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Complicated Parcel Returned to Tax Rolls

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By Leslee Kulba- Back in January, the Buncombe County Commissioners finally unloaded a very complicated piece of property, at a profit. Scott Gillespie, acting as principal of Deep River South Development II, LLC, made an offer of $5 million and put 5% down. The offer was subject to an upset-bid process, which has now passed.

It is expected the property will be used for residential development. Gillespie has an extensive portfolio of residential developments involving thousands of homes of different varieties in South Carolina and Florida.

The property is a satellite annexation of the City of Asheville. It sits between the French Broad River and Brevard Road, near I-26, and it is accessed by Ferry Road. It remains in a natural state, and while it is 137 acres, only 88 acres are considered developable. Road improvements will likely be necessary, and those will be negotiated by the developer and the NC Department of Transportation.

The property first came into the limelight in 1995. As part of the contentious Water Agreement, it became the property of Henderson County as the future site for a wastewater treatment facility. According to the agreement, if Henderson County failed to construct a plant by 2012, the property would revert to the City of Asheville. But, after two 2-year extensions Henderson County and Asheville signed a new agreement to sell the property and split the proceeds 50-50. At the time, the property was valued at $6,815,000.

According to the story the public was told, Henderson County had received several offers well over $6 million, but just before closing on one of the deals, Henderson County’s manager, Steve Wyatt, ran to then Buncombe County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene with a deal she couldn’t refuse.

An emergency closed session was called, and a public hearing followed. Members of the public were only informed the county was going to buy the land at market value to offer it and incentives to “Company A” for an exciting economic development opportunity.

Investigative reporters at one news outlet were able to discover the code name of the project was “Bravo IV,” and a reporter for another outlet discovered that was the code name Deschutes Brewery was using elsewhere to negotiate incentives for an East Coast facility.

It later came to light the commissioners’ approval of the purchase was far from harmonious, with the three Republicans on the board opposing the move for reasons that included opposition to corporate welfare and distaste for spending so much taxpayer money on beer.

Buncombe County followed through with the purchase. Per the terms of the agreement, Henderson County and Asheville split the proceeds, and Asheville’s portion ($3,407,477) was paid to Buncombe County to support a public safety purpose. It was believed at the time the funds would pay for a shooting range that would benefit both city and county law enforcement, but that didn’t happen.

Time passed, and nobody heard from Deschutes. When the county was informed another party was interested in buying 40-50 acres of the land, then Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl took it upon herself to contact Deschutes. The answer she received was disputed, but Deschutes finally announced it would locate in Roanoke, Virginia and blamed DeBruhl’s “indiscretion.”

The day Deschutes made the official announcement, the county put the land up for sale, and there it sat for two years with no interest. It was believed the difficult topography, need for road improvements, and deed restrictions were standing in the way of sales, so the county worked with the city to rezone the property Residential and remove deed restrictions requiring the property to be used for an economic development purpose. The sale to Gillespie was then straightforward, with, as County Attorney Mike Frue described it, “no hidden gadgets.”

Commissioner Ellen Frost tried to ask a question about something she couldn’t publicly articulate due to the ongoing federal investigation of the former county manager. It had something to do with “the past manager counting this twice.” Following a few disjoint and out-of-context words from CFO Tim Flora, she concluded, “We can erase all that.”

Referencing that conversation later, Frue said the $3.4 million was “all water under the bridge.

Nate Pennington, who is now serving as Buncombe County’s interim planning director, said no plans had been submitted for the site, but anything of the scale expected would have to go through a design review process that would include a vote by city council. Having worked for the city for nine years, he assured the commissioners the process was rigorous.

Commissioner Joe Belcher said the one-time payment of $5 million was good for the county’s bottom line; but returning to the tax rolls a property that has been in government ownership for decades will do more toward opening a discussion about tax relief. The commissioners then unanimously approved the sale.

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