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From left, Boone mayoral candidates Andy Ball, Brad Harmon, Jenny Church and John Mena answer questions during a forum Tuesday night. Photo by Kellen Short

Originally published: 2013-10-08 21:42:56
Last modified: 2013-10-08 22:48:18

Forum focuses on candidates

by Anna Oakes

Ten candidates for Boone mayor and Boone Town Council shared their positions on the town's business environment, water needs, storm water control, traffic and relationships with Watauga County and Appalachian State University at a forum Tuesday.

The Meet the Candidates Forum hosted by the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce drew a full room of observers at the Boone Council Chambers one month before the Nov. 5 municipal election.

Rennie Brantz is the only incumbent seeking re-election this year, joining Mark Templeton, Jennifer Pena, James Milner, Matt Long and Quint David in seeking one of three open seats on the Boone Town Council.

In the mayor's race, current Mayor Loretta Clawson's decision not to seek re-election leaves the field wide open for four candidates, including John Mena, write-in candidate Jenny Church, Brad Harmon and Andy Ball -- a current Boone Town Council member.

A number of questions posed to the candidates related to business interests, including how to develop vacant properties, the impacts of the Unified Development Ordinance on businesses and how to encourage development creating high-paying jobs and a better quality of life.

Milner said he deals with the UDO every day as a real estate consultant.

"I find this document so cumbersome," he said. "While I applaud the efforts to rewrite it, it's only been done after several years." Milner said the UDO only includes mandates and that he supports the incorporation of incentives to encourage redevelopment.

Long said the code language "must be right to promote sustainable, smart development and real affordable housing options."

David said the UDO is among the reasons he wanted to run for town council, noting that he hears from businesses who feel it is too restrictive but also recognizes that it must protect qualities desired by town citizens.

Harmon and Church said the UDO is too onerous and restrictive for developers.

"That can turn a business against you," Harmon said.

Templeton said the UDO was important to developing vacant properties.

"When you buy a piece of property, you don't know if the town of Boone is going to change the rules on you half-way through the process," he said.

"It's difficult being in business in Boone," said Mena, who said he has experienced difficulty in working with the town's Planning and Inspections Department and supports a more user-friendly approach from the department.

Pena said efforts to ease the obstacles of opening new businesses, adequate water supply, mixed-use development, less student housing and more affordable housing for families and young professionals would help attract businesses to the area. Long said reducing the fees charged to businesses could help them be more profitable and thus pay higher wages.

Candidates also fielded questions related to the town council's rocky relationship with the county commissioners and the impacts of the county's recent decision to change the local sales tax distribution, which resulted in a reduction of revenue in Boone.

"On an annual basis the town of Boone is responsible for bringing in over 60 percent of the sales tax to the area," said Ball, who said the situation forced the council to cut spending on capital projects.
Church said that county residents need Boone to thrive as much as town residents do.

"If we let the commissioners play a more important role and let their voices be heard ... it will be better for the town," she said. Brantz said he feels the current tensions have evolved over the years from personal and political agendas.

"I've always been a person who favors cooperation over conflict. I've always wanted to find common ground, and I'm still looking for that," he said.

Pena said communication only works when willing, honest and responsible individuals come to the table and are willing to make sacrifices, while Long said the conflict has been difficult to watch as a citizen.

"My opinion is (as) publicly elected officials, we should meet publicly and be able to meet and discuss openly with citizens issues at hand," he said.

Ball, Harmon, Brantz, David, Long and Milner indicated they would work to restore the previous sales tax distribution method and return revenue to Boone, while Mena mentioned the need to find other ways to expand the town's tax base. Templeton and Harmon said the town needs to further reduce waste and streamline operations.

Pena called the sales tax redistribution an "unfortunate situation" due to county commissioners "bent on picking fights with the Boone Town Council."

"I think the absolute last thing we should do is raise property taxes, but if that's what we have to do, then that's what we'll have to do," she said.

Candidates also discussed the town's storm water and flooding issues. Ball said he began discussing the issue eight months ago and that the town does not have enough catchment systems, retention pools and other infrastructure to adequately handle storm water.

Pena and Brantz said they support the establishment of a storm water authority to address the town's problems.

"I think we're going to have to take the lead on this and establish a storm water authority," Brantz said. "Unfortunately it's going to be an increase in taxes if we go that route, but I don't know how else we resolve this issue."

Milner called the matter a "critical issue" and said he supports a public-private partnership to fix the problem instead of putting it solely on the backs of property owners.

Candidates were united in expressing opposition to or reservations about the proposed Daniel Boone Parkway, or Boone Bypass, as a solution for relieving traffic congestion.

"I'm not in favor of four-laning everything. We've got a six-lane highway coming into a two-lane town," said Mena, who added there are other methods to alleviating traffic congestion such as sustainable building in town limits and improved pedestrian and public transportation systems.