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Control Is the Word


By Leslee Kulba- Buncombe County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene requested commissioners’ permission to work with a real estate agent to sell county lands. She said the county normally sells surplus land by an upset-bid process, but these parcels were not selling.

One parcel was 137.21 acres at Ferry Road. Valued at $6.8 million, it is the land that had been offered to Deschutes Brewery. Deschutes was considering a number of locations in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and in the end determined the best incentives came from Roanoke. The county first purchased the land in March of 2015. The commissioners met in an emergency closed session and agreed to take the land from Henderson County to lure a business known to the public then only as Company A. After a mockery of a public hearing was held on Company A, the county purchased the plot, the proceeds being split 50-50 between Henderson County and the City of Asheville as a means of settling a small part of the ongoing Water Disagreement. There was talk of Asheville building an outdoor firing range for the police department as part of the deal, but that never came to fruition, either.

The commissioners did not approve the sale unanimously, the vote being split along party lines. Republicans Joe Belcher, Mike Fryar, and Miranda DeBruhl were opposed. Made public after the deal was commentary from the closed meeting. Fryar objected to the process, and Belcher’s faith made him uncomfortable using so much taxpayer money to incentivize beer. According to DeBruhl, Commissioner Brownie Newman had stressed a need to “control” the property immediately to prevent developer Jack Cecil, of Biltmore Farms, from “controlling” it.

DeBruhl was later shamed by her fellow commissioners for calling Deschutes’ president, Michael Lalonde. She felt the brewery was taking the county taxpayers for a ride, missing deadline decision dates for seven months. All she wanted was a yes or no.

The property was put up for sale by the county in April, but it received no offers. Greene said about sixty of the acres are developable, with room for about 400,000 square feet of building footprint. The property was, however, deed restricted. It must be used for economic development, and it must provide a greenway. Commissioner Joe Belcher advised Greene to negotiate down any real estate sales commission; whoever sold that much land would be happy with the discount.

Another property, which went up for bid a year ago, was 2.08 acres at 32 Compton Drive, valued at $915,000. The former location of a daycare center, this parcel sits near Eliada Home in Leicester. Greene said the county had had many discussions with representatives from Eliada. She is waiting for them to develop a proposal, but the county is not in a position to give the property away.

A third property was 8.55 acres of undeveloped property off US 70, priced at $61,900. It was gifted to the county in the late 1990s. The plan at the time was to build a park; but the property has proven, in Greene’s words, “problematic.” Staff mows it twice a year, and they’ve had to chain off access. Greene said the county is at the point of not wanting to take care of the parcel anymore.

The parcel sits next to the concrete plant, in the floodway, and there is a major powerline overhead. Noting the county was trying to market the property, Newman jested, “It’s close to everything … A jewel in the rough.”

Commissioner Ellen Frost suggested asking Friends & Neighbors of Swannanoa if they could put it to “imaginative” community use. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she explained.

The remaining two properties were down in Avery Creek. One was 0.95 acres of undeveloped land at 108 Smokemont Drive, valued at $44,100. The other was 1.17 acres at 1322 Double Knob Drive, valued at $46,500. They are part of a subdivision that went into bankruptcy. A developer bought four parcels, and then the county bought two of the four in foreclosure. The subdivision is now almost half built out, but the county’s parcels are very steep. If the county could unload the parcels, it could save $4000 a year in general and special assessments. But those assessments were also making the properties difficult to sell.

Commissioner Holly Jones recommended asking developers of affordable housing if they were interested in the properties. Greene said the county had only contacted neighboring property owners to date. There was no minimum size for housing in the subdivision, but any construction would be subject to architectural review. Jones added that there were a number of private developers building affordable housing, now. The city had a list the county might consult.

Opinion –

There is an affordable housing crisis in the region, and the most straightforward way to drive down the cost of housing is to increase supply. There is also demand for more jobs. Why was government to decide what goes on the property?

Study after study has shown that freer markets are conducive to more prosperity. All other factors being equal, government acts at best as a middleman taking a rake, and at worst, a serious economic distorter, using its force to pump the flow of trade in directions it rationally would not. While government may not directly charge fees, anything it does usually requires salaried staff. In other words, government’s work on providing affordable houses, except to eliminate extraneous regulations, is driving costs up by forcing bad fits.

This leads to the notion of fatal conceit, the idea that government knows best. The commissioners couldn’t just put the property on the market and sell it to somebody who makes a fair bid. Government decided it would be best to put rent-controlled properties on land carrying a special assessment. Perhaps the county could give incentives to make somebody build at what would otherwise be a loss.

What’s more, with all the people needing jobs and affordable housing, the city keeps a special list. It conjures multiple published arguments against rent control that claim housing with artificially-low prices tends to wind up going only to the politically-connected. And that flies in the face of classical liberalism’s quest to maintain a government that bestows no privileges.

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