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Can a Qualified Democrat Win in Transylvania? Maybe, if Voters Are as Fed up as He Is
Lauren Wise's party affiliation makes him a long-shot County Commission candidate. But he says his experience and the county's do-nothing Commission gives him a chance.
BREVARD — If the campaign for Transylvania County Commissioner was a job interview, Lauren Wise could argue he’d make a great fit.
A Brevard resident, he works in Asheville as an architect designing upscale homes and engaging in every phase of construction “from walking the land with the client to handing over the keys,” he said. Previously, he worked on major public projects, including a new courthouse for Buncombe County.
That experience would be crucial, he said, in helping guide the county through two of its biggest challenges — moving ahead with the planned, voter-approved $68 million renovation of schools and, especially, replacing Transylvania’s decrepit historic courthouse.
“I mean, we did it,” he said of his former firm’s work in Buncombe.
As a longtime member and current chair of the Transylvania County Planning Board, he appreciates that the Cedar Mountain Small Area Plan was exemplary enough “to serve as a template for the entire state.” So it’s all the more disappointing, he said, that the Commission has done nothing to implement its recommendations.
His success in building consensus among conservatives on the Board led to its unanimous approval of the plan in 2021 — and prepared him to work with members of the current hard-right Commission.
“I helped find common ground among diverse members to build coalitions,” he wrote in an answer to a NewsBeat candidate questionnaire.
His time on the Board also allows him to speak with authority when he says that the zoning of the Rosman Highway corridor now being furnished with utility lines must be implemented immediately to designate land for badly needed affordable housing and manufacturing.
He knows the details of the Ecusta Trail because he serves on its advisory board. And having seen similar trails transform other nearby towns, he said he can confidently predict its potential to be a “huge economic engine for the county.”
None of this makes him a shoo-in for the job, of course. He’s a Democrat running in a county that hasn’t elected a member of his party to the Commission since 2006, according to Elections Director Jeff Storey.
But he may have a fighting chance, he said, not only because of his unusual level of experience, but because of a more widely shared quality: frustration.
He’s discouraged that the Commission has made so little progress on the issues he wants to tackle, he said. So are, he believes, a growing number of county residents.
“I think we have a lot of unaffiliated voters who are more open to looking at issues and are open to thinking that maybe we do need a change of scenery on the Commission,” he said.
“Someone Will Get Hurt”
Wise is running for one of the two open Commission seats against another challenger, Republican Emmett Casciato, as well as incumbent Republican Commission Vice Chair Jake Dalton. He differs from Casciato not only on most issues, but in his approach to engaging with them.
Casciato acknowledged he doesn’t know a lot of details about, for example, land planning, and won’t until he’s had some time on the job. Wise has served on several public boards in the last decade and actually enjoys studying the nuances of policy.
“I do get excited about it,” he said. “I do think it’s, in a weird way, fun.”
But he is similar to Casciato in being influenced by the military. Casciota never served, but is the father of a West Point graduate and founder of a popular veterans museum. Wise was a U.S. Army enlistee deployed in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm.
“As anyone who has served knows, this kind of experience teaches values that you carry with you during your entire life,” he wrote.
And all three candidates see the replacement of the courthouse as a top priority — as it should be, according to a letter sent to the Commission by a senior judge last month
The 11-page document outlined the building’s structural deficiencies, some of which, like plaster ceilings prone to collapse, represent safety risk. So do the outdated design and cramped conditions that allow close contact between, for example, accused criminals and the people they are accused of victimizing.
The Commission has been aware of these problems since at least 2005, according to the judge’s letter, and Wise said that makes this issue a prime example of commissioners’ failure to take action.
“Someone will get hurt in there or somebody will get killed in there, either from something falling down or from violence,” said Wise, who has toured the building as a former member of the local Joint Historical Preservation Commission.
Not only has the county neglected the building, it’s failed to account for the expense of preserving it as a local landmark, Wise said. “I think people are underestimating the amount it’s going to cost to just get that building into habitable condition.”
The new courthouse was included — along with school upgrades — in a list of legally mandated projects at the Commission’s recent capital needs workshop, where commissioners were also told the updated cost estimates for the building range from $44 million to $57 million, depending on the location.
Financing the higher amount would likely require a three-cent property tax increase, a consultant said at the workshop. Wise, like Casciota, favors that option over a proposal that would lessen this tax impact, funding improvements in two phases.
“As an architect, I can say that phasing is never efficient. It always ends up costing more,” he said.
And though he would accept the tax increase if it's needed, he thinks the county should continue to look at other options.
County Manager Jaime Laughter previously said that North Carolina law allows counties few of the alternatives used in states such as Florida, which grants tax relief to full-time residents, resulting in owners of second homes paying a higher share of property taxes.
But Wise also said that Transylvania is home to unusually large populations of both struggling residents and wealthy retirees, who could easily afford to pay more.
“Is there a way to leverage the high property values and still protect the poorer people in the county?” he asked rhetorically. “I think we should be looking at that more aggressively.”
On Bond Work, Time is Money
His experience as an architect also gives him insight into the school bond issue. Because of steadily rising construction costs, delays are expensive, he said. And he blames the Commission for blocking the voter-approved $68 million plan to renovate Brevard High School and Rosman High and Middle schools.
In July of 2021, the School Board approved a scaled-back plan for the work after bids came in far higher than expected. Two months ago, the Board backed a limited change to the agreements with the contractor and architect to make further cuts needed because of still-climbing construction costs.
Last week, the Board voted to send a letter urging the Commission to move forward with those plans but also raised an alternative to create a joint advisory group to identify all potential funding sources and renovations needed throughout the district.
It was an effort to find common ground with the Commission on the next steps, said Schools Superintendent Jeff McDaris.
“We need some answers, if that makes sense,” he said. “If we’re not going to do A, B and C, maybe we can do X, Y and Z.”
Wise was more direct.
“Commissioners have spent the four years since this voter-approved bond issue passed collecting taxes, stalling contract negotiations, questioning the ability of voters to understand the complexity of the issue . . . and suggesting that Clark Nexsen, one of the most respected school architects in the country, is somehow fleecing our county with fees,” Wise wrote in response to the questionnaire.
“They have done everything possible not to move forward.”
The potential health and economic benefits of the Ecusta Trail are so obvious, he said, that he calls the Commission’s failure to get behind the project “a real head-scratcher.”
It did send a letter of support earlier this year as part of the city of Brevard’s unsuccessful efforts to secure a federal grant to pay for the trail’s construction in Transylvania. But Dalton, in his questionnaire responses, pledged to make sure “no county tax dollars will go to the Ecusta Trail.” Casciato, meanwhile, argues that securing the former rail bed for use as a cycling path amounts to a taking of nearby residents’ property.
Such views would change, Wise said, if opponents “would do the most basic research.” Maybe just visit towns that have been transformed by the construction of multi-use paths.
As a one-time resident of western Virginia, “I used to ride the Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon (Va.) and saw what it did to the community,” he said. “It was just hanging on by the skin of its teeth and now it’s really vibrant.”
In Transylvania, its benefits could extend to attracting manufacturers of outdoor equipment such as bicycle frames, which he sees as the county’s most promising form of future economic development.
Waiting for one large industry to replace, for example, the long-closed Ecusta Paper Mill is not just unrealistic, he said; it leaves the county vulnerable to economic devastation if it shuts down.
“Ecusta was great . . . but when it left, it destroyed the county,” he said. “You just can’t have single-source employment like that anymore.”
The county should instead focus on drawing small and medium-sized plants, especially those in the outdoor recreation industry. To do that it must build infrastructure — and then, crucially, implement zoning to set aside land served by water and sewer lines for beneficial purposes.
After the county received state allocations of federal Covid-19 relief money earmarked for upgrades of the town of Rosman’s utility system, a majority of commissioners said they favored limited land planning in the Rosman Highway corridor that would allow the county to attract much-needed workforce and affordable housing as well as industry that adds jobs and expands the county tax base.
Dalton wrote, in response to the questionnaire, that he backs “very high-level land use rules. Nothing to impact private property rights . . . I think this will go to the Planning Board soon to start working on this. I have requested that it be done sooner rather than later.”
Casciato also favors some form of planning, he said, but shied away from calling it zoning.
Which is exactly what it is required, Wise said. Though he favors countywide zoning, the immediate focus should be on the Rosman Highway corridor.
It’s “a well-known process” that entails designating land for industry and the residential density needed for affordable and workforce housing, he said.
But it’s also politically fraught and time-consuming, requiring building coalitions of property owners. And from his position on the Board, he has seen none of the movement that Dalton mentioned — making it one more job commissioners have failed to take on.
“I reached out to them and the only thing I was told was now is not the time . . . and that was four months ago,” he said.
“The amount of time it’s going to take is four or five years, so that ship has sailed,” he said, “but that means we should start immediately.”
Lauren Wise, 53
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Warren Wilson College; Master’s degree, architecture, University of North Carolina Charlotte
Career: Asheville-based architect, now designing custom homes, previously working on public projects such as the Buncombe County Courthouse.
Public Service: Member for five years and current Chair of the Transylvania County Planning Board. Member at large, Ecusta Trail Advisory Board. Previously served on the county’s Joint Historical Preservation Commission, four years.
Personal: Married, one adult daughter and two grandchildren
Community Connection: Resident of Western North Carolina for 30 years and of Brevard for 12.