The board met in the auditorium of Ashe County High School, inviting anyone in the county to come and speak. There were speakers from all over the county and some from outside the county with business interests. The auditorium was nearly half full, and the majority of those not speaking seemed to be in league with the opponents as those speakers received thunderous applause and even standing ovations for their words compared to only a smattering of applause for anyone speaking in favor of the proposed amendments.
The board took no action following the nearly three-hour public hearing. Mayor Dale Hudler said the board may consider a vote on this issue at the next regular meeting on Monday, June 7 at 7 p.m. at town hall. The board is meeting before that, including this coming Monday night, but only for budget deliberations and other subjects will not be addressed.
The board of aldermen, minus Brett Summey who is out of town, was joined on stage by Phil Trew and Duncan Cavanaugh with High Country Council of Governments who have been working with the town on the ETJ issue for two years, since a land use plan was adopted in 2008. The town’s attorney, David Paletta, was also present and answered several questions relating to the legality of certain aspects of the proposed amendments.
Trew gave a brief description of the proposed ETJ and Paletta commented on the SOB prior to public comments. Trew said if the ETJ – a mile of town zoned property encircling the town - is established there would be a representative of that area on the town planning board. Paletta said the issue of an SOB relates to Supreme Court decisions on freedom of speech and expression that are given not only to individuals but also to businesses. In the case of a town wanting to restrict or prohibit an SOB, the question of “What can be done?” is answered by the town’s authority to restrict the location and activities of such a business.
The first speaker, Pastor Jeff Brown of Emmanuel Baptist Church on Deep Ford Road, asked why the town and county could not restrict an SOB the same way they can the sale of alcohol. “I feel people are being discriminated against, not businesses,” he said. “You can regulate business, but not sin. As far as I know, an SOB is not freedom of speech, it’s sin.”
County Commission Chairwoman Judy Poe commented on the town’s restrictions on location of SOBs to residences in the draft amendment. She said the county through its police powers prohibits an SOB from being any closer than a quarter of a mile to a residence while the town’s proposal – addressed by Town Planner Matthew Levi – is 250 feet plus other restrictions, and that she has concerns about whether the town can adopt less restrictive measures than the county already has. She said such businesses lead to the deterioration of a community and the people living in the proposed ETJ area don’t want it any more than do the residents of West Jefferson. “Just like the residents of the town don’t want it, we don’t want it either,” she said.
Two out of town business owners who provide billboard services in West Jefferson came to speak in opposition of the proposed ETJ because if adopted as proposed it would require them to remove their billboards in three years. “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right,” said the billboard owner from Hickory while Jim Troy of Charlotte said such a move would impact the local businesses who advertise on his billboards.
Many of the speakers Thursday evening quoted the Bible and scripture on the wages of sin as sown by SOBs and alcohol. David Blackburn, director of missions for the Ashe Baptist Association and a well-known minister in the county, said “West Jefferson needs family oriented businesses, not sexually oriented businesses” adding that “an ETJ won’t solve the problem of an SOB.”
Two touching moments during the hearing came from a Jefferson woman and a man from Lansing. Georgia Donour of Jefferson said she was the child of parents who worked with sexually oriented businesses in Alabama; her father drank and hung out with good ‘ol boys and women and her mother was arrested multiple times. She was taken from them as a child, and at 63 is still dealing with the issues of being born in such a situation. The man from Lansing brought nine young children to the podium with him and for his five minutes of allotted time to speak, simply had the children stand there in silence as an example of the next generation who would be impacted by the board’s decisions.
James Ellis of West Jefferson asked if he would be allowed to replace his single wide trailer in the ETJ should it burn down, and Mayor Hudler said he believed the restrictions would require at least a modular home depending on the zoning district. Ellis said he could not afford a modular or stick-built home.
As for support of the proposed ordinances, Rusty Barr with the county planning board said he applauds the aldermen for considering the issue. Lack of zoning regulations can be devastating to a person’s property value, he said.
Fawn Roark said she is pleased to see action underway to protect the town, but thought sections of the proposed amendments could be even more restrictive.
And some of the most interesting comments came from Cabot Hamilton of West Jefferson, who is executive director of the Chamber of Commerce but was not speaking in that capacity. He said as a resident of the proposed ETJ area, he is looking forward to the ETJ being put in place. He assured the audience that SOBs would not be coming, that the town had found a sneaky way to make establishing such a business so impractical that none would be interested. “SOBs aren’t coming,” he said.
Hamilton then chastised the audience who made derogatory comments about the former town manager, Greg McGinnis, who he said is a friend of his. McGinnis recently resigned his position with the town after being arrested and charged with drunk driving following an accident in a town vehicle. Hamilton said those who made the comments and those who clapped and cheered at McGinnis’ character being demeaned should ask themselves if that is what Jesus would do. He pointed out David Blackburn who he said had no doubt counseled many people who had had a weak moment and who himself said that nobody (except one) is perfect.
“I think you need to go home and think about that for a few days,” Hamilton said to the audience. “It was embarrassing. Those people who clapped about his weak moment had a bigger weak moment.”
Steve Leashomb got up and said that what Hamilton said about the SOBs not coming was a “crock” and that the door had already been opened for them. He said it seems the people are more afraid of the town wanting to take in their area than they are of SOBs. “We can protect ourselves,” he said of those residents in the proposed ETJ area. “You protect West Jefferson, and let the commissioners protect the county.”