Opinions on proposed land-use plan fly at political forum
By Sarah Nagem
Candidates for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners have different ideas about the need for a land-use plan.
Jim Sides, an incumbent who wants to keep his seat on the board, said he will vote against the land-use plan the Planning Board voted last month to recommend.
Carl Ford, a Planning Board member who voted to approve the plan, said he was pleased with the changes the board made to it. Before narrowly approving the plan, board members diluted the original proposition set forth by a steering committee.
The approved plan county commissioners will consider doesn’t include most of the original language that would have aimed to preserve farmland and limit development.
Raymond Coltrain, who is also seeking one of two open seats on the county commission, said the plan is a “step in the right direction.”
Sides, Ford and Coltrain participated in a forum Thursday evening sponsored by the Rowan County Farm Bureau. Fewer than 20 people showed up for the event at the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Salisbury.
Laura Lyerly, the fourth candidate seeking election, did not participate.
Much of the discussion focused on farming and land-use issues.
“It’s no different than zoning,” Sides said, emphasizing his belief that Rowan should not have a land-use plan.
Zoning rules, Sides said, determine what certain areas can be used for, like new housing developments or businesses.
Sides said he is not against farmland preservation. He’s against it when taxpayers have to foot the bill, though, he said.
Coltrain said a land-use plan could help county leaders manage future growth.
All three candidates said county leaders will likely have to make tough budget decisions in the coming year.
In a slumped economy, tax revenues might not meet projections. Gov. Mike Easley has already called for budget reductions of state agencies.
Even so, Sides said he does not want to raise taxes. The issue, Sides said ó and Coltrain and Ford seemed to agree ó is spending.
“We can reduce taxes,” Sides said. “We can reduce costs.”
He said he thinks the county should enact a hiring freeze. And the construction of a $6 million office for the Department of Social Services could go on hold, he said.
But other than that, the three candidates said it’s too early to say where they would want to cut funding if tax revenues aren’t adequate.
“We’re going to have to put on the brakes, if not slam on the brakes, on some of our spending,” Ford said.
“You only do what you can afford to do,” Coltrain said.
Sides said he expects county agencies will have lean budget requests this year, given the economic turmoil.
“I don’t have any specifics at this time,” Sides said of possible funding cuts, “but I’ll certainly have some at budget time.”
An audience member posed the question of what county commissioners should do with a hypothetical extra $250,000. Put it toward the school system or spend it on farmland preservation?
Ford answered quickly ó schools. Coltrain suggested the county “leverage” the money between the two needs. Sides said he wouldn’t spend it on farmland preservation, but he didn’t say he’d give it to the school system, either.
Other candidates running for state offices were at the forum Thursday.
Lorene Coates, the incumbent Democrat in the District 77 seat of the N.C. House of Representatives, and her challenger, Republican Dr. Ada Fisher, spoke.
So did incumbent Republican Andrew Brock and his challenger, William Burnette, who are vying for the District 34 N.C. Senate seat.
Republican Fred Steen, who is running unopposed to keep his District 76 seat in the state House, was also at the forum.
Coates said she has been fighting in Raleigh for farmland preservation.
Fisher said she wants North Carolina leaders to look more closely at crop diversity and food safety.
Farming is important here, she said, and how land should be used becomes an issue.
“I realize we need to find a balance between the need for housing and the need for land,” Fisher said.
Candidates also talked about high gas prices and what they mean locally.
Coates said oil industry officials have told local lawmakers the state can’t do anything to combat prices.
“I think this has got to come from the national level,” Coates said.
Fisher said she thinks oil companies are “manipulating gas prices,” and lawmakers should examine “inefficiencies” in the system.
Candidates said they realize people are feeling the sting of a tough economy.
The economy will likely be issue No. 1 when lawmakers convene again, Brock said.
Brock said he tells the state appropriations committee, “If you think times are tough in the state budget, if you think times are tough in the federal budget, wait until you see the Main Street budget. Times are tough in the family budget.”