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Too Many Rules for Commissioners/Gadflies

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By Leslee Kulba- At the last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners, during public comment, Jerry Rice and Don Yelton demanded more transparency and accountability. Rice suggested education dollars should be spent more strategically, and Yelton complained about an unvetted capital projects ordinance the commissioners were about to approve.

Almost in rebuttal, in a brief acceptance speech for receiving the Buncombe County Teacher of the Year award, Cathy Belair, who took a 75-percent pay cut to become a math teacher at Valley Springs Middle School, shared, “Though teaching is my passion, I don’t know if I would be standing here with you today without the commission’s extra funding provided through our local stipend. So, thank you for finding the resources that I know are always scarce.”

As for Yelton’s remarks, the commissioners held two discussions on capital projects. The staff report for the one on the agenda, as usual, listed only three line items with account numbers and dollar amounts. That’s all.

The commissioners’ rules allow them to add any last-minute item to the published agenda by unanimous consent, and so they approved discussing another capital projects’ topic. This one, however, conformed to Yelton’s request. The commissioners forbade staff to enter into any additional construction contracts for AB Tech capital improvements until the commissioners could receive an update, at their next meeting, on how the extra quarter-cent sales tax is being spent.

The commissioners then held three public hearings pertaining to planning and zoning. In the first, BLT Enterprises, Cedar Ridge Plaza, LLC, and the W Howard Family Limited Partnership wanted to rezone to Neighborhood Service District four adjacent parcels, two of which fronted Charlotte Highway. The planning board and county staff both unanimously voted against rezoning the two parcels in the back because they were too close to the existing neighborhood.

Yelton spoke against approving rezonings on the basis of technical details, saying developers should instead submit a plan for review. County planner Debbie Truempy, and later Chair Brownie Newman, tried to explain the county’s zoning ordinance only empowered the commissioners to reassign zonings on the basis of any of the enumerated uses those designations allow at any point in the future. The ordinance forbids consideration of specific site plans.

Commissioner Al Whitesides, nonetheless, said he had a problem approving rezonings without seeing site plans. The commissioners then agreed to deny the rezoning request for the two back parcels, voting along party lines, Mike Fryar, Joe Belcher, and Robert Pressley supporting property rights.

The second public hearing considered an amendment to the county’s subdivision ordinance. Mike Fryar said he lived in a subdivision, in a house built 27 years ago that is still standing. Fryar argued the county’s book of planning rules was “getting a little too thick” and micromanagerial. He noted the ordinance was preventing people from developing and living in the county. “When you go get a permit just to build a small place with stormwater runoff and everything, it’s $20,000 before you stick a shovel in the ground.” Fryar didn’t see the point. “We’re trying to make as much money in planning as we can make to tell people what to do with their property, and I’m sorry.”

Joe Belcher said he agreed with what Fryar had said, but found the ordinance at-hand actually deregulated a lot. He suggested that, in the future, county staff might tell the commissioners the number of pages an amendment would net. “I am having heartburn about the fines, but I’ll get through that,” he added.

For the third public hearing, Rice suggested the planning board kept voting so unanimously because most members of the public are at work when they hold their noontime public hearings. Yelton repeated himself, saying as rules multiply, the need to employ humans who can exercise discretion decreases. He advocated again for requiring developers to submit site plans.

Newman said if there was interest in modifying the county’s zoning ordinance to allow conditional zonings, that would be a conversation for another time. He said there were pros and cons, one disadvantage being, “Instead of having a set of standards, you can really get into the weeds, in terms of every single development. Do we want to be involved in every single detail about the site plans for every project?”

In Other Business –

During public comment, Fred Fisher Caudle asked, “How many millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved a year” by consolidating the city and county school systems. “I thought we all wanted diversity,” said he. “True, ultimate, progressive diversity is not found without an ‘All One’ system. Right? For the children and the taxpayers.” Caudle said only six counties in the state have [segregated] school systems. “Who actually mandated separate systems? When was that? And why do we feel like we have to continue with that tradition. Anybody?”

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