- Commissioners approve $1.8 million for conservation easements
- Affordable-housing development wins initial approval
At the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Oct. 7 meeting, the news wasn't just what happened but what didn't. The commissioners chose to delay action on three major items: the long-overdue appointment of new members to the powerful county Planning Board, a controversial rezoning on Mills Gap Road, and a public hearing on a plan to borrow upward of $37 million to fund several capital projects.
The board also canceled its scheduled Oct. 21 meeting. That effectively postponed all these weighty matters till Nov. 4, aka Election Day -- an unusual time to hold a meeting, as board Chair Nathan Ramsey noted.
"I had requested that we not meet on Election Day, but that's fine," he said. Ramsey is up for re-election, facing a challenge by Vice Chair David Gantt. Two other commissioners, Carol Peterson and Bill Stanley, are also seeking another term.
The meeting was canceled at the request of Commissioner David Young, who is not up for re-election and will be out of town.
At the beginning of the meeting, Ramsey said they were still interviewing applicants for the nine-member Planning Board. The process has sparked some controversy, as some members have been kept on for years without being formally reappointed. Critics have also maintained that both the current board and many of the applicants to replace them are too heavily tilted toward development interests. In addition, some have questioned the disqualification, based on an unwritten rule, of other applicants not linked to development interests (see "Buncombe Commissioners," Sept. 10 Xpress).
Five seats are open on the board; the remaining four members have served only one three-year term (they're allowed two) and will probably be reappointed.
Later in the meeting, Finance Director Donna Clark explained that a public hearing on the county borrowing $37 million, mostly to finance a new Human Services Building and parking deck on Coxe Avenue, would need to be delayed because the estimated cost of the project has risen.
"The $37 million may not be enough," she said; "the bids are due Oct. 22, and we feel the public needs to have the real numbers out there."
Also on the agenda was a request to rezone two small parcels on Mills Gap Road in south Buncombe. Property owner James McGinnis had requested the rezoning from residential to "employment," which would allow a wide range of uses. The property, which has city water and sewer, sits just 2,000 feet away from the former CTS of Asheville hazardous-waste site.
Planning staff advised against the change, which the Planning Board had approved on a 5-2 vote.
"Staff recommends against the rezoning, as there are primarily residential units around the property," Planner Debbie Truempy explained. "[Employment] zoning allows warehousing, wholesale trade, industrial and large office uses that are inappropriate next to residential uses." Although some adjacent property already has employment zoning, it's currently being used for residential purposes.
McGinnis told the board that traffic on the road is already so heavy that he can't keep a residential duplex on the site rented, so he wanted to convert the residential units into offices. He also said that one of his neighbors is thinking of turning their house into office space.
But Vice Chair David Gantt found staff's concerns persuasive.
"I go by that road every day, and it's all residential around it," said Gantt.
Young, however, said he needed to drive out to the site to get a better idea of the situation, asking that the matter be continued to the board's Nov. 4 meeting.
Build it -- affordably
Not everything on the agenda was postponed, however. The commissioners gave preliminary approval to a public/private partnership that would create 200 affordable-housing units in Starnes Cove.
The county's contribution would be to put up the money (most likely borrowed) for the cost of running a sewer line, offsetting the cost by levying a special assessment for the sewer infrastructure -- a power the General Assembly granted to counties in August -- on the 200 housing units.
"We believe the units will still be affordable with the special assessment," said Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton said.
Developer Rod Hubbard, who specializes in affordable-housing projects, said he's aiming to build homes that someone earning the area's median income -- about $35,000 for an individual, according to county staff -- could afford.
The planned development would include both town homes and single-family residences. Hubbard said he hopes to be able to sell the most expensive model, a three-bedroom with a two-car garage, for under $130,000.
"Our objective is to make sure that this is designed for average working-class people," he emphasized. "If this development gets built, it will include Habitat for Humanity homes -- we're partnering with them. We have an opportunity to do something that will be a national model here."
The current financial turmoil, noted Hubbard, is making it much harder for first-time, working-class buyers to get financing. But he's hoping the situation will improve, and in the meantime, buyers may find help through federal and state programs.
"We spend time sitting down with people," he said. "The stats are pretty depressing, but yes, there is money out there."
To reduce costs, Creighton said, the Metropolitan Sewerage District would do the design in-house. Those owning the homes would pay the normal county property taxes as well as the special assessment; every home's share would be equal.
"Let's allow staff to go forward and make this possible," urged Young, and a motion instructing staff to work with Hubbard to pursue the project further was approved unanimously.
"It's a win for county taxpayers," added Ramsey.
In other business, the board unanimously approved $1.8 million to help secure more than 800 acres of conservation easements. The targeted sites include Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview and Claxton Farms in north Buncombe, as well as properties in Reems Creek and Sandy Mush.
The county's contribution will help secure property worth many times that amount, protecting it from future development, said Carl Silverstein of the county's Land Conservation Advisory Board. Silverstein is executive director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a local land trust.
"The requests are significant, but there is a significant leverage factor in the contributions it brings in from the state and philanthropists," he told the board.
The commissioners praised both his efforts and the proposed easements.
"This takes my breath away. This is why we serve -- to have opportunities like this," gushed Gantt. "We owe you a whole lot. We have a moral obligation to protect these mountains -- and this is a chance to do it."