When it comes to real estate transactions or decisions about gifting large corporations large sums from the county’s general fund, the public is excluded from negotiations. Statutes requiring public comment are satisfied by asking citizens to weigh in on a deal for a certain amount for Project X in Facilities A and B, or Project Granite. Consequently, only the privileged class knows who is asking how much for what.
The next day, the Henderson County Commissioners unanimously approved the sale of 137-acres in Bent Creek to Buncombe County. The parcel in question had played a part in wrecking relationships between the City of Asheville and Henderson County. Henderson had acquired it in exchange for letting Asheville put a water intake on the French Broad River. So irreconcilable were unresolved differences, the parcel was thrown into Asheville’s ongoing water dispute, and the state legislature dictated the terms of its sale.
Reportedly, both county governments were satisfied with the terms of the recent sale. Buncombe County will pay the appraised value, $6,815,000. Half the proceeds will go to Henderson County, and the other half will go to the City of Asheville, which must then give its share back to Buncombe County.
Buncombe County Chair David Gantt told Bill Moss of the Hendersonville Lightning the sale was for “an economic development project that will be a big benefit to both of our communities.” Gantt declined to elaborate further for the local weekly, except to say the county was dealing with a lot of sudden, tight deadlines and moving parts.
As activists are trying to get other spots along the French Broad in Buncombe County into conservation easements, this parcel is zoned Industrial. But it is unlikely to become home to big smokestacks. The terrain lends itself more toward mountain biking than grading for loading docks. Gantt, who has often stated one of the most important functions of the commission is to preserve the county’s natural beauty, described the tract as “gorgeous.” During the meeting that followed, Gantt stressed the need to protect lands surrounding the Parkway, like this one, so once-scenic pullouts overlooking industrial complexes would not be overlooked as they now are in Virginia.
After 45 minutes in closed session, the commissioners began their scheduled workshop. It began with a presentation on planning and zoning. High-ranking staff guided the commissioners through a series of maps showing that although 80 percent of the county is zoned Open Use, much of that area falls under Steep Slope, Protected Ridge, or Blue Ridge Parkway overlays. Other areas lay in floodplains. Allowed uses, required buffers, and approval processes were also reviewed.
Following the presentation, staff asked the commissioners’ permission to proceed with crafting ordinances for nine zoning issues. An easy yes was zoning donut holes. The holes of unzoned territory exist because, for example, two expanding municipalities rejected the parcels while expanding their ETJ’s. The parcels were not contiguous with the unincorporated area of the county, and they were too small for the state to approve them as satellites for zoning purposes. Now that ETJ’s are abolished, the commissioners wanted the holes zoned.
It was suggested the commissioners might like to allow HUD-labeled manufactured housing in all zoning districts. At this, Commissioner Joe Belcher waxed poetic and launched into a meandering reverie extolling the bounteous blessings of manufactured housing. It seemed superfluous until Commissioner Ellen Frost said he wasn’t going to convince her that manufactured homes were green or affordable. They’re leaky, and poor folks get stuck with $300 fuel bills in winter months. Belcher argued they were small, could be manufactured to high quality standards, and produced far less waste than their stick-built counterparts. The discussion was off-track, but many on the board expressed interest in taking it up at a more appropriate time.
Other fodder for upcoming ordinances included providing density bonuses for developers of affordable and workforce housing, imposing stricter regulations on commercial development in Open Use zonings, and stiffening restrictions on development in the Blue Ridge Parkway Overlay.
The next topic of conversation was what the commissioners should do to create or incentivize more affordable housing. Statistics and talking points from recent meetings of the commissioners and Asheville City Council were rehashed. Buncombe County is experiencing a housing shortage. Hundreds of new houses and apartments at all price points will be needed within the next five years. What’s more, firefighters, public safety officers, teachers, wait staff, and hardhat laborers simply cannot afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in the county. The same groups earn only about half as much as they would need to afford a median-priced home. Furthermore, the aging Baby Boomers will require a substantial increase in homes and facilities equipped for persons with multiple handicaps.
Staff asked the commissioners to support a number of government initiatives aimed at mitigating the problems. They included providing rental housing affordable to households earning less than 60 percent of AMI, sighting housing development along transit lines and near jobs and services, promoting home ownership for families traditionally considered high-risk for loans, ensuring new construction is green, providing houses and social services for persons with physical and mental disabilities, and expanding emergency housing repair programs.
Over the last five years, the county, in partnership with Asheville and the federal government, spent $655,000 on home construction, $4,028,864 on new rental construction, $780,936 on rental assistance, $802,515 on down payment assistance, $610,901 on rehabilitation, $325,672 on emergency repair, $30,000 on employee assistance, and $20,000 on fees and permits.
In the interest of time the commissioners once again decided to postpone a presentation on outside agencies seeking funding.