On Election Day, Nov. 7, Black Mountain voters will vote for mayor and aldermen. To help readers decide which candidate to select for mayor, The Black Mountain News posed six questions to the three candidates, asking that they limit their answers to 100 words. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Responses to the newspaper’s questions for alderman candidates are scheduled to run Oct. 26.
Town growth: The proposed Trestle Crossing project downtown has sparked conversation about the how Black Mountain should grow. How would you manage growth in town?
We have already given instructions to our new planning director, Jessica Trotman, to review building heights. The Planning Board should be able to, with public participation, come up with the proper sensible growth formula for the rest of town. We plan to look at parking requirements for any new buildings. I feel this is something that should be required in the commercial district.
The people have spoken with the large turnout opposing the Trestle Building. We need stricter codes/covenants to protect our historic downtown and keep the small town feel that has attracted so many people. We are at a pivotal moment in our town’s history, and we can either move toward sprawl or lean toward smart growth. Infrastructure starts with uniting to write ordinances and covenants that preserve the town’s Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2009 and in 2014. We need to unite communities within Black Mountain to introduce a community watch along with managing traffic patterns and covenants to preserve our community.
We need to stop overdevelopment. Reducing building heights to 32 feet in central business district, requiring developers to have more green space and sidewalks, making developers pay for infrastructure improvements are ways to slow growth. Slow, small-scale development is what has helped make Black Mountain the charming city we love. No one formula will solve this challenging question, nor will highly paid experts. We have part of the answer now - the Comprehensive Plan. We need the architects of this plan to share their expertise again. Bring the citizens together to update this plan and address too much growth.
Infrastructure: As development in Black Mountain continues, how should the existing infrastructure, such as roads and stormwater management systems, be improved to keep pace with the town’s growth?
We have spent approximately half a million dollars on sidewalks and $360,000 on stormwater improvements in the last six years. The town is currently working with NCDOT to improve the stormwater system on Sutton Avenue. Work has begun by cleaning out of the stormwater basin next to the trestle crossing. The majority of our sidewalk and road maintenance funds come from Powell Bill. We have used all Powell Bill funds in pursuit of maintaining our streets and sidewalks. Montreat Road sidewalk should be finished by the end of 2017, with plans to begin N.C. 9 sidewalk in 2018.
Developers have not been held accountable to mitigate flash flooding. If they do not adhere, then there must be consequences. The increased flow of warmer, polluted water flowing into our streams and eroding stream banks destroys our trout streams, along with our diverse aquatic ecosystems. Stormwater runoff can be mitigated if we all unite to educate our neighbors and take simple steps with installing catch ponds, rain gardens and rain barrels. We need to make resources available to residents and help them take necessary measures to solve the problem. Stormwater management needs someone solely dedicated to the position.
We need to recognize that we have a problem, and this board has not done so. McGill Engineering completed a detailed analysis over 10 years ago. Yet, we have not even put cameras underground to see where the pipes are and what's their condition and size. Digging out a ditch beside the railroad is not the answer. We need some citizens to help the staff address this issue. We have plenty of retired folks whose past carriers could help us through this maze of issues with stormwater as well as roads. The mayor is ready to appoint a committee.
Affordable housing: The average home sold in 2017 through August in Black Mountain was about $295,000. What would you do to spur construction of homes that young families and others can afford?
Don Collins: It is probably the toughest issue the board will tackle in coming years. We need to look closely at requiring all future developments to include affordable housing. This may not be popular with the large developers but is one solution to ensure that large developments work to accommodate the urgent need for affordable housing in our town. The idea of mobile home parks is not a viable solution.
Weston Hall: My wife and I rented for over seven years in Black Mountain before we were able to purchase our own home. We need to take care of those who work in our community like teachers, town employees and those who work in emergency services so they can afford homes. Trailer parks are not the answer. Having intentional discussions with developers like Habitat and Mountain Housing and then having neighborhood forums are a good place to start. This will be my number one project when I am in office. I will hold developers accountable for their promises to build affordable houses.
Michael Sobol: You can tell it's election time - more chatter about affordable housing. First, let’s mandate developers set aside 15 percent of a project for affordable housing at an affordable price. Second, develop clusters of affordable housing with help from grants that, once built, cannot be sold at market value with the owner reaping all the profits. The selling price must be controlled to allow subsequent generations to have the same chance at reasonably priced homes. Third, double-wides, factory-built to code, are a safe and excellent way to provide homes, but we need areas to be rezoned to accommodate them.
Financial strategy: In recent years, the town has decreased its debt while increasing its unassigned fund balance. When – and on what - should the town spend money from fund balance to address needs in town?
Don Collins: In recent years the town has decreased debt and increased unassigned fund balance, both of which I ran on and delivered. With resistance from others, this was accomplished. This now enables us to be financially able to address parking, stormwater and growth issues. The current Board of Aldermen has worked the hardest to restore financial stability to the town. To accomplish future goals, the town must be financially stable and fiscally responsible.
Weston Hall: I don’t agree that we have been fiscally responsible. We have made great strides and for that I applaud our board, but we are not there yet. Over the last decade we have lost close to $1 million on the golf course alone. There are other projects where we could have done a better job in managing funds. The town shouldn’t spend any more than what is budgeted. We are taxed enough, and the rest should come from developers and grants to fund improvements to infrastructure.
Michael Sobol: Reducing debt is fine, but this board wants to pay off debt with 0 percent interest and that is not wise. The town needs to continually repair, replace and, yes, add to. When stormwater, roads and infrastructure don't get addressed, the cost just keeps growing. Prudent spending is what is needed. We have one of the lowest debt ratios of towns in N.C. We can service new debt, with no new taxes, and address these pressing needs. We have a strong revenue stream that is growing. We need to spend, not talk.
Downtown: The downtown historic district is often described as the heart of Black Mountain and continues to attract thousands of visitors every year. How will you address traffic congestion and scarce parking?
Don Collins: We have prepared a resolution to request a parking and circulation study with the French Broad River MPO, which encourages a holistic downtown parking study in lieu of a standalone study. Town officials have been working to address parking needs through shared parking agreements and the addition of signage to increase public awareness of available lots within a short walking distance of downtown. The officials will work to encourage business owners and their employees to utilize these lots in lieu of parking in the immediate downtown area. The board has met to discuss future property acquisition.
Weston Hall: We have a model that forces the automobile to be a prosthetic instead of an alternative. Great strides have been made in city planning which we could adopt to make our town a safer place to walk and bike. These simple measures have already been proposed but have so far been ignored. Some of the options seem counterintuitive, but research has shown they are effective in calming traffic and making it safer to walk and bike. Many cities have had great success with one-way streets, narrower roads, traffic islands with roundabouts, along with bicycle lanes protected by armadillo lane guards.
Michael Sobol: Your mayor formed a blue ribbon committee that has already met and is working on several areas for parking and ways to reduce congestion. We are doing this with the help of our citizens who see the needs and have shared wonderful ideas of how to resolve the problems. We’re ready to have an open house meeting for anyone to come and contribute. Our goal is to present solutions to the planning director and to the planning board for their review and hope that they lead to a parking deck.
The future: Change is happening fast in town and elsewhere in the world. What would you like Black Mountain to be in 20 years and how would you help it get there?
Don Collins: I would like to see Black Mountain retain its small-town identity that we have always had. I have worked hard to ensure that we do not become little Asheville. Even through growth is inevitable, the steps we take now will ensure Black Mountain retains its small-town character through responsible growth actions.
Weston Hall: I see a place where everyone has a voice and where infrastructure supports smart growth. I see a tree-lined, quaint town with neighbors walking or riding their bikes with a few cars meandering down the street full of children among streams teaming with trout, along with local artisans selling their wares. I see commuters brought to work by light rail and greenways, children playing sports at a large recreation sports complex. We have Billy Graham and all of the spiritual giants who come here to speak, visit and live. The beautiful people makes this the best place on earth.
Michael Sobol: Technology is giving us more opportunities and knowledge. We need to make sure we don't forget what we've learned, as we need to pass these lessons and heritage onto the next generations as they transition into a world where people work less and there are fewer jobs. Yet, they can still have satisfying careers, raise families, consume less and learn to live in a different world than we grew up in. We need to show how we can build a better sense of community where we interact more, do more for one another and learn that together, we are better.