Growth and housing dominate mayoral candidates forum
Black Mountain mayoral candidates on Sept. 18 staked out their positions on town growth and affordable housing.
Some two dozen people gathered at Lakeview Center to listen to candidates Weston Hall, alderman Don Collins and incumbent mayor Michael Sobol.
The evening forum was hosted by Robyn Josephs, administrator of Facebook group Black Mountain Exchange, and Valerie Hartshorn, administrator of another group on the social media site called Indivisible-Black Mountain. The latter is a group that encourages civic engagement locally.
Each candidate was given three minutes to introduce himself and the same amount of time to respond to questions. Among those in attendance were current aldermen Carlos Showers, who is not seeking re-election in November, and vice mayor Ryan Stone, who is running to retain his alderman's seat.
Collins, elected twice to his current seat, was the first candidate to speak. His immediate focus was on what he called the three promises he made to voters in first campaign.
"I promised three things back six years ago," he said. "I wanted to restore civility to our board, because I thought we were the laughing stock of Western North Carolina the way we conducted ourselves during board meetings. I wanted to reduce our debt and increase our fund balance."
Collins said the board has been harmonious during the six years he has served. He highlighted a 51 percent reduction in the town's debt during the same time span.
"We have $1.2 million in the bank than what we had when I was elected," he said. "We have one of the lowest tax rates of any municipality in Buncombe County."
Hall gave a detailed account of his background, which included military school and time as an officer in the U.S. Army. He expressed a need for more veterans in the legislative branch of government.
"I went into the ministry. I went to New Orleans and worked as a chaplain in a couple of different hospitals," he said. "I also worked with HIV/AIDS (patients)."
He also talked about work he did in the area following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He's been a firefighter in Swannanoa and Asheville for the past eight years.
Sobol introduced himself as a 67-year resident of Black Mountain and graduate of Owen High School. He quickly transitioned into what he believes to be the biggest issue. Over-development is "the main crux of what we really face today," he said.
Sobol touted himself as a provider of much-needed affordable housing (Sobol owns property along Kappa Loop, Sigma Lane, Genesis Circle and, in Ridgecrest, Border Street.
"What I did was build affordable housing," he said. "I did the developments, and we added 64 units of affordable housing to the Swannanoa Valley."
He also pointed to his longtime support of the town's greenway system, "one of the first things I wanted to do" when he was first elected, he said.
While Collins championed the board of aldermen's ability to reduce debt and increase the town's fund balance, Sobol said the town has "plenty of dough" and added "we're going to have more dough coming in with all of the houses being built."
Sobol wants the town to use some of the money on speeding up completion of the greenway system or constructing a parking deck on a town-owned lot just off just south of the railroad tracks. Collins warned against stretching the town's finances too thin.
"These ideas are great," Collins said. "But unless we want to raise taxes, which I don't think anybody wants, we have to do things in a controlled manner and a consistent way."
Hall wants the town to find a way to hold developers responsible for infrastructure improvements. "We have to demand things of developers so we're not paying the tax and they're paying the tax," he said. He also advocated for think tanks and outside experts to examine the creation of more affordable housing.
"We need to concentrate on affordable housing for our teachers and people who work here so they can live close, ride their bikes and walk to work," he said. "That can be accomplished by lots of Black Mountain people getting together and bringing in some powerful minds from outside of the community."
Hall disagreed with Sobol's opinion that the key to providing more affordable housing was to ease regulations on mobile homes.
"The most affordable housing you can get," Sobol said, "is mobile homes. But people don't want to hear it. They're not all rat-infested drug centers. You go to Florida, and there's mobile home park after mobile home park. If we really want to (address affordable housing), then that's how we do it."
The board of aldermen has set up zoning regulations to encourage developers to build affordable housing, Collins said. "For example, where the Tyson land was sold on Blue Ridge Road, they're putting 30 duplexes there," he said. "Putting more units per acre is supposed to make housing more affordable, but it's not working, guys."
Collins said he spoke to town manager Matt Settlemyer about his desire to see the town's planning board address the issue. "The new planning director will be working on that during their next meeting," Collins said. "That's one of her main goals that Matt has given her."
The candidates were asked about the role of planning and zoning in Black Mountain's growth. Collins urged citizens to get involved and serve on town boards. He also pointed to the south side of Blue Ridge Road, where he lives, as the "last big section for growth" in the town.
"We have to work through the planning board, and we need citizen input and involvement," he said. "I'll be honest with you, (citizen involvement) gets less and less every year."
Without mentioning names, Hall said there are conflicts of interests among existing planning board members. "That does not lead to good sentiments on our part as citizens," he said. "We need to push for transparency."
Sobol said improved zoning is needed downtown. "That's why people come, because of the charm of our historic district," he said. He also implied the board was considering making Blue Ridge Road a four-lane bypass, which Collins said was "not remotely true."
"This board has never discussed that in any way, shape or form," Collins said. "We've talked about widening (N.C. 9), and the newer part of Blue Ridge Road so it could have a bike lane and a sidewalk. That's all this board has ever looked at."
In his closing statement, Collins' closing statements focused primarily on his work related to the town square project.
"I went to the (Buncombe County) board of commissioners. They had some money that was supposed to be used for recreation, and the state stopped them from doing that," he said. "But they still had the money in a pool, and we received a 7-0 vote for $50,000 to get started. And that's when (the town square) was a grassy knoll."
Hall closed by suggesting he had recently been a whistleblower. He called that an accomplishment. "I was able to shake the tree, and some bad apples fell out," he said.
Sobol closed the forum with his three proudest accomplishments in his time in local government.
"The first was starting the greenway by going to the bishop of the Episcopal Church when they owned In The Oaks. I was able to get the right-of-way from them to go through what is now Montreat College (property)," he said. "It's one of the reasons I'm running, because I want to make sure this thing gets done."
He also talked about his work on the Grey Eagle Arena. "There are only two soccer centers in the state that are municipally owned, and we own one of them," he said. He also lauded his early support of the town square. "There were people totally against it before they were for it," he said.
The forum was followed by a meet-and-greet in which the candidates made themselves accessible to members of the audience.
Josephs and Hartshorn will host a similar forum for aldermen candidates at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 16 on the top floor of the Lakeview Center.