Go tell it on the mountain

A 65-acre development on Beaucatcher Mountain has its Kenilworth neighbors up in arms about both its potential impacts and the lack of City Council oversight. Another concern is the site’s proximity to a historic African-American cemetery.

Residents were alarmed when the large-scale development was first proposed a year ago. More recently, logging trucks cutting roads up the mountain from Kenilworth Road have turned up the heat.

The current project represents a retooling of an August 2005 proposal that would have placed a large retirement village on the property. That proposal was withdrawn after neighbors filed a protest petition with City Council. Beaucatcher Heights will be a subdivision of single-family homes, which does not require Council review and thus avoids the possibility of conditions being placed on project approval.

Both city officials and Project Manager Gerald Green say the plans for Beaucatcher Heights meet or exceed all current city requirements. Wellen MacLean of the Charlotte-based Brownlyn Associates (which was also handling the earlier project) is planning 61 single-family lots for the sloping, wooded property, Green reports. Once the roads, sidewalks and underground utilities are in place, the developer plans to start selling lots but will not actually build homes. Green also said builders will be held to a series of covenants, outlined on the developer’s Web site (www.beaucatcherheights.com), that include penalties for cutting trees other than those within 15 feet of a house or driveway.

As trucks roll away with trees cut from the site, however, neighbors worry about erosion, increased traffic and the city’s ability to oversee and enforce its own laws.

“This is a watershed,” explains Kenilworth resident Frank Adams, noting that construction runoff could feed directly into Kenilworth Lake. (Green, however, maintains that the developer is monitoring water quality to avoid this.) Adams also fears that the city won’t do anything unless neighbors complain, wondering, “Why should we, as citizens, be policing them?”

Several recent high-profile development disputes, including the failure to control runoff at Richmond Hill Park and to enforce the sign ordinance have left residents skeptical and anxious.

“The history seems to be, by their own admissions, it’s a relatively passive enforcement of the rules,” says Stephen Lutz, president of the Kenilworth Residents’ Association. “There doesn’t seem to be a great track record.”

Lutz is also unhappy that City Council never reviewed the project (because no zoning change was needed); he believes city leaders should sign off on all large-scale new developments in close proximity to existing neighborhoods. “That, to me, is a significant flaw. For Council not to be part of this process is really a surprise,” says Lutz.

Assistant Planning Director Shannon Tuch confirmed that with single-family developments of this size, it’s left up to the Technical Review Committee to decide whether to approve the plans. City Council involvement opens the door to Council members tacking on conditions that support their overall policy goals for Asheville. The TRC, on the other hand, is charged only with ensuring that projects meet the minimum building requirements, Tuch explained.

Lutz, however, questions whether those requirements are adequate. “What this development highlights is, are the rules we have in place sufficient for what we want for our community?” he asks, standing in a driveway across the street from the construction access.

Green, a former Asheville city planner, says the erosion and storm-water runoff controls on the site—including double sediment fencing—exceed city requirements, including those in the proposed steep-slope ordinance.

Tuch also told Xpress that the development has received a grading permit from the city and that an engineering inspector has been on the site since the project began.

Grave concerns

The South Asheville Cemetery, adjacent to the St. Johns-A-Baptist Church on Dalton Street, was used as a burial place for African-Americans from the 1840s to the 1940s. Neighbors are concerned that construction runoff could flow into the graveyard, and digging could expose unmarked graves outside the cemetery perimeter.

After years of neglect, local volunteer groups cleared underbrush from the site in the late 1990s. A few years later, an archaeology class from Warren Wilson College mapped the cemetery property and counted the graves. Today, the modest headstones remain easily visible, along with unmarked graves identifiable by the sunken ground.

But the orange plastic construction fencing that runs along three sides of the graveyard is new, marking the boundary of the Beaucatcher Heights development. Through a thin buffer of trees, the beginning of a road cut is visible, along with silt fencing installed to contain construction runoff.

Warren Wilson professor David Moore led the mapping effort in 2002, but he says the survey confined its efforts to the area within the 2-acre cemetery property’s legal boundaries. “This was not a survey that had anything to do with that development,” Moore emphasizes.

At Brownlyn’s request, Moore says he gave the company a copy of the mapping, which found about 2,000 graves. But Moore says there are more graves on the Beaucatcher Heights property.

David Quinn of the South Asheville Cemetery Association, who was instrumental in the efforts to reclaim the cemetery from overgrowth and neglect, says he met with the developer and shared his concerns about protecting the historic site. In response, says Quinn, the developer put up the sediment fencing and clearly marked the cemetery’s boundaries. Like Moore, Quinn stressed that his knowledge extends only to the graveyard property.

“We have let all of our neighbors know that there is a possibility of other graves beyond that boundary,” he notes.

The developer, says Green, has promised to warn people buying lots “that there may be some graves within 20 feet of the cemetery and to leave [them] alone or get a more extensive archaeological survey.”

Under state law, graves—whether marked or not—may not be disturbed in any manner.

A conversation piece

Meanwhile, neighbors, city staff and, most recently, at least one Council member have been involved in a heated e-mail exchange. Irate neighbors are asking if the city should change its procedures for approving larger developments adjoining existing neighborhoods.

That would mean amending the city’s Unified Development Ordinance. It has also triggered the familiar sparring over private-property rights. In an e-mail exchange with Council member Carl Mumpower, neighbor William Jell argued that the developer’s plans amount to an invasion of the neighborhood, which has rights of its own.

“There are other people in this NEIGHBORHOOD who have ‘private personal property rights’ which need to be defended,” wrote Lutz. “NOT obfuscated or ignored by City and Council.”

In the meantime, Kenilworth residents show little sign of letting up. One player in the e-mail exchange, Jell, has been attaching photos of the logging. Calling the TRC “incompetent and lazy” for approving the project, he has challenged the city to step up to the plate.

“The travesty to me here is that this got through the TRC,” Jell told Xpress.

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