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Democrats competing in Buncombe County’s largest and most politically volatile district met Feb. 24 for one of the last times before the start of early voting.

The candidates for Buncombe County Board of Commissioners District 2 spoke to about 60 people at a forum at the Black Mountain Library put on by Dems on the Move. They covered topics about stricter land use rules, increasing government education programs, Duke power plant plans and the taxation of religious groups,

Four candidates are vying for the nomination in the March 15 primary: former county chief deputy and one-time sheriff candidate Scott Bissinger, Asheville Fire Department Capt. Larry Dodson, homebuilder and French Broad River Festival organizer Matt Kern and former AT&T Bell Labs project manager Nancy Nehls Nelson.

A volunteer for Bissinger’s campaign, Amber Phillips, said Bissinger was unable to attend the forum, which had been rescheduled. Phillips, a former teacher and sheriff’s department employee, stood in for him.

District 2 covers all of the Buncombe’s east, most of the north and part of the south, and has been the most competitive of the three districts with its two seats split between a Democrat, Ellen Frost, and a Republican, Mike Fryar, who is now up for re-election.

Despite agreeing on many issues, the candidates worked to differentiate themselves, while reserving punches for Fryar. Candidates said any of the four would be better than the incumbent.

“So if one of us gets hit by a bus, you’ve got three other people you can vote for,” Nelson said.

Zoning and transportation

Candidates spoke and fielded questions about whether they would look at stricter land use rules and how they would deal with rural roads that audience members said have become dangerously congested. All candidates would revisit land-use and zoning regulations, they and Phillips said. Candidates including Nelson noted how the state controls rural roads.

Kern said he liked county efforts to encourage building density in some areas by loosening rules, while using restrictions to prohibit density in others, such as forests, ridgetops and farms. He strongly supported using private and public money to buy conservation easements on farms to preserve them. Density along corridors, public transit and greenways can help, he said, joking that he’s often teased as “Mr. Greenway.”

“You have to have an alternative way for people to get places other than cars.”

Dodson agreed with ideas about buses, density and greenways. He said land use is a tricky subject because of the county’s fast growth and lack of affordable housing.

“We definitely want to protect our rural communities, and that’s why people want to live here,” he said, “but we also have a growing community. We need housing. We need development.”

Zoning changes were slow in coming because they were politically “ ndangerous,” he said, adding more change would have to start with resident support.

Phillips said Bissinger supports “smart development — by that he means you don’t overcrowd an area” or clear cut and that regulators should pay attention to water and storm runoff. “He’s not in favor of just piling something in for the sake of making money,” she said.

Nelson sits on the county’s Land Conservation Advisory Board, which helps buy easements on farms and other properties. She said she “cut her teeth” on land-use issues after learning about a planned 144-home development next to her rural Reems Creek home. She praised the county’s preservation efforts, though she said some opportunities were missed to tighten rules during the construction downtown in the Recession.

Land-use rules could be improved by borrowing from the county’s steep slope building restrictions, possibly adding them to flatter areas, and from Weaverville’s “countryside rural” zoning district, where “whatever the density is in an area, the new developments should match that density,” she said.

Pre-K, education

Candidates said they supported expanding pre-kindergarten education, something only 10 percent of county children in that age category have access to, said Kern, adding “that needs to change.”

They told one questioner they thought an expansion would have little effect on businesses currently offering pre-K. Answering another question, all said they supported the $10 million in teacher supplements funded by local property taxpayers. That follows statements earlier this from Fryar’s primary challenger, Jordan Burchette, against paying supplements.

Nelson said that education was her top priority and a way to “lift a child out of poverty,” while Phillips said that Bissinger prided himself on being a product of public education. Among his endorsements, Dodson first pointed one from Cindy McMahon, a Buncombe County School Board member he called “a champion of education.”

Duke plant

Answering a question about whether they would fight plans by Duke Power to replace its local coal power plant with a 186-megawatt natural gas plant, candidates had different opinions about approaches. The gas plant would have environmental benefits over the coal plant, but at its proposed size would be a contributor to climate change, activists say.

Like others, Dodson said alternative energy should become a focus, as well as conservation. “At the very least they need to scale that down,” he said of the plant. Moving toward solar and wind power could create jobs, he said, noting his role with the city in working to cut energy use and construct buildings with low carbon footprints.

Phillips said Bissinger supports conservation but echoed Dodson’s thoughts about the difficulty in pushing back against the utility.

“How a commissioner would fight Duke, I don’t know,” she said.

Kern said as a homebuilder he was a fan of alternative energy, frequently installing solar panels. He said he was also happy if coal ash would be moved away from the French Broad River to avoid a large spill. He also said the issue was a “double-edged sword.”

“What do we do as county commissioners, I think we can raise a whole lot of hell. But we have to have power,” he said.

Nelson, though, said county leaders should ask for a state and federal solution. While alternative energy solutions should be pursued, when people stop using electricity from a plant, the plant’s rates go up - a problem, she said. The states, she said, needed to work out a joint approach that helps consumers but also satisfies energy producers, “So that they can go back and report to their stock holders that they are still making money.”

Taxing religious organizations?

Former Enka-Candler fire captain and one-time Black Mountain Alderman Tim Rayburn asked candidates if they would support taxing religious organizations to help pay for emergency, fire and other services. A 2015 fire at Baptist-affiliated Ridgecrest Conference Center in the county’s east cost departments more than $400,000. Like other religious organizations, Ridgecrest pays no taxes.

Nelson said she wouldn’t pursue such a measure and Kern also declined, calling it “can of worms” but said some organizations might be “stretching the rules.”

Dodson said it was something he would consider “if there are entities out there who are really making money, really making profits and they’re not contributing to the community’s public safety needs.”

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