Arguing his case with flattery, Williams explained that the fifth-floor courtroom was among the most beautiful, but it was shabby when it came to acoustics. Judges had met with IT staff from the county, they had agreed upon the resolution of the problem and determined equipping the fifth- and seventh-floor courtrooms with 21st-century technology would cost $232,883.
That was a year ago, and nothing had happened. On a second request, Thornburg wrote, “The proposal was submitted in December 2013 after having used the system located in the Justice Center, and we believed it was included in the budget for the year ending June 2014. Having heard nothing and seeing no progress, we are submitting this request.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar was not eager to grant the request. He said he had spoken with Chief District Court Judge J. Calvin Hill, who wanted upgrades to the fourth-floor courtroom. Not only were the commissioners put in a position of funding one judge over another; the county had exhausted its resources. County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene would have to pull something out of the budget in order to pay for the request at-hand.
Fryar advised postponing any improvements until the next budget cycle. To which Superior Court Justice Marvin Pope replied, “We can wait six months. We just want to have the most efficient courtroom in North Carolina.” Pope said the third-floor courtroom was more modernized than anything in Mecklenburg, Haywood, or Gaston counties.
“I’m for doing it now,” said Commissioner Holly Jones. “I don’t know a better expenditure, frankly.” Jones stressed the need to give the judges what they want in the name of “justice being better served.”
Commissioner Ellen Frost was more emphatic. “To wait six months seems almost cruel in slowing down the system,” she said. She later criticized her peers for balking, saying she didn’t want them comparing the request to her granddaughter asking her for a pony. “This is serious stuff.”
Greene said her only interest in acting immediately was that the price of technology is continually on the rise. Furthermore, she explained, “I’d rather know today that I need to find another $232,000 than know in April.” She said that both judges had submitted requests for funding for the next budget cycle on-time, but admitted the county had dropped the ball on fulfilling Thornburg’s reasonable expectations of seeing action this year.
Then, she said she was grateful the judges followed SOP for requisitions. “Eighteen years ago, we were delivered a court order to do it,” she laughed.
The board then spent considerable time deliberating how to nudge the judges to respect the budget process more. A friendly amendment was proposed hinting that the commissioners would prefer to receive funding requests in time for consideration against all other budget items. Only Fryar, Joe Belcher, and Brownie Newman supported that. Then, the commissioners unanimously approved the request unconditionally.
In Other Matters –
The commissioners considered a couple of rezoning requests affecting properties previously zoned for Weaverville’s ETJ. The first was fine with all. Zoning Administrator Josh O’Conner explained it was owner-initiated for “an extra level of protection.”
The other involved forty-six parcels. After legislative action dissolved the ETJ, county staff tried to apply zonings from their bag of tricks that most closely resembled those from Weaverville’s. The staff report disclosed, “Staff has recommended the approval of the request with the caveat that detailed information is not available on each parcel, and several property owners did not provide consent to the application submitted. This recommendation should be weighed carefully against the acknowledgement and consent of individual landowners to account for the fact that on-the-ground assessments of individual parcels could contradict the findings within this recommendation.”
As it turned out, three property owners wrote letters to the county opposing the zoning of five parcels. This did not impress Commissioner Jones, who said, “I really am supportive of planning staff’s recommendation to rezone all forty-six. My concern is, it appears to me that a letter saying that they don’t want to participate is all you gotta do, and that just kind of flies in my face in terms of trying to understand what’s appropriate and a professional looking at the whole tract . . . I am convinced that the whole package made sense and was consistent.”
Fryar argued the propety owners had been getting along just fine for years. Covenants and restrictions on the free use of property should be made clear and voluntarily accepted before people decide to invest in property. “It’s not my job to tell people what to do with their property,” he said.
Belcher said letters from property owners saying they don’t want the zoning was “sufficient” for him to respect their wishes. He and Fryar were the only commissioners to stick up for the property owners’ wishes, so all forty-six properties are now zoned Single Family Residential.
In another vote, the commissioners unanimously approved putting four more tracts, totaling almost 300 acres, in conservation easements. The properties were donated, and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy will be overseeing two parcels, and the other two will be kept and administered by the Stormwater Conservation District.
Newman commended the property owners for their selfless sacrifice on behalf of future generations. Chair David Gantt stumbled as he searched for words that would not offend property rights activists. He settled on communicating that this was the only way for the county to arrest development rights to protect natural lands for the enjoyment of ourselves and our posterity.