The Buncombe County commissioners unanimously passed a moratorium on new telecommunications towers in the county, at their Feb. 2 meeting. The second reading of the resolution -- which was approved 4-1 at the commissioners' Jan. 26 meeting -- was delayed by the late arrival of the Baptist preacher who was to give the invocation.
In the meantime, the consent agenda passed without comment. Commissioners also accepted an award for their support of affordable housing at the River Glen subdivision, and presented a plaque to Katherine Case, honoring her for 60 years of service to the Asheville-Buncombe Library System.
When the Rev. Buddy Corbin of Calvary Baptist Church entered the chamber, Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Sobol said, "We're getting ready to get into some pretty sticky business now, so we need you."
Quoting Proverbs 17:23 -- "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast heart dries up the bones" -- Rev. Corbin cautioned commissioners to "season wisdom with wit" in the spirit of best-selling author Norman Cousins, advising the assembly, "Don't take ourselves too seriously."
Commissioner David Gantt prefaced the cell-tower discussion by saying that commissioners had discussed the moratorium among themselves and with interested businesses, and that they intended to lift the moratorium "as soon as amendments to the existing ordinance are voted up or down."
Zoning Administrator Jim Coman reported that Buncombe County has just received four applications for new towers. He urged all tower companies and speculative tower builders to "stay in close touch" throughout the amendment process.
Gantt declared, "We have our scenic beauty riding on this. We want as few [towers] and as camouflaged as we can."
Local attorney Larry McDevitt, representing Bell Atlantic, read commissioners a letter from the executive director of Bell Atlantic Mobile's SE Network, announcing the company's decision to voluntarily postpone applications for new wireless-communications towers in the county for 90 days. The company had opposed the moratorium at the first reading.
"If the government of a county in which we propose to operate wants time to consider an amendment to an ordinance, we want to cooperate with that," McDevitt said. Sobol thanked him and Bell Atlantic Mobile for what he called "a very generous attitude."
But attorney George Saenger, representing the Boston-based American Tower, said his company has submitted plans for 18 Buncombe County towers, only eight of which could hold more than one company's transmission equipment. "Our business is to encourage telecommunications companies to build on our towers," he explained, adding, "We are opposed to a moratorium that, in effect, keeps us out. We have cutting-edge technology; we ask to be allowed to compete on a level playing field. Let's have the best infrastructure for the citizens of this county."
When asked about the total number of towers that might be situated in Buncombe county, Coman characterized it as "a moving target."
"If cell phones continue to grow in popularity," he said, "that will result in more towers."
The tower moratorium passed 5-0 on the second reading. Sobol asked that the amendment process be put on a "fast track," so that commissioners could consider the amendments at their Feb. 16 or March 2 meeting.
The commissioners next considered an amendment to the Regional Water Authority's fiscal year 1998-99 budget. Water Resources Director Tom Frederick asked commissioners to approve an amendment authorizing the Authority to purchase 2 million gallons of water per day from Hendersonville, through the end of February, at a cost of $160,000. The money is expected to come from a surcharge levied on heavy water users. Asheville City Council was also asked to approve the amendment; other drought related expenses can be covered, through February, via fund transfers within the present budget, Frederick noted.
Continuing critically-low water levels in the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs have resulted in unexpected operating expenses, Frederick explained. "The Budget does not contain a contingency for expenses related to emergencies, such as droughts or floods." As of Feb. 2, the water supply stood at only 127 days, he warned, adding, "If the weather should turn dry, we will be in serious trouble." And, since the results of conservation efforts -- including surcharges levied for excessive water use -- are unpredictable, it may be necessary to request funds for additional expenses "as early as next month," Frederick told commissioners.
"Do you have a long-range plan?" Gantt asked.
"We need to get [the new] Mills River [water-treatment plant] up and running at the proper level and then sound out our projected level of growth," responded Frederick. "The Mills River plant is designed to accommodate modular growth," he added. "With the right improvements, we can expand capacity to 20 million gallons and beyond." Commissioners unanimously approved the amendment to the Water Authority's budget.
Next, the commissioners heard a report from Jay Lee of Crawley, Lee & Company, an Asheville-based CPA firm, who said that Buncombe County's general-purpose financial statements "represent fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Buncombe County, N.C., as of June 30, 1998." County Director of Finance Nancy Brooks was on hand with bound copies of the 122 page annual financial report, which is available from the Finance Department. The report shows an unreserved fund balance of $24,505,000 -- nearly 16 percent of the county's total expenses for the year. Sobol noted that this had been achieved without a tax increase.
Barry Masters, executive director of The Mediation Center, then presented commissioners with a report on "who we are, what we do, and what our value is to Buncombe County." The 15-year-old nonprofit operates in space donated by the county. It is one of the largest and most active organizations of its kind in the region, according to Masters. The agency served more than 3,000 clients in 1998. "Mediation reduces the burden on the courts, saves taxpayer money and improves community relationships," Masters added. The center mediates both public and private disputes, he said, including those involving neighbors, noise, property lines, business owners and employees, tenants and landlords, and child-custody cases.
"We'd be delighted to be called upon more to help the county with issues around growth and planning," Masters offered. Commissioner Patsy Keever said, "I support you greatly in what you are doing," and asked about the cost of services. Masters explained that court-referred clients are not charged, and that fees vary with the client and circumstance. "We're negotiators," he said, adding, "If cost is a problem, we can provide the service at no charge, or at a bargain price. We're not going to turn anyone away because of cost."
In other business, Commissioners appointed farmer Garrett Ramsey of Leceister to the Board of Equalization and Review. Two positions on that board remain vacant. At the commissioners' agenda-review meeting earlier that day, Keever had expressed concern that "they are all white males on this board," prompting County Tax Director Jerome Jones to advise commissioners that "We have a couple more applications coming -- one from a woman and one a minority."
Achieving minority participation on boards and commissions has always been a problem, noted Kathy Hughes, the clerk for the Board of Commissioners, in a phone conversation the next day. "We advertise with the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce, and with our Buncombe County Bulletin Board in the Mountain Xpress and Asheville Citizen-Times and in the Asheville Advocate. We try to get [board vacancies] out as much as we can," she said.
On a motion by Keever, the commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Asheville resident Michael Hootstein as an alternate to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. He is someone "very involved in trying to be part of the solution," commented Keever .
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Fairview resident Peter Dawes, who regularly attends Board of Commissioners meetings, asked whether a word-for-word transcript of meetings could be provided. "It is not a state requirement to have verbatim minutes," County Manager Wanda Greene replied, noting that the meetings can be viewed on cable television. Dawes said that he is not able to access cable in Fairview. "We're in a cloud, a blackout area," he said.
"While you're up here, I have a few questions for you, Mr. Dawes," said Commissioner Keever, referring to a Jan 6. talk-radio program on on WTZY, during which someone was reported to have said, "They ought to shoot the commissioners."
"Did either you or Mr. Yelton say that, Mr. Dawes?" Keever asked. Dawes denied making the remark and added, "I don't think you should be shot, but I don't think you should be in office too much longer."
Both Dawes and Weaverville resident Don Yelton have reported on county business in the past -- as free-lance writers with the Mountain Sentinel and as guests on the radio program. Yelton counted to 10 before responding to Keever's query. "I made no comment on radio about shooting commissioners," he said.
At Keever's request, County Attorney Joe Connolly addressed the issue, asking Dawes and Yelton, "Was a statement made about shooting commissioners on a radio show?"
"I don't recall," both men replied. Commissioners had tried to obtain a tape of the alleged remarks from the radio station. "The station told us they didn't make a tape," Clerk Hughes said later.
"In general, I think this board has to be thick-skinned, with regard to the media," Connolly said. "There are limits people have on freedom of speech, and public officials have to be more tolerant than individual citizens."
"The chairman [of the Board of Commissioners] has the authority to stop public comment, by it ruling out of order," Connolly advised the board. "As I would interpret the law, you do not have to allow public comment, but you do. I encourage you to continue to allow public comments," he concluded, adding: "I leave you with this thought: Public comment is good for the community and good for the county."
At about 5:30 p.m., the commissioners went into closed session to consider two issues -- a personnel matter and a legal matter. North Carolina's open-meetings law exempts these categories of business from open-meetings requirements. No action was taken in the closed session, and the commissioners adjourned at about 6:10 p.m.
Commissioners will hold a public meeting on Saturday, Feb. 20 at UNCA's Owen Conference Center, following a 7:30 breakfast. Representatives of all municipalities in the county -- including the Asheville city council and members of both the city and county boards of education -- are invited to attend. Items to be addressed include: a roundtable on issues facing the county; sustainable development; the school bond referendum; I-26/Smokey Park highway; and affordable housing.
The next regular meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners will be on Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 4 pm.