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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: In escalating water war, county takes the economy hostage

The de facto moratorium that Henderson County commissioners have imposed on developments needing city water is only serving to threaten economic growth, damage property rights and undermine the spirit of cooperation needed for sensible long-range planning of utilities.


Peeved at the city for reneging on what they considered a commitment to quickly roll back county water rates, commissioners in the past two months have blocked two sizable developments — 36 vacation cabins at Horse Shoe Farm and 29 single-family homes on Academy Road in Dana. That last denial of a waterline connection is especially ironic, given that the city — working with Henderson County and state agencies — moved quickly seven years ago to extend city water to Academy Road homes found to have tainted well water.
That was just one of numerous examples of the city accommodating commissioners’ demands. In the past seven years, the city has:
• Reduced the rate so all schools in the county pay in-city rates.
• Hired an independent consultant to interview ratepayers and representatives from the county and the county’s five municipalities about the city utility system. As a result, the city — not the county — reinstated the Water and Sewer Advisory Council, which gives all parties a voice in master plan strategies and policies.
• Invited the county to participate in the drafting of long-range water and sewer plans, only to be snubbed.
• Completed numerous water extensions to industrial and agricultural facilities the county recruited, in partnership with AgHC and the Partnership for Economic Development.
• Adopted a resolution committing to equalized rates by 2030.
By blocking water, commissioners are not only denying specific property owners use of their land. They’re sowing uncertainty for potential development of all kinds, whether for affordable housing, commercial buildings or jobs-creating industry. One more hostage in the current standoff is the Tap Root dairy farm development of 700 dwellings, presumably blocked as well from connecting to city water.
It’s almost too rich to fathom that the county commissioners — who for years made the city of Asheville Public Enemy No. 1 of water politics — are now telling developers that if they want water they’ll write their check to … the city of Asheville!
On the good governance front, the short-sighted stand by the commissioners comes as the city and county have demonstrated constructive cooperation on other projects that promise to be great achievements — the Hendersonville High School construction project and the Ecusta Trail.
In response to the county’s water blockade, City Manager John Connett has drafted a memorandum that revises the 1997 agreement that gave the county a veto over water line extensions. The reason for the language back then was that the county had limited zoning and the city wanted to give commissioners the option to guide growth through another means.
“Over the last twenty-three years, Henderson County and the other jurisdictions have adopted comprehensive plans, small area plans and land development codes to allow them to have greater controls on development,” the revised memorandum notes. “Their control on development is no longer simply dependent upon controlling water and sewer extensions by the City of Hendersonville.”
Under the revised agreement, the city would not extend water to a property owner unless and until the commissioners approved development requests.
No one has cited widespread, or even a trickle of, complaints by county ratepayers that Hendersonville is overcharging for water. (Out-of-city users pay 145 percent of what city customers pay; in the 10-year phased rate equalization, city customers will steadily pay more while out-of-city rates remain essentially flat.)
But everyone knows water rates aren’t the real issue here. As Board of Commissioners Chair Grady Hawkins repeats in our news coverage this week, it’s about control of water and sewer lines, because where utility lines go, growth follows. Commissioners want a countywide or regional authority that they control, while paying the city nothing for a water and sewer system city taxpayers have invested in over a span longer than a hundred years.
The two sides need to cooperate on long-term water and sewer plans, including on the upcoming Edneyville sewer study. Speaking of water, someone ought to throw a bucket toward the Historic Courthouse in the hope that cooler heads will prevail. Cooperation on these sometimes contentious issues is the only path forward. Taking the economy hostage is not the way to start on that path.