Columbus candidates answer questions on town issues

Published 3:22 pm Friday, October 30, 2009

Columbus candidates answer Bulletin questions

The candidates for the Town of Columbus municipal election recently answered several questions from the Tryon Daily Bulletin regarding issues facing the town. Eric McIntyre is challenging incumbent Kathleen McMillian for mayor. Incumbent council members Michael Gage, Ricky McCallister and Margaret Metcalf are running against Ernie Kan and David Weiss for their three open seats.

1) Do you think the town&squo;s current land use regulations are sufficient to manage future growth?

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Mayor candidates:

Eric McIntyre: Yes, I do now. If asked this question two years ago the answer would be a definitive &squo;no.&squo; The Columbus Planning Board has done a great job with the task the town put before them approximately a year and a half ago. New ordinances were created during the moratorium to protect the town and its citizens from any type or size development that may be in our future.

Kathleen McMillian: Yes, I believe the town now has in place ordinances and land use regulations that can manage future growth and development. However, it is common knowledge that any particular ordinance in place may be challenged or may be changed at the discretion of the planning board and subsequently by town council&squo;s approval.

Town council candidates:

Michael Gage: Yes, when the town put the moratorium in place, it had allowed eight months for our planning board to research, develop and submit to the town council, ordinances that were fair to both parties. At this time I do believe they will hold up to the test, but as we see the need we will have to make some adjustments.

Ernie Kan: As a member of the last planning board, I feel that our current land use regulations are not sufficient to manage future growth. While under a moratorium, the board heard from many experts concerning our area. With diverse slopes, flat lands and waterways, we must have strong ordinances to protect them and the people living nearby. One example is to have a good tree ordinance in place, so things like clear cutting is not done in sloped areas affecting people at the base of the slope. We are in an area where we can have landslides. Other ordinances should be looked into for protection of the people, not the control of the people. All development should be designed and suitable for the town, therefore made to follow all ordinances.

Ricky McCallister: Town staff and planning board worked very hard on our land usage ordinances. I think we have what is needed to control future growth.

Margaret Metcalf: Our current land use regulations are sufficient to manage future growth. However, excessive growth would require water and sewer evaluations based on growth rate at that time.

David Weiss: The many regulations put in place by the town are a big improvement over what was in place at the time of Chocolate Drop Mountain. However, one critical need is for local sedimentation and erosion control. The state office at NCDENR is understaffed, which means they cannot monitor land-disturbing activities on a regular basis. We supported an ordinance that would provide for a local erosion control officer. We need to pursue any funding to prevent another environmental mess that resulted by the lack of oversight on Chocolate Drop. I would like for Columbus to have this protection in place.

1b) Do you believe the town&squo;s regulations and subdivision approval process will help ensure that Foster Creek is a suitable development for the town?

Mayor candidates

Eric McIntyre:Yes. With the regulations and ordinances now in place we can hold developers accountable in making sure they are followed. The subdivision approval process puts the town in the position that before any plat is approved the developer has to make any and all changes the town requires. If not, the plat will not be approved until changes are made and thus the developer cannot move forward.

Kathleen McMillian: Yes, I believe that the approval process now in place will require the developers of Foster Creek to provide a subdivision which will be an asset to the Town of Columbus. The process assures that all phases must be completed to the satisfaction of the planning board and town council.

Town council candidates

Michael Gage: Yes, Foster Creek is in a good position because as the ordinances were being developed, they had the opportunity to give input, and they did at times give our planning board their expert advice on many issues. In the event that we don&squo;t agree on issues during the approval process, our zoning board will work out any variances if deemed necessary.

Ernie Kan: The town&squo;s regulations and subdivision approval process will help ensure that Foster Creek is a suitable development for the town if all ordinances and land regulations are kept. Since Foster Creek representatives were at the meetings when the ordinances were being created or amended, they should have a clear understanding of most of them. If the council studies the ordinances and compares them with the plans, and Foster Creek is doing things honestly and without compromising the new residents&squo; safety, the area will be suitable for the town.

Ricky McCallister: Our ordinances are geared toward new developments like Foster Creek, to assure that Foster Creek is a good addition to Columbus. Foster Creek is a long term development. Each phase has to be approved by our planning board and town council.

Margaret Metcalf: I am glad that we now have regulations which should be strictly enforced. Which will ensure Foster Creek can be a suitable development.

David Weiss: While improvements to the town&squo;s regulations and subdivision ordinance offer some protection, there are other factors when considering a development&squo;s &dquo;suitability.&dquo; Columbus doubled in physical size when the Foster Creek land was annexed. The proposed addition of 700+ homes would almost triple the number of homes in Columbus. This amount of growth places demands on infrastructure (roads, water, sewer, schools, and emergency services, to name a few). Who is going to pay for this? I have asked council several times about a financial plan (to show how this growth impacts the residents). I have not received any feedback. We need a fiscal plan to be set in place before the development happens so we can be pro-active, not reactive.

2) Do you believe Columbus should again pursue extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) so it can gain some control over land uses in an area up to one mile from the current town limits?

Mayor candidates

Eric McIntyre: This is a tough one. I can see the town&squo;s reasoning behind it, but I can also see why the people living in that area would be very hesitant to want this to happen. I think with everyone&squo;s knowledge of all the problems we hear about with the annexation issue in Tryon, the people living in the proposed Columbus ETJ area are understandably against it. Being in an ETJ does not mean annexation. However, if I lived in that area I would like to know that my neighbor could not arbitrarily start an automobile junk yard business next door to my house and property.

Kathleen McMillian: Yes, I have been an advocate of ETJ for Columbus. It is my belief that this action would allow Columbus to have some measure of land use control in the one-mile extended area. Currently, Polk County&squo;s zoning and ordinances control land uses up to our town limit, so I believe if our town could exercise its zoning and ordinances it might be in the best interest of Columbus to be the controlling body. ETJ is not the same as annexation, so those affected by the ETJ would not be taxed by the town.

Town council candidates:

Michael Gage: No, I believe that it infringes too much on personal property rights.

Ernie Kan Columbus should not again pursue extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) while dealing with Foster Creek&squo;s large growth. During the time of Columbus pursuing an ETJ this year, the people in the town and people in the affected area came to meetings to let the council know that this is not what is wanted at this time. The town is now facing growth with the Foster Creek that we are not financially ready for, and this is a major concern for many of the people of the town. We must take care of one plateful at a time.

Ricky McCallister: Having a say in land uses one mile from current town limits is very important. Town council exhausted all avenues to obtain ETJ. If Columbus were to pursue ETJ again, we would need out citizens to advise that this is what we need.

Margaret Metcalf: No, I do not believe we need to pursue ETJ any longer. County residents that would be affected by the ETJ were adamantly opposed to it. Columbus does not need to assume any further outside responsibilities. We must fulfill prersent obligations and responsibilities to our town residents.

David Weiss: The people have already spoken on this. They do not want an ETJ, and the council dropped the issue. I leave it up to the people to decide if they wish to look at it again in the future.

3) Do you believe it was a good decision by the town to split the planning and zoning boards?

Mayor candidates

Eric McIntyre: Absolutely not. Terrible decision. Look at the current planning board members, then look back at the former planning board members. All the names are the same except one new member. I will say the split was voted to be done, in my opinion, due to the fact that the town council did not have correct information on several levels. I think that is all I need to say at this time.

Kathleen McMillian: I think the decision, at the time, was the proper one due to the complexity of the tasks that were being tackled by the planning board. That board had worked vigorously to establish new regulations and had accomplished that very well, but council believed it would be advantageous to have two separate board.

Town council candidates

Michael Gage: Yes, my concerns were that the zoning board members were not following proper procedures, and that decisions they were making would not hold up in court. From the day I was sworn in as councilman, I made it well known that this was a serious issue, and that it needed to be addressed. With so much work being placed on the planning board, they didn&squo;t have adequate time to get the training they needed to help them with their zoning board responsibilities. In that case I thought it made perfect sense to go the course of the council.

Ernie Kan: The decision to split the town&squo;s planning board and zoning board of adjustment was a mistake, and false information from one person was used. In many meetings before this took place, the council and staff mentioned it was getting harder to get volunteers in the town to do the work the town needed to have done. The people on the board were doing the work of both boards, not missing meetings, studying continuously between meetings, listening to experts, going to many extra meetings, and continuously listening to the people of the town. &dquo;Discipline&dquo; of the board was not necessary, nor should it have been done in anger.

Ricky McCallister: I was originally against splitting our boards, but now that they are split, we have a very good planning and zoning board.

Margaret Metcalf: I voted to split the boards, based on information available to me at the time the decision was made. It was a very taxing time for the planning board and town council for many reasons. We are all working on future plans together.

David Weiss: No. I consider this town council decision as an &dquo;error in judgment&dquo; based on personal issues with the planning board. The Columbus Planning Board proposed matching density of development with water availability. Under drought conditions, this was a pro-active move in taking responsibility for our groundwater supply. The town manager reacted by sending correspondence to council, suggesting possible wrongdoing and reprimand regarding the planning board. Council denied the density proposal. The planning board wrote a letter to council requesting that they reconsider the groundwater issue. The town manager suggested that the letter might offend the council. Hurt feelings ensued on both sides. The town council subsequently split the boards. There were few applicants for the planning board vacancies. After apologies by most of the council members, a few of the original planning board members rejoined. This is a reminder to put the people first that we are representing and not personal conflicts.

4) Columbus is facing significant expenses to upgrade its sewer system, and also has considered consolidated waste water treatment operations with Tryon. What do you think is the best long-term solution to the town&squo;s sewer system needs?

Mayor candidates

Eric McIntyre: I believe we need to repair and upgrade our current system. It will need to be done eventually so why do we incurr expenses to be consolidated with Tryon and not use those monies to better our own system. It will take a good amount of money to get our system where it needs to be planning for the future, but I see this as a necessity to our infrastructure.

Kathleen McMillian:Our town has had engineering consultations and according to that professional advise I believe town council should approve one of the options for an upgrade of the sewer system. Our town waste water treatment staff also suggest that council consider an upgrade. It appears it is imperative that council make a decision and go forward since our sewer system has not been properly maintained for the past 40 or so years. It has been suggested that the town has been lucky not to have had an interruption to its sewer system, so I am in favor of making the necessary decision immediately, to fund the upgrade.

Town council candidates

Michael Gage: The sewer plant is functioning to the standards of the state at this time, but the state won&squo;t allow us to operate in the same manner forever. Our sewer plant is nearly 40 years old, and town operators have done an amazing job to keep it working at peak performance. The town needs to look at the next 40 years. Upgrading the plant would cost roughly 3 million dollars, in which almost half can be obtained through USDA funds. The rest will have to be financed. Since the water/sewage revenue is one of our main financial resources, we need to re-invest into it. The concept of consolidating the sewer plant with Tryon, or just pumping it there is too expensive of an option, and is not being considered at this time.

Ernie Kan: Columbus is facing significant expenses to upgrade to the sewer system. Our best long-term solution to the sewer system problem is to upgrade our system, seeking the best grants possible for small rural towns. We must find ways to cut any extra spending, study finances and make ways to find as much money as possible before going to the citizens for repairs. This is a bad time for going to the citizens who are trying to make it through these hard times, and those on fixed incomes, but the sewer system must be upgraded.

Ricky McCallister: Our sewer system has been needing upgrades for a lot of years. We are working on upgrading our system now, for our future.

Margaret Metcalf: It is extremely important that Columbus upgrades the present sewer system. In addition, our Columbus water treatment plant needs to remain independent.

David Weiss: I have heard no details on a consolidated wastewater program. I think we should look at current and projected needs. We can then compare upgrading the current system to consolidated approaches with other towns or the county. Then choose what&squo;s best for Columbus.

5) Do you think the town should move forward with the purchase of the lot adjacent to Veteran&squo;s Memorial Park? If so, do you think the town can obtain the necessary funds in the near future?

Mayor candidates

Eric McIntyre: I would like to see the town be able to purchase the lot but not at the expense of taking the money away from other areas that need to be improved. If the town can get 75 percent of the funding from donations from individuals, organizations, etc. then I personally would not have a problem using money from the town&squo;s budget to make the last 25 percent. I certainly hope the town can get the donations needed but we are up against a short window of opportunity.

Kathleen McMillian: Yes, I believe the citizens of this area will do whatever is needed to raise the balance of the money. If the town&squo;s recently appointed committee for raising this money pushes hard enough, I think the purchase of the property will be a &dquo;done deal.&dquo;

Town council candidates

Michael Gage: Veteran&squo;s Park is a special place for all veterans in Polk County. The town has secured funding from various foundations and personal contributions. However we are still short of the asking price. I cannot vote in favor of a loan for this property, due to the other unexpected needs of the town such as fire hydrant replacements, and sales tax revenue shortfalls. To allow someone else to purchase the property would be a disappointment to all of us. Therefore, we are asking the citizens of Polk County to help us raise the balance of the funds needed to purchase the property.

Ernie Kan: I feel the town should obtain the lot adjacent to Veteran&squo;s Memorial Park only if all of the finances to obtain it come from grants and/or other gifts. The town has too many other financial obligations for the next couple of years for us to obligate money from the town&squo;s income. If the landowners would agree, one possibility for obtaining this land without adding to our budget problems would be to exchange land owned by the town (if there is any available) for the land next to the park. I do feel the lot next to the Veteran&squo;s Park would be a nice addition.

Ricky McCallister: This lot would be a great addition to our Veteran&squo;s Park. Columbus will continue trying to raise necessary funds, but is not willing to borrow money to purchase this lot, adding unnessary burdens on our citizens.

Margaret Metcalf: I am in favor of purchasing the lot adjacent to the Veteran&squo;s Memorial Park. However, with the stipulation funding will be derived from private donations, grants or fundraising.

David Weiss: I support the recent efforts by the town council to form a Veteran&squo;s Park Committee and raise money through donations. It would be an asset if we can get the funds donated or if we can have fundraisers for this addition.

6) What other issues do you see facing the town and what would you do to address them during your term?

Mayor candidates

Eric McIntyre: Right now my main concern is the availability of a reliable and sustainable water supply. I know the town is currently working on a project to make that happen and from what I know it seems to be a good idea. If elected I would continue to support the path we are currently on.

Kathleen McMillian: There are issues regarding the need for additional sidewalks, both new sidewalks for safety reasons and for replacing older sidewalk areas also for safety reasons. Water quantity and water quality issues will need to be addressed.

Some of the existing water lines have deteriorated and have not been replaced in many years. Availability of adequate water supply for our town residents is a very important issue and must be constantly assessed.

All of these are issues about which I have much concern and I will attempt to keep these things in the forefront and set priorities to deal with them.

Town council candidates

Michael Gage: The town needs to encourage new businesses to locate in Columbus, and to work with existing businesses to keep them here. To achieve this we have to keep their taxes, water and sewer rates low. We must continue working with the &dquo;Buy Local&dquo; Campaign. The citizens of Columbus should know the positive impact that buying locally has on our sales tax revenues.

Ernie Kan: I know a lot about how to access the town&squo;s government, but I have had difficulties getting honest, straightforward answers to seemingly simple questions. I have heard the word &dquo;transparency&dquo; many times in the last year. I would like to see this become true in our town. People of the town who want to know what is going on, still have hurdles to overcome to get information. One must have knowledge and time to find items on the website. There is no time to answer questions in town meetings. I would like to see the council spend some time addressing the people and answering questions of the public. The town government and the employees should treat the citizens with respect. Time is necessary to spend with the public when one has a public office and wants transparency.

Ricky McCallister: I think Columbus has many issues facing it; for example sewer system, streets, new development. We have a good staff and they are always trying to address town issues. We need to work together to assure the future of our town.

Margaret Metcalf: I think it is important that community leaders and chamber of commerce assemble to discuss incentives that would attract both large and small businesses to relocate to the Columbus area.

It is imperative for our young future citizens to have the opportunity to be employed locally. New jobs create advantages for all concerned. New jobs offer new skills and new training. It also encourages our future citizens to work and live in their community without driving over 100 miles a day.

Our water resources are vital and water is of great concern to all of us. Although we are working with Tryon and Saluda, I would like us to work with the county to ensure water for the future for all of us.

The lack of parking in Columbus needs to be discussed with the county, businesses, and town council to decide the best solution for parking in downtown Columbus.

David Weiss: The current groundwater supply is uncertain. In order to protect the citizens of Columbus and residents of Polk County, I believe that we should work toward developing a countywide system to ensure a safe and reliable source of water.

I have a small business, and I support local businesses and agriculture. Locally based businesses strengthen our economy, whereas big box or chain businesses generally funnel money away from the area. Polk County has great potential in agriculture, with niche markets in viticulture, equine, and specialty crops. I support efforts such as the Community Agri-Business Alliance (CABA), which bridges small business with agriculture.

I have heard several residents ask that the town look at beautification, sidewalks, and parking. I agree that these are good topics for the next council to consider.

I would like to see Columbus, the neighboring towns, and Polk County actively working together on common issues.