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Was Tap Root vote a missed opportunity?

Populist uprisings against larger housing development, new roads and other transportation improvements show no sign of fading after the Henderson County Board of Commissioners killed the proposed 900-unit Tap Root Farms project.


The proposed development of 891 townhomes and single-family homes on the Tap Root dairy farm property on Butler Bridge Road drew strong opposition from neighboring homeowners and officials from the Asheville Regional Airport, who said putting some 2,000 residents under the flight path less than a mile from the runway would inevitably lead to complaints about noise and related aviation issues.
In a 2-2 vote last week, the board defeated a motion by Commissioner Bill Lapsley to authorize the residential zoning a developer sought. Charlie Messer joined Lapsley in voting yes. Rebecca McCall and Michael Edney voted no. (Chairman Grady Hawkins had recused himself because his wife’s sister is one of the property owners.)
“I think there is a definite need in north Henderson County,” Messer said. “The growth is phenomenal. I don’t know where all these people are coming from. ... We’ve got to plan for the next 10 to 15 years and I think that’s what we as county commissioners are trying to do. I think the conditions definitely have been met. This is a tough one but in my opinion the laws have been met.”
McCall and Edney opposed the development on the grounds that the units were too densely packed in, parking was inadequate and that the residents would inevitably complaint about air traffic and I-26 noise. McCall voted no after criticizing the impact of a concession the developer had made three weeks before at her request.
“The removal of the townhomes on I-26 was a positive,” McCall said. “However, they were providing a buffer from the noise for the other homes and now that buffer is gone and the noise will still be there. There’s some things to consider beyond just housing and one of those things is quality of life. I believe this development will not provide quality of life.”

Affordable housing

The Tap Root outcome last week raises questions about whether any high density, lower cost housing project can win three votes on the Board of Commissioners, which in the past three years has shot down large cottage-type or townhome developments at Horse Shoe farm and on McKinley Road in Etowah.
It looks like the Tap Root applicant, Dallas-based D.R. Horton, which calls itself “America’s Home Builder,” won’t be Henderson County’s home builder. Lapsley, who as vice chair led the board discussion in three meetings spanning several weeks, negotiated tirelessly over five weeks with the developer’s chief engineer and attorney, with County Attorney Russ Burrell also in the room.
“Because of all the work that was done, I thought there would be three votes out of the four to support it,” Lapsley said. “I was working on it as they raised questions both publicly in the meetings and privately.” When others voiced a concern, he told them, “‘Let me meet with the developer and see if we can address that,’ and to the best of my knowledge the developer complied and responded to all the concerns that we raised. So on that basis, I thought there was enough support to pass it.”
Given the rare availability of a relatively flat 286-acre, mostly cleared 286-acre tract, the county’s rejection might be regarded as a missed opportunity.
“That’s a critical point in this whole affordable housing issue,” Lapsley said. “They’re business people but their business is to build the most affordable housing they can. The definition of affordable housing is different for different people but they clearly said their goal is to have residential units in the $180,000 to $210,000 range.”
The calculation for any development, he said, is based on cost of the land, cost of water, sewer, roads and other infrastructure, site preparation such as grading and land clearing and construction cost.
“They can control the cost of the building. They have some control of the cost of the land but that’s between them and whoever owns of the land. The point I was trying to make is they have their price point.”
Lapsley’s argument was not enough to sway McCall and Edney.
“The main reason there were two no votes was the density,” he said. “Two of my colleagues did not like the density.”
He worries now that the county, if it accepts the airport argument, has put the property owner in an impossible bind.
“If we take the position of not allowing the developer to build any homes in that slice of property, we’re in effect condemning the property,” he said. “And I think my colleagues agreed with that.”
Attorneys for the developer and landowner had not returned calls from the Lightning seeking an interview by this week’s print deadline. Dairy farmer Billy Johnston, one of the landowners, said the family might have a statement later.

‘We need more homes’


The Planning Board also failed to recommend the rezoning. Like the Board of Commissioners, a tie vote of 4-4 doomed the motion to endorse the project.
The commissioners’ vote “doesn’t surprise me,” said Planning Board Chairman Steve Dozier, who voted to recommend the rezoning. “I knew Edney was against it all along. Rebecca surprised me a little bit and originally Charlie said he was against it but ended up voting for it.”
The rezoning failed despite Lapsley’s efforts.
“Bill Lapsley is a smart man and he certainly knows planning and development but it didn’t happen,” he said. “Roads were a concern, schools were a concern. But if kids are there they’ll build a school. So that wasn’t that big a concern.”
The Johnston family, at the request of county industry recruiters, were willing to rezone the dairy farm to allow factories. None materialized, despite aggressive marketing.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Dozier said. “We can’t find any industry to go there, they don’t want a residential development so what good is it?”
Dozier said he doesn’t know the asking price and it’s not listed in a Multiple Listing Service. The price was $27 million when the family had a contract on the property that collapsed during the recession. If Johnstons are asking $18-20 million, a developer would need to put up a fairly dense development to make the investment pay off.
“We’ve got such low inventory of houses right now, we need more homes here and we need something affordable,” said Dozier, a Realtor. “The planning staff has worked hard to get development done. I think we’re still progressive. We just have trouble getting past the final hurdle.”