Black Mountain candidates discuss growth, more at forum

Karrigan Monk
Black Mountain News
Nathan West introduces the candidates at the Black Mountain Project's Sept. 21 forum.

All seven mayoral and Town Council candidates for Black Mountain came together Sept. 21 for a forum put on by the Black Mountain Project.

Nathan West, a founding member of the Black Mountain Project, moderated the forum, giving candidates a chance to answer a question from a pool of community-submitted queries.

Mayoral candidates Larry Harris and Mike Sobol were joined by Town Council candidates Rick Earley, Alice Berry, Bill Christy, Sonny Moore and Weston Hall. Harris and Christy are incumbents.

Incumbent mayor Larry Harris speaks the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

Growth was a heavy topic at the forum, with West asking about short-term rentals, rising housing costs and general growth of the community.

When asked about short-term rentals, Harris said it is a multifaceted issue that he would take no position on without a "very detailed" study that included "a lot" of public input.

Sobol said the town needs to get short-term rental companies like Airbnb involved in the solution and they need to be able to supervise themselves. He said Black Mountain has been a tourist town since the 1800s, and the town needs tourists to survive.

Mayoral candidate Mike Sobol speaks to the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

Berry agreed that having tourism is necessary for the town, noting that there needs to be balance in the solution.

"It's time for us to have this conversation as a community because it has so many different components," Berry said. "Everyone's going to get fired up about this, but we need everyone to participate in finding a solution."

Town council candidate Alice Berry speaks to the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

She also said there is only so much Black Mountain can do as a municipality because of state laws.

For Berry, cost of living is a "huge concern." She said as prices rise, more and more people are being pushed out of the town while others continue to come in because Black Mountain does not have as many environmental risks as other places that are affected by natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes.

Moore agreed that prices are continuing to go up and suggested federal subsidized housing as a possible solution.

Town council candidate Sonny Moore speaks to the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

Hall said one of the reasons he decided to run was to work on the issue of workforce housing.

"We are in a pivotal time in Black Mountain," Hall said. "I think we can either go forward or go considerably backwards."

Town council candidate Weston Hall speaks to the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

He suggested working with Buncombe County to create workforce housing that is based off area median income. He said he believes in affordable housing and does not want to let the issue go, but believes workforce housing may be the way forward.

Namely, Hall wants to turn the juvenile facility that was absorbed into the women's prison into affordable housing with parks and tennis and pickleball courts.

Despite rising housing costs, Black Mountain continues to grow and, according to the submitted questions, some in the community are concerned about it.

Harris said he has a lot of conversations with community members about growth. He called Black Mountain an "attractive, attractive" place to live and said he is not anti-growth, but the town has to plan for it.

"There is nothing more important in our town right now than properly planning for growth," Harris said.

Earley agreed Black Mountain is a great place to be and said it will take everyone putting their heads and reason together to find a solution.

Town council candidate Rick Earley speaks to the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

"We've got a problem if we don't make some changes," Earley said. "It's going to take the council, the planning to address brutal facts."

He suggested putting restrictions not only on how many homes can be built per acre, but also putting restrictions on the type of development.

As Black Mountain continues to grow, many candidates put focus on paying the town's employees fair wages. Christy said it was the town's No. 1 priority.

Hall described fair wages as one of the main reasons he decided to run for Town Council.

"We have got to do something," Hall said. "That's one piece of the puzzle."

Hall suggested a step raise system where employees who have been with the town longer make more than those who just started. Each time the minimum wage is raised, those who have been with the town get a comparable raise.

In line with town services, West asked Earley and Christy about the outsourcing of 911 dispatching and building permitting to Buncombe County.

Earley said he did not know the reasoning behind the decision, but he believes it is a matter of funding.

"If the town can do those and save money or break even and do as well a job as outsourcing, then I have no problem with it," Earley said.

In fact, Earley said he would prefer the town do it but is glad Buncombe County is there to fall back on.

Christy said the issue is more complicated than it sounds and that the town is finding it difficult to hire a town inspector.

Town council incumbent Bill Christy speaks to the crowd at the Sept. 21 candidate forum.

Each candidate had the opportunity to make a closing statement to let the audience gathered know why they should vote for them. Every candidate spoke on how they loved the town and wanted the best for it.

"Everyone here cares about Black Mountain," Christy said. "There are no bad choices."