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MILLS RIVER Q&A: Candidates tackle NC 191, police contract

MILLS RIVER — Mills River wins the distinction for having the most competitive election of all of Henderson County’s towns in 2017.



Incumbents Larry Freeman, who is the mayor, and Billy Johnston both drew challengers, and three candidates are vying for the District 3 seat that Councilman Shanon Gonce is vacating. The Mills River Town Council elects a mayor from among its members when a new council is seated in December in odd-numbered years.

The candidates are:
• Larry Freeman, 69, semi-retired broadcaster and news director, WHKP radio (incumbent).

• Brian Caskey, 46, owner of Biltmore Tutoring in Asheville.

• Billy Johnston, farmer, co-owner of Tap Root Dairy, (incumbent).

• Paul Richmond Meadows Jr., 75, farmer, retired engineer.

• Chae Trantham Davis, 38, funeral director/vice president and general manager of Shuler and Forest Lawn Funeral Homes.

• Nathan Garnett, 28, long-term care insurance specialist.

• James Smith Humphrey III, 72, maintenance of home and 8 wooded acres. Chairman of Mills River Planning Board, Stand TALL board member.

The candidates answered our questions on issues the Town Council is likely to face in the coming years, including work force housing, highway improvements, police coverage and parks and recreation.

Why are you running for election to the Mills River Town Council?

District 1

Freeman: I am running for election to a third term on Mills River Town Council because the Council has been very successful in the 14-year history of the Town carefully planning and developing growth, attracting “clean” industry and good paying jobs, building a park, town hall, and library, providing enhanced law enforcement---all while
keeping the property tax rate one of the lowest in the county. I am blessed to have been a part of that successful leadership for the past 8 years and look forward to another 4-year term of service to the citizens of Mills River.

Caskey: I am running because I’m uniquely qualified the help the Town of Mills River manage the growth that’s taking place right now. I own a small business with fifteen employees; previous to that I worked in the corporate world for many years. I was a project manager for a large publisher, and I specialized in getting multi-million dollar projects off the ground. Dealing with large numbers and negotiating favorable contracts is nothing new to me. We need that kind of experience in Mills River if we are to safeguard our small town values while allowing responsible growth to take place.

District 2

Meadows: Having been a resident my entire life, I have a lot invested in the character of Mills River. At this point in my life I have time to dedicate a lot of time to Mills River. I wish to help guide the advancement of the town, to represent the ideas of all its residents and not just a few of them. We must work as a group.

District 3

Davis: I have been blessed to be a part of this community my entire life. We own a farming operation here and hope our sons choose to carry on that tradition. I expect to live for many more years in Mills River. I’m not a politician and not coming in with my own agenda. I don’t expect Mills River to conform to be “like” other towns. Mills River can stand on its own. This town means so much to so many and I want to represent all the citizens of Mills River while offering the perspective of a young growing family.

Garnett: I’m running because I’d rather be a part of the political process rather than someone who sits back and complains about politics. I’m running because the town council needs someone on it who represents young families. And I’m running because I have big ideas and I see lots of exciting things in Mills River’s future.

Humphrey: I believe Town Council should gather ideas from every resident and business to update our Long-Range Land Use Plan. We incorporated to protect our rural character. Our rapid growth should not mean neighborhoods are surprised with industrial buildings, commercial developments, and noise. A person should be able to do what they want on their land, but neighbors should also be alerted to potential plans that threaten enjoyment or value of homes. I would seek suggestions to amend our codes to allow notification for all to have a say in what impacts their home, farm, school, or business.

Affordable workforce housing is an issue in Mills River, especially with the addition of hundreds of new jobs. So far the Mills River Town Council has not acted on the Planning Board’s recommendation to amend the land-use code to allow higher-density housing. Where do you stand and why?

District 1

Freeman: I fully support the Planning Board’s recommendation. That recommendation allows for a modest start toward more affordable, work-force housing without adversely increasing density, and without infringing on industrial, recreational, business, or agricultural areas of the Town. That plan applies to and is compatible with well-established residential areas of the Town only.

Caskey: The Mills River town code specifies that each new home must be built on a parcel that is no less than three-quarters of an acre in size. Mills River doesn’t really have a downtown area, and so it’s more or less a drive-through community. Not to mention, it’s already serving as a bedroom community, more or less, for Asheville and Hendersonville. I fully understand that people need affordable housing, but Mills River has historically been a farming community and the existing infrastructure reflects that. We do not need apartment buildings or high-density housing to complicate our already worsening traffic problems.

District 2

Meadows: We must look at all avenues for housing in our town to accommodate all brackets of income, such as possibly higher density in a few areas, possibly use of apartments in selected areas. All ideas need to be put on the table and possibly let the people vote on this.

District 3

Davis: Seventeen years ago, I was that same position as a young newlywed. There are many Mills River residents who are vehemently opposed to allowing for higher-density housing. There are also many residents and potential residents who are just as passionate that it be allowed. I want Council and Town Staff and with resident input to exhaust all possibilities of workforce affordable housing in pre-determined areas with existing infrastructure while not placing additional burdens on existing services. Mills River has done a wonderful job at creating job opportunities, but we need to explore ways to support that workforce.

Garnett: This is too complex of an issue for a simple yes or no answer. There is a reason this code was put in place, and it’s something that makes Mills River unique. I think at some point we will want to consider modifying it, but I don’t think now’s the time to do it. I’m certainly open to it down the road, but it’s going to require lots of discussion and analysis before we can reach a proper decision.

Humphrey: We did not recommend “affordable” or “high density’ housing but a zone in areas only with public sewer and water for 2-4 quality, single-family homes per acre. Parents in the professional work force (nurses, firemen, police, teachers, service providers, businessmen/employees,) asked the planning board for homes in the $250K price range, about 1500 square feet, 2-3 bedrooms. Builders and real estate agents have verified the feasibility. Homes in this price range are sold in one day, often at asking value. We should welcome starting families in the professional work force with an opportunity to reside in a quality, single-family home.

The Town Council has committed to a three-year contract with the sheriff’s office to provide enhanced police coverage at a cost that will reach $775,506 next year and required a 6.75-cent property tax increase. Are you in favor of continuing the contract when it expires on June 30, 2019?

District 1

Freeman: I favor extending that 3-year contract for another 3-year period. As costly as the contract is, it is still far less expensive for the taxpayers of Mills Rive than any of the other “core” services that are required by state law. Enhanced law enforcement coverage, like we have with the contract, was preferred by an overwhelming majority of Mills River taxpayers in a survey conducted in mid-2016, and the excellent coverage we are receiving from the sheriff’s department is already showing positive results in quarterly crime statistics and calls-for-service in Mills River.

Caskey: The contract for law enforcement services between Mills River and the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department was a bad one, and one that Mills River never should have signed. It was handled badly on both sides, and the end result is that Mills River is being double-taxed for law enforcement services, since we also pay Henderson County taxes (which, by the way, just increased another 5 cents). I firmly believe in good-faith negotiations, and I would never say never, but I’m in favor of looking at other options.

District 2

Meadows: I will review the contract with the sheriff's office and see if it fits long term. Also look at our own police officers and its cost to the town, the buildings, cars, equipment will be costly. Since we must do several town amenities we can review what other item could take the place of the police officers, such as trash pick-up, etc. This needs to be detailed out so council can have good numbers to review for decision.

District 3

Davis: Henderson County has much to be proud of in our Sheriff’s Department. With the enhanced coverage contract, Mills River receives 100% of the benefit and resources of the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office without assuming any of the overhead, liability or training expense, way beyond just the value of the assigned deputies and equipment. When the next contract is negotiated in 2018, if it remains comparable to the current one, it would be fiscally irresponsible for the Council not to continue to contract with the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office.

Garnett: Of course not. We don’t need enhanced police coverage. We need efficient police coverage, and the way we do that is by getting our own police force. I think we need to get this discussion started as soon as possible. If we don’t, the county police department will continue to bully us.

Humphrey: In America, Judeo-Christian values are decreasing and crime increasing. I have felt safer as a Navy pilot than as a driver on roads. The new Police contract gave us 24/7 coverage with professional law enforcement officers. Sheriff McDonald, Town Council, and the Town Manager negotiated this contract “at cost.” It caused a tax increase providing more safety; we cannot go back to part-day security presence. The services we pay for now would cost over a million dollars per year to duplicate on our own. Also, we would not have as professional oversight, training, equipment, infrastructure, and maintenance.

Are you in favor of or opposed to a four-lane divided highway for the N.C. 191 widening in Mills River. Why?

District 1

Freeman: I favor the divided highway for Highway 191…provided NC DOT accepts the Council’s recommendation and includes a center turn lane. A turn lane is essential for business and residential access along that highway, and for access involving heavy equipment for productive farm land on both sides of that highway. Our current Council has also
asked that NC DOT include bike lanes and a pedestrian walkway along the expanded route.

Caskey: I drive that road daily, since my daughter goes to West Henderson High School. I see many people walking and I have seen multiple accidents on NC 191 as students are going to and from school. I have looked carefully at the DOT proposal, which would implement a ‘super street’ featuring four lanes and a concrete median with turn-outs. It would also have a path for people who were walking or biking. I am in favor of anything that protects the welfare and safety of our children, and so I am ultimately in favor of widening this roadway.

District 2

Meadows: I am in favor of a new four lane to replace old 191 which was up graded in the mid 1950's. With the schools and development along this road we must move forward to improve our infrastructure.

District 3

Davis: Every morning I take my boys to school and navigate through the peak of stop and go school traffic. There is always room for improvement to 191 and there are already some intersection upgrades in the works, but a four-lane highway inside the Town limits seems excessive with our current traffic and will greatly impact both existing homes and businesses. I would like to see the results of NCDOT traffic studies. If they find that future growth will put a strain on the existing highway, I want to explore every improvement option before jumping to the four-lane highway.

Garnett: I’m in favor of changes to 191, but before I can say I’m in favor of a four-lane divided highway I would like the town to do a thorough analysis on other options. For example, I’d like us to examine whether or not we could solve the 191 traffic issue with a turn lane, potentially using a fraction of the resources.

Humphrey: Highway 191 needs to be widened along the current DOT right-of-way within Mills River. Jim Foster presented at the last Town Council meeting a proposal that would improve traffic safety and not require the relocation of homes that a four-lane may cause. Most importantly, those who use Banner Farm Road need a better entry and egress to and from 191. As in the last Town Council meeting, residents with traffic congestion or safety recommendations should be eagerly encouraged to come and present these concerns to Town Council in the “public input” period which takes place most meetings.

What is your No. 1 priority for the next improvement for the Town Park?

District 1

Freeman: My number 1 priority for improving the Town Park is adequate shade in the children’s playground area. We can’t wait all the years it’ll take for trees to grow to provide some relief from the hot summer sun for kids and parents in that playground area. We (the current Council) has purchased an overhead-type device to provide that shade, we are working on getting it installed now, and we hope to have it in use before the last warm days this year are over.

Caskey: Currently, the Mills River Town Park features a multi-use trail, dog park, playground, restroom facilities, picnic shelter, handicapped accessible fishing pier and canoe/kayak launch. There are additional plans to install baseball and soccer fields. A few years ago, Sierra Nevada wanted to hold a ‘Rhythm and Brews’ type event in the park - I never saw the downside of this, but they were turned down flat. In order to complete the park as envisioned, I would like to open the park to concerts and other family-friendly events that would help fund the park and defray the expense of future improvements.

District 2

Meadows: My priorities for the town park are to see that we appropriate enough money each year to keep it pristine as it is now. I would like to see softball and baseball complexes be started in phases during the next two years.

District 3

Davis: My family loves visiting our beautiful park for the trails and playground. The current family and community fundraising project for a basketball court is very exciting. A basketball court is something that the park definitely needs and our community will most certainly utilize. I also know that youth sports coaches struggle to find suitable available fields for other various sports practices. I think the next focus should be to create baseball/softball fields. Not only could they be used for team sports, but I can foresee times when they may be reserved in conjunction with the picnic shelter for family events.

Garnett: I would actually like to see some discussion about a community pool. Pools are great for families and community building, and I think it would be a great addition to our park.

Humphrey: Our Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee has developed a master plan with improvements for our award-winning Mills River Park. The committee meets the fourth Tuesday of each month at 7:00 PM and is open to Mills River residents. Our Town has an outstanding staff with Park Director Pat Christie and Rangers Craig Arnold, Dale Collins, and Joseph Cox. Pat is present at Town Council Meetings and regularly recommends improvements. I would depend on these people to continue to make recommendations for the next improvement for the Mills River Town Park staying within our Town budget.