22,000 a year for the next five years to subsidize tenant rents.
Board members said the 70-year-old building's exterior brick skin is coming loose from its inner steel structure, and they blamed a shoddy renovation job 30 years ago.
"It sounds like you were negligent," charged Commissioner David Gantt, suggesting that the board had not maintained the building.
Consultant Joel Dimmette replied that no permitting agency had caught the flaw 30 years ago, and that "the skin of this building was designed to fail."
The nonprofit's board is asking for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-backed loan, plus financial support from both the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. Board members say the repair job would cost $22.3 million, and that they hope to get started by summer.
The Vanderbilt houses tenants ages 55 and older in 158 low-rent units. To help raise money, some rents will be increased.
The commissioners did not act on the request, but Chairman Tom Sobol declared, "There's no question that if we've ever had an affordable-housing issue before us, this is it," said Sobol.
Several citizens expressed displeasure over the new values assigned to their properties.
Since the last property revaluation, Linda Wyatt has done nothing to her land but plant grass and trees. "That grass must be made out of gold," she said. "Those trees must be money trees."
County Tax Director Jerome Jones estimated that between 9,000 and 11,000 county residents who are unhappy with their new property assessments will appeal them. In 1994, more than 15,000 people filed revaluation complaints, he said.
As of the Feb. 17 meeting, this year's number stood at just below 6,000. The appeals process could run into May, according to Jones.
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Rachel Queen, co-chair of the nonprofit Taxpayers for Accountable Government, asked commissioners to consider holding a public hearing where people could voice their tax-revaluation concerns and get information about the appeals process.
Sobol declined her request, saying, "It's far more effective to discuss the revaluations on a one-to-one, individual basis."
There was some disagreement among the commissioners about new term limits for the Equalization and Review Board, which hears property-tax appeals. The term of board member and attorney Bill Biggers is almost up, and his services are important to the five-member board, said Jones.
To keep the current board members together through this revaluation process, the commissioners decided (by a 3-2 vote) to adjust the terms. The three-year terms (with a two-term limit) were changed to one-year terms (with a six-term limit). That allows the commissioners to reappoint Biggers.
Commissioners Gantt and Patsy Keever voted against the change. Sobol, Bill Stanley and David Young supported the amendment.
Local sales tax?
Other counties levy sales taxes to help pay for local expenses such as transportation and schools, and Buncombe County should have one, too, the commissioners decided.
They unanimously approved Stanley's request that the board send a letter to the North Carolina General Assembly, asking for permission to implement a local, 1-percent sales tax.
"It's a tax on everyone," said Stanley.
The tax would require voters' approval, and citizens would decide what the money could be used for, he said.
A 1-percent sales tax in Buncombe would raise about $16 million per year, according to Stanley. It could help reduce property taxes, which 40 percent of Buncombe residents pay. Right now, most of the county's services are funded via property taxes.
Asphalt moratorium stands
The commissioners unanimously decided to extend their moratorium on the construction of new asphalt plants in Buncombe County for six more months.
Neither the state nor Mecklenburg County is currently issuing such permits, Air Pollution Control Agency Director Jim Cody told commissioners during their pre-session meeting.
Both the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency plan to run tests gauging the harmful effects -- if any -- of emissions from asphalt production and transport.
Commissioners said they want to extend their moratorium until the EPA results are in. The state has already run one batch of tests, but the results were inconclusive, according to Cody. Additional tests have been postponed several times.
The asphalt controversy in Buncombe County heated up last spring, when some neighbors of Richard Proffitt in Flat Creek Township protested his plans to build an asphalt plant in a mostly residential -- though unzoned -- area.
Stanley supported the moratorium, though he did express some skepticism, saying, "We've jumped on one little fellow."
Gantt suggested that the county should consider forming a nonpartisan citizens' committee to discuss whether Buncombe County should switch to district elections and staggered terms for county commissioners.
Residents are already talking about those options, said Gantt . The board will formally discuss whether to form such a committee during one of its March meetings.
Fighting neighbors and animal control
Fairview resident Peter Dawes told commissioners that some of his neighbors are using Buncombe County Friends For Animals to advance their own political agenda.
Dawes maintains that he and his wife need their three dogs for protection, because some of their neighbors have directed anti-Semitic remarks at him and fired guns at his property. Now, Dawes says, some of his neighbors have complained to Friends For Animals about his wolf-hybrids, which roam his fenced-in 14 acres.
"My animals are not dangerous. They've never attacked anybody in their lives," he said. "We cannot be fighting gunfire and animal control at the same time."
The commissioners asked County Manager Wanda Greene to meet with members of the Sheriff's Department and Friends For Animals to discuss the problem, and to arrange for mediation between Dawes and some of his neighbors.
"I think there needs to be some community involvement here," said Commissioner Keever.
The next meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is scheduled for 4 p.m. March 10 in the commissioners' chambers, on the second floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse.