Candidate Questionnaire – County Commission
1. Please state your views on the role of historic preservation and our historic resources in the future of the county.
Bill Branyon: I’ve admired the great accomplishments of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County and think it’s one of the most powerful agencies for protecting neighborhoods, tree canopy and other ecological and architectural Buncombe County gems. From your seminal fight against the Beaucatcher Cut, the designation of Montford Ave. as a historic district and preventing a through street, the defense of downtown Asheville from destruction and mall-dom, the preservation of the beautiful Manor, Gudger and Richmond Hill Houses, your accomplishments have been magnificent.
As one of the early members of the Mountain Xpress (what was then the Green Line), and frequent contributor for over 30 years, I’ve written over 150 articles, many of them about protecting neighborhoods from development. In fact, last year I wrote a satirical Op-ed for the Asheville Citizen supporting your brilliant and determined defense of the North Charlotte Street neighborhoods that you can find at OPINION: North Asheville’s glorious development future needs big thinking (citizen-times.com). You can also see many of my preservation articles in the Xpress archives.
I don’t know if you get County Commission funds to support your efforts, but if elected, I’d definitely steer funds your way. That would include a significant portion of the $25 million a year in TDA taxes that are now largely wasted on advertisements for Asheville that mostly aren’t really needed, given the Biltmore Estates huge advertising budget.
2. The Historic Resources Commission is a combined commission of the City of Asheville and Buncombe County. Currently, Buncombe County does not contribute staff time or significant resources to that commission. How would you propose to increase Buncombe County’s commitment to that Commission and preservation overall?
Bill Branyon: As mentioned above, I’d steer a significant portion of the $500 million dollar CC budget to the Historic Resources Commission. To me you are a more powerful defender of Buncombe County than MountainTrue, which is supporting the Open Spaces movement as best I can tell. At least one of MountainTrue’s officers advocated cutting down Asheville’s tree canopy and destroying the grace of almost of all of Asheville’s neighborhoods with unlimited infill in order to “prevent rural sprawl.” But my experience of covering numerous development fights has shown that infill and rural sprawl go hand and hand. Infill doesn’t limit rural sprawl to any significant degree, at least in Buncombe County.
3. What will be your top three priorities to ensure the preservation of Buncombe County’s historic buildings and neighborhoods?
Bill Branyon: My plan, which you can find at my website, branyonforcommissioner.org, is to have a county-wide referendum about how much more development we want in the county. If none or just a little, I’ll zone accordingly, just as Biltmore Forest has zoned their town to prevent destruction of canopy, forests and grace. I’d also add most historical sights that you recommend to this zoning, making large sections of Buncombe County designated historical landmarks with all its accompanying zoning restrictions.
I’d also focus on the Charlotte Street development efforts and try to preserve the character of that neighborhood from the RCG group and the Killian family’s (whom I hear is mainly a rich art dealer in Charleston) effort to cram hundreds of apartments into that beautiful area. I might even consider asserting eminent domain if RCG persists in tearing down houses there, despite the PSABC’s victory in preventing their neighborhood destructive plans. Portland Oregon has a concentric ring zoning approach to saving the inner-city charm and historical buildings and Asheville and Buncombe County could do the same.
4. Outside of Asheville, Buncombe County has no local historic districts under the purview of HRC and 7 local historic landmarks. Would you support the establishment of local historic districts or landmarks in the county?
Bill Branyon: Yes. Absolutely. We need to preserve the history of all of historic Buncombe County. The Historic Resources Commission will become a central focus of my tenure in office, with significant resources channeled through it to preserve the many beautiful spots and architecture sprinkled throughout the county.
Would you support the establishment of local historic districts or landmarks to recognize the story of Black people and other traditionally excluded communities in Buncombe County?
Bill Branyon: Absolutely. Buncombe’s black citizens have been herded about the county like Iraq’s Kurds, marginalized and brutalized. That will change if I can help it. Their South Charlotte Street treasures will be preserved, Shiloh and other landmarks and neighborhoods cherished, and any other landmarks saved.
5. Are you aware of ways that historic preservation can assist with priorities named by Buncombe County such as the need for affordable housing and in addressing climate change?
Bill Branyon: No. But that is good to hear knowing the great power of the PSABC. Certainly, your defense of Charlotte Street is also a defense of the tree canopy of the area and affordable housing. I’ll try to freeze rents and property taxes in lower-and-middle-income neighborhoods and in designated historical areas such as the River Arts District. Buncombe County is very close to a designation as a rain forest and as so is vital to maintaining Earth’s climate. It’s not just the Amazon rain forest that provides oxygen and cooling for the planet. My every decision will be informed by the reality of human-caused climate change, as you can see in my website.
Historic structures contribute to the stock of naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) and ‘missing middle’ housing of small multifamily units. What do you propose the County does to maintain affordable housing by preservation and adaptive reuse of historic structures? How could the County encourage infill development in historic areas that increases density while respecting historic structures?
Bill Branyon: My idea for saving the historic and affordable housing on Charlotte was to have a city and county refurbish those houses instead of tear them down, if the developer was not willing to do so. Such a project could have received city and county funds as well as a community funding effort, since it was obvious how committed the Preservation Society and the community was.
But now that they are being torn down anyway, I’d publicize that as how brutal developers can be, and how little they care about what the local community thinks. I wrote several articles about saving the Magnolia tree by the city Courthouse. Lady Passion and Clare Hanrahan and many other people understood the brutality and effrontery of developers and so arranged a 24/7 watch to prevent the tree from being cut at night. That type of vigilance is necessary in many other areas in the future.
The worst aspect of this to me is that many of these developers are from out-of-town and out-of-state, and they only see Buncombe County as a way to maintain their portfolios profit line, and nothing else. I find letting people who are only trying to find something to do with their spare money carve up our beautiful neighborhoods, forests and tree canopy incredibly irresponsible, boneheaded and superficially greedy.
Restoration and renovation of historic structures usually means making them functional by today’s standards, including safety and environmental standards. Reuse of an existing structure can utilize modern energy improvements that combine historic integrity and energy efficiency. How would you support energy efficient adaptive reuse as a Buncombe County Commissioner? What would you propose to increase the viability of energy efficiencies to historic structures, like the addition of solar panels?
Bill Branyon: I see little reason why we couldn’t add solar panels to all these renovations, using county and community funds to assist where needed. We should use some of the excess profits that the public utility Duke Power is awarded to finance these additions.
6. What incentives do you think Buncombe County can use to encourage preservation of our historic resources?
Bill Branyon: If elected, I will mobilize the County Commission into constant vigilance over preservation of buildings and rescuing of the history of the county. I obtained a Masters degree in history from WCU on top of an undergraduate history degree at Vanderbilt University, the school founded by Jack Cecil’s distant grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
At Vandy I learned of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, the most famous of which was Robert Penn Warren. The most famous later acolyte of the group was our own Weaverville’s Richard Weaver. I reviewed his life and most famous book Ideas Have Consequences for the Xpress. The twelve Agrarians (who also included the Fugitive Poets) wrote I’ll Take My Stand which declared:
“Progress [which I translate to mean, in part, development] never defines its ultimate objective but thrusts its victims at once into a infinite series of activity. Our vast industrial machine is like a Prussianized state which is organized strictly for war and can never consent to peace. It uses the latest scientific paraphenalia to sacrifice comfort, leisure and enjoyment to win Pyrrhic victories over nature at points of no strategic importance.”
The Agrarians asked Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe to join them, but Thomas was far too dedicated to his own vision to complicate it with such endeavors. However, he wrote the short story Boomtown, about Asheville in the 1920s development boom. He wrote:
“The conversation was terrific and incessant – a tumult of voices united in variations of a single chorus: speculation and real estate… A spirit of drunken waste and wild destructiveness was everywhere apparent: the fairest places in town were mutilated at a cost of millions of dollars… The place looked like a battlefield: it was cratered and shelltorn with savage explosions of brick and concrete all over town.”
Wolfe’s short story would fit just as well into Asheville’s and Buncombe County’s modern developmental frenzy. If elected I’ll do everything to I can to prevent ill-advised development and convince our community that, as the Agrarians maintained:”