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Stay on the pulse of the decisions being made at meetings for Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commission, with reports from BPR’s Laura Hackett.

Last night at Commission: 760 acres of Biltmore Farms rezoned for Pratt & Whitney workforce despite public criticism

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meet every first and third Tuesday at 200 College Street.
BPR News
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meet every first and third Tuesday at 200 College Street.

At the Dec. 5 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the rezoning of more than 760 acres that surround Pratt & Whitney, a manufacturing plant that makes aircraft engines and auxiliary power units.

This decision allows the land to go from a mixture of residential and commercial designation, to an employment designation that allows industrial and workforce use. The shift will enable AB-Tech and Buncombe County to build a “new satellite campus providing specialized manufacturing instruction in support of the Pratt and Whitney and future spin-off industry workforce,” according to a staff analysis of the zoning request.

Not everyone was happy with that decision. At the public hearing that took place before the vote, more than 30 residents, many affiliated with the activist organization Reject Raytheon, criticized Pratt & Whitney for its role in manufacturing turbine airfoils, an important piece of the F135 engines used for military aircrafts.

The protesters demanded that the county vote against the rezoning measure and issue a moratorium on county-incentivized economic development projects that work with the military industry. Some also alleged that Pratt & Whitney machinery was responsible for deaths in the Israel-Palestinian war. Reporting from Reuters confirms that Pratt & Whitney is involved with Israeli defense companies, specifically in the production of components for the F-35 jet, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

Sebastian Collett, a former instructor at AB-Tech Community College, said he was “horrified” at the idea of his former employer helping train students to work at Pratt & Whitney.

“With all the urgent crises in our world today, including climate disaster, the need to invest in alternative energy, the need to end homelessness, access to universal healthcare, food equity, etc, surely there are many more helpful careers that we can be training our young students for,” he said.

After urging the commission to reject the rezone, two of the speakers, Yazmin Dijani and Meredith Jones, used the remainder of their public comment time to lead a moment of silence for those who have died in war. After the second moment of silence, County Chair Brownie Newman used his authority as a presiding member of the board to disallow that.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” he said. “But if you’re going to speak at public comment, I’m going to rule that you have to talk.”

Clark Duncan, executive director of the Asheville-Buncombe Economic Development Coalition, was the lone person at public comment to speak in support of the rezone. Duncan argued that the “economic future of our region” will depend on developing acreage like the one at Biltmore Farms into sites of industry and employment.

“Economic development and high-wage employment, needs of our community, make this a compelling case for rezoning. I’m pleased to advocate for this place. I applaud the vision of the County Commission in building an economy that supports our next generation,” he said.

After the public hearing, protestors began chanting “Free Palestine,” which led Newman to pause the meeting and guide the commissioners out of the room. After a five-minute pause, commissioners returned to vote on the item.

Newman, who acknowledged the criticism but ultimately spoke in favor of the vote, was the only commissioner to speak on the item.

"Our comprehensive plan and our county's economic development policy do rightly emphasize the need to support manufacturing as a key component of our economy, and it is the sector of our economy that produces the highest wages in our community,” Newman said.

Short-term rental conversion flagged as possible affordable housing solution

In an afternoon briefing before the meeting, commissioners heard from Rafael Baptista, Buncombe County's director of strategy and innovation. Baptista presented options for Buncombe County to incentivize landlords to convert their short-term rentals into long-term rentals, in an effort to address the affordable housing problem.

Other cities such as Sedona, Ariz., Truckee, Calif., and Portland, Maine, have pursued similar incentive programs, with varied success, Baptista said. Such programs typically provide funding to landlords to make up for the loss of revenue that they would have received from a short-term rental as opposed to a long-term one. There are often, but not always, requirements that tenants' income not exceed a certain level.

One option considered by the commission would offer an incentive for those who rent to tenants with vouchers, which includes those who earn 50 percent or less of the area median income. Another option would include an incentive for landlords to rent to those earning between 50 to 80 percent of the area median income.

Commissioners were largely supportive of the idea. Chairman Brownie Newman voiced skepticism but said that he would not oppose the commission moving forward.

"If you were truly going to do that, I think that's expensive. And honestly, I don't see a huge uptake on it, is my gut feeling. But you know .... if we try it out and we put it out there and there's not a huge reception, there's no great loss to it," Newman said.

County staff will develop a more-detailed proposal for consideration; no timeline was offered at Tuesday's meeting.

Money moves

  • Commissioners approved a $750,000 budget amendment for a restroom and other amenities at Buncombe County Sports Park. The money comes from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.

Other tidbits

  • Parker Sloan was voted to serve as the commission's next vice chair, replacing current Vice Chair Terri Wells. The vice chair serves as a backup, should the chair not be able to perform their duties. Sloan will serve in this role for the next two years. 
  • Commissioners approved some updates to its Affordable Housing Services Program, including loan agreement requirements and project preferences. See the updates
  • As part of an eight-item consent agenda, a resolution was approved to transfer the ownership of Boris, a retired nine year-old Dutch shepherd, to his handler, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office’s Corporal Dustin Siske. 

Every first and third Tuesday, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meets at 200 College Street, Room 326 in downtown Asheville beginning at 5 p.m. See the full recording of the Dec. 5 meeting.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.