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Remote vote could be key for housing project

Henderson County Commissioner Tommy Thompson was standing at the Atlanta airport on Friday afternoon getting ready to board a plane to Missouri for a long-planned trip to Branson, the country music destination.

Thompson will still be away when the Board of Commissioners convenes on Monday for the first time since April 16. Advocates for an affordable housing proposal say his vote could be crucial when the board takes up a zoning request to allow a $7.6 million affordable housing complex.
Although Thompson has not committed to vote for the rezoning, housing advocates say they count on him to listen and fairly deliberate. Commissioner Grady Hawkins, who attended the Planning Board meeting on March 20 as the county commission's ex officio member, opposed the rezoning, saying it is inconsistent with the county's land-use plan.
The Housing Assistance Corp. has applied to rezone 5.6 acres on Pisgah Drive from R-2 residential, which allows two units per acre, to office-institutional, which would allow a 64-unit complex of lower-cost rental apartments for working families. The Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend denial of the rezoning after neighbors objected based on a change in density from two to 11 units per acre and on traffic concerns.
The HAC and its board and other supporters have redoubled efforts to win support on the Board of Commissioners. They have appealed to Commissioner Larry Young, who often votes with Hawkins when the board splits on 3-2 votes. They hope to get support from Chairman Charlie Messer and Commissioner Michael Edney. A 2-2 vote with Hawkins and Young voting no would defeat the rezoning request.
The Board of Commissioners is looking into allowing Thompson to join the meeting by phone. County Attorney Russ Burrell was researching the question, Thompson said.
"What we're going to try to do is deal with that problem first thing as to whether I can join in the meeting electronically and be involved through that process," he said. "Nobody has tried to get me to stay. Quite frankly, everybody knew way way way before this housing case came up that I was going to be gone."

There is a recent local precedent for remote voting.

The Hendersonville City Council adopted a policy allowing council members to participate in meetings by phone the night before the council and the Board of Commissioners convened a joint meeting to adopt the five-party agreement on the Wingate-BRCC health sciences building. Councilman Steve Caraker called in to the meeting and voted by phone.

Thompson said he has met with the housing agency's director, Noelle McKay, and heard from other supporters.
"Basically everyone that has tried to contact me has been in favor of it," he said. "But I have not heard all the cons." He emphasized that if his board colleagues permit him to participate, he will listen to the public hearing comments and weigh both sides before deciding.
The proposal did get an endorsement last week from the Government Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Commerce.
The committee unanimously endorsed the rezoning and the proposed Rosebay Apartments development, said Steve Dozier, who chairs the committee and also chairs the Planning Board, which said no.
"Henderson County is doing a fantastic job of recruiting industry but probably Henderson County is not as affordable for a lot of folks," he said.
One Planning Board member, Marilyn Gordon, changed her mind and urged the Board of Commissioners to vote yes.
"We have had several on the Planning Board that do think it's a good thing," Dozier said. The chamber committee had about 16 members present. "When we looked at the big picture we thought it was a good thing for the county to make right."
A delay in the rezoning is not an option, McKay said, because the HAC faces a May 16 deadline to apply for funding through the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency. The $7.6 million project received a perfect score in one review and the HAC received a $420,000 grant from the Asheville Housing Consortium for the project.