- Time to televise public comment?
- County staff: no new CTS contamination
It was the new Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' first meeting. Newcomers K. Ray Bailey (the former president of A-B Tech) and Holly Jones, (late of the Asheville City Council) had been sworn in the day before, along with new Chair David Gantt. (Although Gantt's been on the board for 12 years, this was his first time wielding the gavel as chairman.) Commissioners Bill Stanley and Carol Peterson were also back after handily winning re-election in November.
The Dec. 2 agenda was relatively light. The only major piece of business was a conservation easement for the Sycamore Valley Farm, a 140-acre working farm in Leicester that's been owned by the Snelson family for six generations. The board unanimously allocated $169,190 toward the purchase price.
Before the vote, John Ager, who chairs the county's Agriculture Advisory Board, urged the commissioners to approve the funding, arguing that the county's modest share is a small price to pay for ensuring that the property remains intact.
"This is one of the real signature farms in Buncombe County -- anyone who's been here any length of time knows about this farm," noted Ager. "This is a way for a family that loves this farm to preserve it. There's a lot of development pressure around them. This piece of property has 22 acres of prime farmland -- that's unusual in the mountains, and it's also prime land for development because it's flat."
A conservation easement limits the property's use in perpetuity, prohibiting extensive development. This particular easement is valued at $1.09 million, and the Snelson family has agreed to relinquish $437,174 of that amount. The county funds represent less than one-quarter of the remainder.
The remaining money will be sought through a combination of federal and state grants and private donations. About $65,000 in government moneys has been committed so far.
Local donations, noted Gantt, are often needed before larger funders will loosen their purse strings.
"They want to see local dollars; they want to see local commitment," he observed. "You can see the development coming in. This is something we've got to jump on."
The county and the Snelson family hope to formally establish the easement by early next year. Meanwhile, commissioners old and new praised both Ager and the county's conservation efforts.
"This is just wonderful," gushed Peterson. "It speaks volumes to what Buncombe County has done. I just want to thank everyone who was a part of this."
Jones sounded a similar note, saying, "I really look forward to seeing more initiatives like this."
And in this, at least, things hadn't changed much from the old board, which also unanimously approved county funding for conservation easements, particularly for working farms, and was similarly effusive in its enthusiasm.
Now about that public comment...
During the public-comment period following the meeting, however, Candler resident Jerry Rice, a regular at these meetings, wondered if the commissioners would be willing to televise public comment once again.
"Y'all are all about change, the new president is about change, the Democratic Party says it's about change," said Rice. "Public comment was taken off the airwaves. What are you going to do to change that?"
Noting that the city televises its public comment, Rice said the county's blackout policy "needs to be changed -- and we don't need to wait a year-and-a-half to do it."
The board stopped televising the public-comment periods (which take place before and after meetings) several years ago, saying it was dominated by political grandstanding. Activists across the political spectrum have consistently criticized the decision, saying it decreases transparency in government.
In Xpress candidate surveys before last month's election, both Jones and Gantt said they would favor such a step, and Bailey said he wouldn't oppose it if guidelines were established. Peterson opposed televising public comment, and Stanley declined to take part in the survey.
And now, the votes might be there to make the change.
"I said I would support it, and I do, as long as there are some restrictions so things don't get too out of hand," Bailey told Xpress. "I think there's a way to do a good job of that."
Gantt, meanwhile, reiterated his support. "This will be one of the topics I'll be talking to the other commissioners about at our retreat in January," he said. "But the time's come to do this. We are going to have safeguards in place so that public comment won't take over meetings: People will get their say, but we also want to get onto the business we were elected to do."
What's in that water?
During the pre-meeting public-comment period, county staff asserted that rumors of more wells testing positive for trichloroethylene contamination near the former CTS of Asheville plant on Mills Gap Road are false. TCE, an industrial solvent and suspected carcinogen, has been found in a number of wells near the sight.
"We were on a conference call late last Thursday with [the Environmental Protection Agency] and [the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources]: There have been no new tests that have come out positive," reported Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone. "There's been one well that's tested positive for chlorine, but it may be from how the well was treated -- and it's within acceptable limits."
She added that DENR is conducting additional tests as part of its overall assessment of the area's ground water. The EPA, the county and DENR have agreed to bring in an outside consulting group to do water testing beyond the original three-mile radius from the site.
Stone was responding to comments by area resident Aaron Penland, who asserted that two more wells had tested positive for contamination and called for independent water testing.
"I don't know when the last update you received was, but in the last week I know about two more wells," said Penland. He added that he believed the results of the latest tests are suspect because they were identical to the earlier readings for all the other wells.
"So what I'm asking you is to see if there's any way we can get a grant from the county, from anyone, to have UNCA use the machine they have to test the water the exact same way that DENR does. We're looking for someone unbiased. It will be good for the university, the students and the community."
For residents, said Penland, it's a life-or-death issue. "I've had nine family members die in the last 10 years of cancer. I just buried an aunt two months ago; I've got another cousin that's going to die before the end of the year," he noted. "I know of 15 other people that live in this area that have all contracted brain tumors, heart defects, diabetes -- this is all linked to TCE. Help us save these people and stop the spread of these illnesses."
Stone said the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is currently studying illness in the area to see if it's linked to TCE.
Gantt, who lives nearby, said he shares Penland's concern. "We're going to take care of people out there," promised Gantt. "That's why we agreed to run a water line out there and why we agreed to test."
Earlier this year, Asheville and Buncombe County teamed up to put residents of The Oaks subdivision on city water.
Stanley, meanwhile, asked Penland to let the commissioners know when he found out how much money UNCA would need to do its own testing in the area.