by Clarke Morrison, CMORRISON@CITIZEN-TIMES.COM
published January 28, 2007 12:15 am
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LEICESTER — What most would consider “downtown” Leicester boasts a namesake grill, an auto garage with a stone facade and Gossett’s Grocery.
Patrons of the store, founded by Kelly Worley’s parents 45 years ago on two-lane N.C. 63, can find fishhooks and spark plugs along with the coffee and cigarettes.
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“We sell everything but beer and liquor,” she said. “That’s a family choice.”
It’s a desire to maintain that rural, tight-knit feel that prompted Worley, along with more than 3,000 fellow residents, to sign a petition seeking to make Leicester a town.”
“We’re a nice, friendly community, and we really want to keep it that way,” she said. “We like our small community, and we don’t to be part of the big city of Asheville.”
Avoiding annexation by a nearby city is a motivation often cited by those seeking incorporation. The N.C. General Assembly has approved the creation of 27 new towns over the past decade, bringing the total number of municipalities in North Carolina to 544.
And Leicester could become one of the next to gain that legal status. Proponents spent more than a year gathering the necessary signatures (15 percent of the proposed town’s registered voters), picking an interim town council, coming up with a charter, deciding what services the town would offer and fulfilling other legal requirements for incorporation.
In November, they submitted an application along with the required documents to the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporations, the body charged with deciding whether incorporation proposals merit a positive or negative recommendation to the General Assembly.
Fisher to file legislation
State Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, who represents the Leicester area in the House, said she stands ready to introduce a bill in this session of the legislature to create the town of Leicester if the commission finishes its work on the proposal in time.
“What I have said to them is if (incorporation proponents) get all their I’s dotted and T’s crossed, I will feel more or less obligated to the folks in my district to introduce that legislation,” Fisher said. “If that’s something they really want to do, then I really have no choice than to help them through the process. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble.”
Leicester would become Buncombe County’s seventh municipality, joining Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin.
And there’s an eighth candidate on the horizon: Community leaders in Swannanoa are in the initial stages of an incorporation effort, having created a task force this fall to explore options and move the process along.
“I think there’s a lot of folks in Swannanoa who are interested in preserving and protecting the heritage of Swannanoa,” resident and organizer Carol Groben said. “It has a long history. It has been a distinct place for many, many years.
“(Residents) would like to have some self-governance and self-determination, and incorporation is one tool that may help us to provide that voice.”
Towns came and went
Leicester has been a town twice before. It was incorporated in 1859, but the charter was revoked during the Civil War years, said Pat Cothran, a leader in the present-day incorporation effort. Leicester was again incorporated in the late 1890s, only to lose its charter again early in the next century.
“Towns pretty much came and went back in that day,” said Jim Coman, a Buncombe County planner and Leicester resident. “Early in the century, the county had a couple dozen towns.”
But in the 1930s, the General Assembly tightened rules on what it took to be a town, and municipalities with names like Arden, Skyland, Jupiter and Juno ceased to exist, he said.
Pros and cons
David Lawrence, a professor in the School of Government at UNC Chapel Hill, said there are a variety of reasons that communities seek incorporation.
“The advantages are that cities can provide services that people think they need or they can do regulations that people think they need,” he said. “Sometimes they incorporate because the county has no zoning or it may not be as reflective of the community’s wishes as the community thinks it should be.
“The disadvantages are, with respect to the services, those things cost money. You may have to pay taxes in addition to what you are already paying. Some people may not want zoning. They may not want additional regulations.”
Lawrence said the creation of new towns in North Carolina has slowed since passage of a law by the General Assembly in 1999 that made incorporation less attractive for some. Noting that towns were forming to gain access to state sales tax and franchise- free revenues without providing any services, lawmakers decided that new municipalities must provide at least four of eight specified services and levy a property tax of at least 5 cents per $100 valuation.
So while there were 16 new towns in the three years before passage of the law, there have been just nine since.
More local control desired
Chad Nesbitt, one of five people serving on Leicester’s interim council, said Buncombe County’s plan to implement a countywide zoning ordinance is one reason he’d like to see a new town created. In addition, none of the five members of the county Board of Commissioners is from the Leicester area.
“If we are incorporated, then we won’t have to abide by their law,” he said. “Out here in Leicester, we want to be left alone.”
Nesbitt and others also would like to avoid the potential for annexation by Asheville.
Scott Shuford, Asheville’s director of planning and development, said the Leicester area isn’t included on planning maps showing locations the city might target for annexation in the future. And he pointed out that Asheville City Council did not oppose the incorporation of the Henderson County community of Mills River in 2003. Areas planning to incorporate must get an official opinion from any city of 50,000 residents or more within five miles.
Coman said there’s little danger of Leicester being annexed because the area is so rural and lacks water and sewer service, which Asheville would have spent a lot to provide if it took the area in.
“There is nothing out there that I think Asheville would be interested in at this point,” he said. “It’s not urban enough.”
Town status could come in months
Gayle Moses, a legislative analyst in the bill drafting division who reviews incorporation petitions, said it will probably take two to three months to review Leicester’s application along with four other new submissions. A recommendation by the Commission on Municipal Incorporations should be ready for consideration by lawmakers during the Legislature’s current term, she said.
But Lawrence said that regardless of a positive or negative recommendation, the decision would be up to lawmakers, who approved a bill for the incorporation of Mills River in spite of a recommendation by the commission against it.
“The process is essentially political,” he said. “Most legislators expect the proposed towns to go through that process, but it’s still up to the General Assembly to decide
Contact Clarke Morrison at 828-232-5849, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org