Last November’s election in Woodfin, Asheville’s sleepy northern neighbor, came at a time of major transformation. The town’s population has more than doubled since 2000 — it is now home to 8,000 people — and Woodfin is attracting keen interest from developers.
The proposed Bluffs at Riverbend, a large mixed-use development on pristine forest west of the French Broad River, rallied residents. Voters turned out in record numbers, tossing out three incumbents who had governed the town for a decade or more.
Their three replacements, Jim McAllister, Eric Edgerton, and Hazel Thornton, were backed by the Sierra Club and promised to protect the town’s green spaces and steep slopes with responsible, environmentally sensitive development. Two others with similar positions, Judy Butler and Betsy Ervin, were appointed to fill vacancies, giving the Town Commission a solid majority and shifting power from longtime Woodfin residents to a group of mostly retired professionals who are relatively recent arrivals in town.
Lessons from the transition are important not just for Asheville, as development creeps past its borders and into Woodfin, but to other municipalities in Buncombe County as newcomers challenge established politicians over such vexing questions as development and affordable housing.
In Woodfin, Jerry VeHaun, who is completing his 19th year as mayor, and commissioner Ronnie Lunsford, are the only remaining members of the old guard.
Edgerton, 34, acknowledged that there’s a “dichotomy between the town’s historic residents and the new arrivals.”
The newer residents tend to be more “sophisticated and educated,” creating “class distinctions” with longer-term residents, said Marshall De Bruhl, a retired publishing executive and author whose family history in Woodfin dates to the mid-19th century. While he supports the new commissioners, he warned, “If the board doesn’t navigate this very carefully they will suffer at election time.”
Debra Giezentanner, a longtime Woodfin resident who lost her re-election bid last year, said the desire to keep small-town life hasn’t changed.“The people of Woodfin don’t want big developers coming in and taking advantage of Woodfin homeowners and property owners and the environment,” she said.
Woodfin’s new commissioners are trying to modernize and bring more transparency to the town’s government.
McAllister said his “head exploded” when he learned that Mayor VeHaun and the previous commissioners met secretly with the Bluffs developer in April 2021. At the insistence of the new commissioners earlier this year, the minutes from that meeting were changed to publicly include the discussion and acknowledge that it “should have occurred in open session.”
The Bluffs proposal has been scrapped, but a new development is being proposed on the same site by a different group of investors.
McAllister, a former sales and marketing executive who moved to Woodfin in 2019, is now vice mayor. Asheville Watchdog sat down with him to discuss the transformation in Woodfin.
Asheville Watchdog: What has surprised you the most about the way the town had been governed?
McAllister: I learned from an auditor that there were few checks and balances. There were checks being ordered written by the mayor without explanation. There was a complete lack of financial controls. Now all that has been locked down firmly.
I was also surprised that they didn’t feel that running the town was anybody’s business but theirs. Personally, I had a run-in with the mayor last year over money that our neighborhood raised for kids at the school, where I was told, ‘This is none of your business.’ I was raised differently than that.
[Mayor VeHaun told Asheville Watchdog he didn’t know what run-in McAllister was referring to.]
Asheville Watchdog: As a liberal advocating transparency in government and responsible, environmentally sensitive development, what made you think that it was worthwhile to run for the office?
McAllister: If you look at the voter registration demographics in the town of Woodfin, they are fascinating. I was introduced to a lady named Glenda Overbeck, who’s the chair of the largest Democratic precinct in town, and she said ‘Oh, no, listen to me young man,’ and she took me through all the stats. That’s when I was really heartened that we can change things here. I had assumed this was a red town, but I was just mistaken.
Asheville Watchdog: You have expressed concerns about preserving green spaces and controlling development. What are you doing on that front?
McAllister: We passed a steep slope ordinance. It is stricter than Buncombe County’s. Mayor VeHaun and Commissioner Lunsford were against it. But we had to stop this clearing of the hillsides.
Two, we got involved in developing a comprehensive plan. We were in violation of state law because we did not have a comprehensive plan for the future. We didn’t have a land use plan. So Eric Hardy [then the town administrator] and Adrienne Isenhower [the town’s planning director] spent about a million hours redrafting a plan from the 1970s. I jumped in and spent a couple of hundred hours — I’m exaggerating — but we basically edited it to the state’s satisfaction. They said, ‘Okay, now you have a comprehensive plan.’ But it really needs to be rewritten properly.
So we’re going to start over. We’re now shopping for the right consultant because every zoning ordinance and every change you make to zoning is supposed to be based on the comprehensive plan. And right now we struggle to do that.
Three, we passed conditional zoning, which says that any big residential complex or a commercial property has to first go to the planning board. That board can recommend approval, but it can’t make the developer do anything. Under the conditional zoning law, the Board of Commissioners has final approval, and we can approve a project with conditions attached, and we can use whatever conditions we feel are reasonable and necessary. If the developer disagrees, the only way to move forward is to go to Superior Court.
Four, we changed the form of government from a council and administrator to a Board of Commissioners and a town manager and quickly hired a town manager, Shannon Tuch. She’s doing great. We needed a town manager with extensive experience in planning and zoning, and that’s what her career has been.
Five, we’re going to have town hall meetings. We recently had a town meeting, and 63 people showed up. I thought it was remarkable because it had never been done before. Another commissioner told me it would be a dumpster fire, that no one would come. But it turned out to be a rousing success. We got some really good input from residents. For example, we were wondering how big an issue short-term rentals would be. We got an earful from both sides, and that is exactly what we need in this town. But it takes work to publicize such meetings and the town has to put effort out to attract participation.
We promised transparency. People demanded it.
I am still so angry about the secret meeting we found out about between the commissioners and the Bluffs developer while there were picketers outside, and they’re behind closed doors meeting with these guys. It was just wrong.
We stopped the Bluffs. It was a huge victory. They wanted 1,500 apartments and an amusement park. But those little streets in Richmond Hill, [the only access for construction vehicles] they’re hairpin turns.
The new investors from Gainesville, Florida, started an application process to build 672 luxury apartments, but they say they’re going to build a new road. But we can’t find any new road location in their plan. The only place you can have a road going is across the river. Without that bridge, they’ll destroy those Richmond Hill roads.
The good news is that they acknowledge that the project will come before the Town Commission, and that’s where we have our ability to put conditions on it. Maybe we can say you’ve got to build a bridge. So, that one is going to be tricky and follow the law very carefully.
Asheville Watchdog: What are the lessons you’ve learned over the last several months that could be helpful to other local governments?
McAllister: Ask the people, even if you think you know what they’re going to say. Go ask them anyway. Open your door. Get out of the Town Hall. Go beat the streets.
You know, this is their government, not ours, this government by and for the people. And it can’t be that way when you’re telling citizens that ‘it’s none of your business’ to their questions. That’s just wrong.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.