"There's a sense among a lot of people that yes, this is a good thing," says Swannanoa native Dave Alexander, one of the organizers of the grass-roots Incorporation Task Force, which emerged from the Swannanoa Pride Community Coalition. "It's time for Swannanoa to have its own voice and decide its own course for the future."
The coalition began holding meetings in October 2006 and based its goals on surveys filled out by 400 residents. It also established three other task forces focusing on commercial development, land use and parks.
Among the potential benefits, proponents maintain, would be better services, a share of sales taxes and other revenues apportioned by the state, more control over development, and more responsive elected officials (through their own town government). All this, these advocates assert, could be gained in exchange for a modest tax increase.
Meanwhile, a recently formed anti-incorporation group calling itself Swannanoa Truth has launched a counterpetition.
"Plain and simple, it's going to add another layer of government control, and we don't feel like paying all those taxes -- they're too high already," co-founder Eric Gorny told Xpress.
Two previous attempts to incorporate the area failed, due mainly to opposition from Beacon Manufacturing -- then the town's largest employer -- says Alexander. Beacon, he notes, provided such services as fire protection and park maintenance to employees living in company-built housing, and "their management was staunchly against it" because it would have meant a tax increase.
But Beacon's massive textile plant shut down in 2002, and a huge fire the following year destroyed the facility. And with Swannanoa now facing a future much different from its past, incorporation's moment may have arrived.
Deciding their own course
Although there'd been talk of incorporation for years, it was only last year that residents established a formal group to study the matter, draw up boundaries and decide which services the town would offer.
It's not a quick process. The last Buncombe County community to successfully incorporate was Woodfin, back in 1971. Besides defining the new town's precise boundaries and public services -- and working out how to pay for them -- at least 15 percent of an area's registered voters (in this case, about 900 of the approximately 6,000 registered voters in the Swannanoa Fire District) would have to sign a petition endorsing incorporation. (The proposed town boundaries roughly follow the fire district, except that Warren Wilson College would be excluded -- see map.) Alexander estimates that about 10,000 people live within the proposed town boundaries.
The 12-member task force decided that Swannanoa would offer its residents police protection (augmented by two full-time deputies provided by the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office), solid-waste disposal, parks-and-recreation services, and zoning. The latter point was a particular concern, Alexander reports.
"With The Cliffs development especially, there's a feeling that we need to be careful how we're developing," he explains. "Swannanoa's got to decide its own course, and being able to set our own zoning and rules is an important step."
The task force calculated that it could offer these services for an additional 5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. These residents currently pay 65 cents per $100 of assessed value in county and fire-district taxes.
To gauge public opinion, the task force commissioned statistician Jeffrey Boyce of Montreat College to conduct a scientific poll. In a random sample of 350 residents, more than 75 percent favored incorporation.
The task force also organized the petition drive. According to Alexander, the group had collected the required number of signatures about a month ago, but the drive is continuing. "When we go to Raleigh, it will help our case the more signatures we have," he explains.
At press time, Alexander estimated that the group had about twice the required number, though a precise count was difficult because multiple people are collecting signatures, he said.
Final approval must come from the General Assembly's Joint Commission on Municipal Incorporation, which will decide if Swannanoa meets all state requirements and make a recommendation to the General Assembly, which then votes on the matter. The six-member commission, a standing body, is composed of two senators, two representatives, a city manager and a county commissioner or manager, all of whom serve two-year terms.
But there's more at stake than just taxes and services, Alexander maintains. "Swannanoa," he notes, "was the first white settlement west of the Blue Ridge." Yet no area resident has served on the county Board of Commissioners since 1951 -- and Alexander sees incorporation as the town's chance to run its own affairs and be fairly represented.
"Swannanoa has its own culture, its own history and its own way of doing things," he says. "Right now there's no political or governmental focal point here."
Currently, Alexander notes, area residents pay sales taxes, beer-and-wine taxes and other moneys that go into the county's general fund, with little return. "We're seeing money go into the county [coffers], but very little come back in," he asserts.
As an incorporated town, Alexander predicts, the town would receive about $1.5 million annually in shared revenues, which Swannanoa's governing body could better distribute to help the town.
Gorny and his fellow incorporation foes question the supposed advantages, however. "They're not going to be able to provide these services for the amount of tax they're touting," he predicts. A longtime conservative activist who regularly attends Board of Commissioners meetings, Gorny routinely takes county officials to task for raising taxes.
He's also doubtful about the "better representation" argument, saying, "We can already see disagreements starting to emerge in this whole debate. What's the difference between a county commissioner that won't listen to your concerns and someone local that won't?"
In addition, Gorny charges that during the petition drive, incorporation proponents have falsely claimed that the area would be annexed by Asheville in a matter of months if residents didn't push for incorporation.
"We've got almost 50 people who say they were told that annexation was coming," says Gorny, adding, "They've now signed our petition."
Swannanoa resident Joe Duncan said he was one such person. "They bought me a petition to sign and said this was the only way to keep Asheville out," he told Xpress. "They told me a whole bunch of stuff that absolutely wasn't true." Now, Duncan said, he'd like to get his name off the petition and cites concerns about zoning as one reason he's opposing incorporation. "It's my place and I'll do what I like with it," he said.
Swannanoa resident Joe Duncan said he was one such person. "They brought me a petition to sign and said this was the only way to keep Asheville out," he told Xpress. "They told me a whole bunch of stuff that absolutely wasn't true." Now, Duncan said, he'd like to get his name off the petition and cites concerns about zoning as one reason he's opposing incorporation. "It's my place and I'll do what I like with it," he said.
But Alexander vigorously denies that pro-incorporation advocates have played on fears of annexation. "We never have -- that's bulls**t -- it's a total, made-up fabrication," he declares. "There are people who fear annexation for whatever reason and talk about it, but the task force never has. This is about Swannanoa being able to chart its own course." Currently, Asheville's urban area isn't sufficiently connected enough to Swannanoa to enable the city to legally annex any part of it.
Both Gorny and Alexander say they're working to persuade the local legislative delegation to support their cause. And eventually, both plan to present their petitions and make their cases to the commission, though probably not till 2009.
"This will be decided in Raleigh," says Gorny -- the one thing the two sides seem to agree on.