Major turn over coming to Waynesville planning board

·7 min read

Aug. 3—Three new members have been named to the nine-member Waynesville Planning Board, bringing new ideas and perspectives to the table — but also losing valued experience from outgoing members.

The planning board has landed in the public spotlight in not-so-pleasant ways over the past year amid a rash of controversial large-scale housing developments.

The planning board faced mutually-exclusive public opinions: the demand for more inventory given the acute housing shortage versus the desire to preserve Waynesville's small-town character.

It's too soon to say whether the turn over will change the dynamic on the planning board.

The three members coming off the board weren't exactly pro-development. They were known for questioning developers and they were the most likely to vote 'no' against a project.

The three new members joining the planning board aren't exactly in the pro-development category either, however.

Waynesville Planning Board Chair Susan Teas Smith said she welcomes the new members.

"We are really excited to have new voices," she said. "As much diversity as we can get representing different constituencies is so critical."

The planning board requires doing hours of homework in advance of meetings, however, from learning the intricacies of the town's land-use regulations to understanding state statutes, not to mention poring over developer's applications. Training sessions will be held to help bring the new members up to speed.

"We will empower the new members ahead of time so they'll know if you want to be on this board there's some work you have to do," Teas Smith said.

Who got the nod?

Aldermen showed a willingness to embrace constructive criticism from constituents in naming two of the new planning board members. Peggy Hannah and John Baus got a nod from the town board despite being known to publicly question the elected leaders.

"To me, I am not concerned about somebody questioning the actions we take. I think that's the way the process should work," said Alderman Jon Feichter. "Having diversity of perspectives on that board is important. We need to represent as many of the viewpoints of our citizens as we can."

Alderman Anthony Sutton agreed.

"Both of them are very constructive in their criticism. They don't just come say we are doing everything wrong. They do their homework and come with solutions to issues," Sutton said.

Hannah also brings an important perspective of the Hazelwood working class.

"Peggy has her pulse on the community and has shown she is willing to work with anybody and comes with an open mind," Sutton said.

Hannah is a regular during the public comment session at town board meetings and doesn't mind speaking up.

"I feel like I can be a voice of opposition if need be. You can't do a blanket amen on everything that comes across," Hannah said.

At the same time, she believes in compromise.

"You can't just go complain. You have to be willing to compromise," Hannah said. "There is a lot of controversy with this board, and I would like to be a voice of reason to help bring some calm."

Baus not only is a regular at town board meetings, but also attended planning board meetings as a spectator. Baus had concerns about the high-density of some of the projects being approved and the compatibility of the apartment complexes in the middle of neighborhoods.

"I am not anti-development, but I don't necessarily think that all development is good. I am for smart development," Baus said.

Baus said the town risks losing what makes it special if the population explodes in a short time.

"If you go from 10,000 residents to 15,000 residents in a few years, there will be a lot of unintended consequences from that," Baus said. "People will leave because it is no longer the Waynesville we all love. We can't forget what's best for the 10,000 people we have here now."

Baus and his wife moved to Waynesville in 2019 to run a bed and breakfast in the historic Love Lane neighborhood. He spent 30 years as an attorney, district attorney and judge in New Orleans. His background in mediation and legal issues was seen as another plus to aldermen, Sutton said.

The third new member appointed to the planning board, Jan Grossman, said he wasn't ready to comment yet about his new role.

"I haven't even taken the oath yet," he said.

Grossman most recently hailed from Chapel Hill before coming to Waynesville about 10 years ago. Grossman is a retired scientist and outdoor enthusiast, who also serves on the Haywood Greenway Council, according to his application.

"I am interested in ensuring that Waynesville grows responsibly with the interest of residents in mind," Grossman wrote in his application. "I am interested in the well-being of Waynesville and understand that growth comes with issues — that can be rationally dealt with."

Who's coming off?

The planning board will lose extensive institutional knowledge in the three outgoing members — particularly in the case of Marty Prevost, who served on the planning board for 30 years.

In her parting words at her final meeting in June, she urged the planning board to lower the height allowance of apartments in residential neighborhoods from three stories to two.

"I think it would be much more tolerable to residential neighborhoods," she said.

Planning Director Elizabeth Teague commended Prevost for a job well done.

"It's certainly worth noting when someone's showed up every month for 30 years and showed that level of dedication and volunteerism through all the iterations of staff and elected officials," Teague said. "You have been a steady presence and I have been very grateful to have you on this board."

Another planning board member, Gregory Wheeler, stepped down due to personal health issues.

The third member coming off, Don McGowan, failed to get reappointed by the town board of aldermen. McGowan was known for his analytical thinking, often questioning whether the town's current land-use policies were sufficient to protect neighborhoods from incompatible, large-scale developments.

McGowan was a key committee player in a six-month process aimed at tightening up the town's development rules.

"Don's contribution has been amazing and incredibly helpful," said Susan Teas Smith, chair of the planning board. "I really respect everything he brought to the table. His past experience in the banking industry and working with developers was critical to understanding the subtleties of projects coming before us."

McGowan's three-page application and resume was the most extensive out of the nine applicants. McGowan cited the need for balancing tensions amid the growth pressures facing the town "as the current demographic wave continues to cascade over us, both from Asheville and out-of-state migration."

McGowan is an affordable housing champion, serving on the Waynesville Housing Authority and as chair of Mountain Projects' Smoky Mountain Housing Partnership.

Alderman Anthony Sutton said one reason for not reappointing McGowan was to avoid a potential conflict of interest should those other entities pursue housing projects that come before the planning board.

"He can do such good in the community through the other boards he is sitting on," Sutton said.

Alderman Jon Feichter lamented losing McGowan, but said the decision came down to making room for new people with different backgrounds.

"Given the significant interest in participation for that board, somebody who is qualified was going to be left off," Feichter lamented. "When there are future openings I would hope that Don would apply again. One thing that has always amazed me but never surprised me is the interest with which people answer these calls to devote their time and energy toward helping make the town of Waynesville a better place."

Meanwhile, another member of the planning board, Michael Blackburn, was also up for reappointment but was kept on by the town board. Blackburn is the most vocal pro-development member of the planning board, consistently siding with developers based on the need to combat Waynesville's housing crisis.

Blackburn is also the only member of the planning board under 50, providing a needed demographic perspective.