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TOP 10 STORIES OF 2021: 4, 3, 2, 1

Demonstrators lined U.S. East in front of Pardee UNC Health on Nov. 6 to protest the hospital’s vaccine mandate. Demonstrators lined U.S. East in front of Pardee UNC Health on Nov. 6 to protest the hospital’s vaccine mandate.

4. Girls rule!

The 2021 city elections produced a rarity in Henderson County politics. With the re-election of Barbara Volk to a fourth term as mayor and the election of Debbie Roundtree, the Hendersonville City Council is now made up of four women and one man, Jerry Smith, who won re-election to a fourth term. Volk defeated challenger D.J. Harrington with 64 to 36 percent of the vote, while Smith received 40 percent, Roundtree 31 percent and Chelsea Walsh 25 percent. The outcome seemed likely to tilt the City Council to the left, although Volk said she did not see city issues breaking along party lines. "One of the core values we voted on last January, February, March (in visioning sessions) is non-partisan elections," she said. "We're all just looking for what's going to be the best thing for the city of Hendersonville, not trying to tie it to either party (and decide) what can we do best for our citizens, our community and make this the best place that we can."
In Fletcher, Town Council member Preston Blakely Town defeated local pastor Phillip Luther to win the mayoral race with 55 percent of the vote, becoming the second African-American candidate in a row to win the top job. Rod Whiteside, who upset longtime Mayor Bill Moore in 2017, chose not to seek re-election. Blakely attributed his victory to a grassroots campaign of knocking on doors and talking to voters. He vowed to serve all residents whether they voted for him or not.
Sheila Franklin turned back a challenge from John Brandon Olsen to win a fourth term on the Fletcher Town Council while Trevor C. Lance defeated Erik Weber to win the District 4 seat made vacant by Eddie Henderson’s retirement.
In Mills River, challengers Sandra Goode and James Cantrell ousted incumbents Bryan Caskey and Brian S. Kimball and in December the council elected Shanon Gonce mayor. Also elected were Susan Gregory and Matthew A. Toner III in Flat Rock and Debra Hinson Bridges, Paul Hansen and Kristin Dunn in Laurel Park. In Saluda, voters turned out incumbent Fred Baisden, electing Tangie Morgan, and installed Paul Marion and Mark Oxtoby without opposition.

3. Pandemic and politics

When the year opened, health providers struggled to the demand for the newly approved Covid-19 vaccination. The county health department was inundated with angry calls from people who could not get through to make an appointment. After it installed an online signup option, the process became much smoother and residents widely praised clinics at East Henderson High School, Blue Ridge Community College and the Blue Ridge Mall. “From what I can see we have some phenomenal work going on,” Commissioner Daniel Andreotta said in January. “We have a lot of entities partnering together — Pardee, the health department, BRCC, even Kenmure is helping out” by providing golf carts to shuttle people from clinics to their cars.
As the year progressed, the public debate over mask and vaccine requirements became toxic, as residents opposed to mandates packed School Board and Board of Commissioners meetings to implore elected leaders to leave mask and vaccine decisions to individuals. In October, a group calling itself We the People WNC organized an anti-mandate rally that moved from the Grove Street Courthouse to the Historic Courthouse. In a virulent mix of scripture, anti-Biden rhetoric and medical claims that public health authorities had refuted, speakers called on marchers to resist government tyranny, armor themselves against the devil’s schemes and help the Republican Party seize power in the 2022 elections. Two weeks later, more than a hundred employees of Pardee UNC Health and their supporters marched against the hospital’s vaccine mandate, which is currently on hold pending a lawsuit. Chanting “my body my choice,” protesters marched on streets surrounding the hospital carrying signs that said “My Body My Choice,” “Stop the Mandate. Mandate Freedom,” “Pro-Vaccine, Anti-Mask,” “If Fully Vaccinated Can Get It and Spread, Why Aren’t They Being Tested?” “Discriminatory Brain Swabs Must Go,” “Keep Your EUA (emergency use authorization) Experiment Thing Away From Me,” “Unvaccinated Lives Matter,” “Jab or Job Is Not OK,” and more.
As he neared retirement on Dec. 30 as Pardee’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Ellis lamented in an interview that many people had been convinced that the vaccine was suspect or harmful. Protests seemed to rise “from what I felt was more politics than medicine,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a medical situation that’s been politicized as much as this has been politicized.”

2. Happy trails

On Aug. 16, Henderson County Commissioner Rebecca McCall praised the Friends of Ecusta Trail for 13 years of persistent prodding to move the trail from dream to reality. The occasion was a celebration of that fact that Conserving Carolina had consummated the purchase of the property, clearing the way for design, engineering and construction.
“Buying property from a railroad is not an easy thing to do, especially a railroad whose deeds date back to the 1890s,” Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina, said that day. “They didn’t do things the way we do now.”

Conserving Carolina has now leased the 11 miles of the trail in Henderson County to the Board of Commissioners, which has agreed to manage the construction project and maintain the greenway as a linear park.

In the summer, law firms filled mailboxes of trackside landowners with offers to represent in claims for compensation, which are going forward but do not affect the trail work. As recently as this week, the county’s director of Business and Community Development, Christopher Todd, reported to the Board of Commissioners that the county is on track to sign a contract with a team of architects and engineers for the design of the trail. Construction of the first 5-mile segment from Hendersonville to Horse Shoe is expected to be under way by 2023.

1. Housing boom

Over the objections of neighboring homeowners, the Hendersonville City Council last month OK’d a rezoning to allow 93 single-family homes on a hill behind the Wolfpen and Wolf Chase developments.

“If council approves this, it is definitely approving it over an overwhelming number of objections from the residents of the city of Hendersonville,” Councilman Jerry Smith said before voting no.

It was a typical scene that unfolds over and over in the assembly rooms of elected bodies throughout the county. Seeking to capitalize on our market’s robust growth and rising housing prices, developers propose new houses near older houses. Widespread opposition ensues as elected leaders try to broker a compromise. “This developer,” Mayor Barbara Volk said before voting in favor of Half Moon Heights, “has worked with staff to make modifications and housing is needed at all price points in the city. It is going to be a change for the neighbors and I am sorry about that.”

The Half Moon Heights subdivisions was just one of more than a half dozen projects that if approved and constructed would add around 600 dwellings in Hendersonville, from single-family homes to apartments and condos. They include 263 apartments at the Waterleaf at Flat Rock development on South Allen Road, 84 apartments on Kanuga Road, Providence Walk, a 71-home proposal at North Main and Duncan Hill Road, 80 apartments on 2½ acres at the southeast corner of Greenville Highway and Chadwick Avenue and others.

Council members say they’re worried that new houses and apartments will add new residents before traffic problems are solved and that few if any of the proposals contain affordable or workforce housing. One thing that seems clear, though, as Baby Boomer retirees and younger tech professionals who can be based anywhere eye an attractive town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is a challenge that will stay with us as we march on through 2022.