The Asheville City Council made short work of its March 20 meeting agenda. In a scant two hours, Council members ran through a number of agenda items, a couple of which will have a long-term impact on the city. Besides kicking in money for a new city park, Council approved the voluntary annexation of a massive development project just southwest of Asheville, giving the developer a temporary reprieve on property taxes in exchange for the new jobs and tax revenues the project is expected to create.
A $575,000 allocation by the city will help preserve the largest tract of undeveloped land left in Asheville, laying the groundwork for a new park overlooking downtown. Proponents of Beaucatcher Overlook Park had just heard the Buncombe County commissioners approve an equivalent amount—provided that City Council followed suit.
The 30-acre parcel, owned by local developer Stan Greenberg, is on Beaucatcher Mountain above Memorial Stadium. If the property weren’t made into a park, it would probably be subdivided for high-end homes.
The plan calls for the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, to buy the property and then turn it over to the city within the next three years. In addition to the $1.15 million pledged by the city and county, the trust has agreed to kick in $375,000, and local volunteers have raised an additional $620,000 in private donations. The trust is seeking another $500,000 in grant money from the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to complete the $2.6 million acquisition. Additional donations will help pay for developing the park.
Council member Robin Cape said it would probably include hiking trails, scenic overlooks, picnic areas and perhaps other features. Development would be minimal, with a goal of preserving it as a natural area.
The trust has said it envisions closing on the property before the end of April. Afterward, the group would negotiate an agreement with the city, including certain land-use restrictions. The city would then have to hold another public hearing before it could approve the deal. This is similar to the way Azalea Park in east Asheville was acquired.
Once the city takes title to the land, it will be responsible for developing and maintaining the park. Initial development is expected to cost at least $325,000, with annual maintenance pegged at $5,000 for the first five years and perhaps as much as $10,000 after that, according to the staff report.
Mayor Terry Bellamy gave Cape the honor of bringing the motion to approve the funds. Clearly pleased, Cape—who’s been working on the park for more than a year—said it will preserve a precious chunk of the city’s dwindling natural environment for the benefit of all.
“You are not going to have to go to a tree museum in Asheville” in the future, she declared.
Council member Carl Mumpower, who isn’t typically given to spending city funds without considerable deliberation, said the deal was too good to pass up. “What we’re getting for the money is exceptional; it’s quite extraordinary,” he said.
Dollar for dollar
Annexation has been a contentious topic here lately, but the developers of Biltmore Park Town Square agreed to voluntary annexation, and Council unanimously concurred. Although the massive project will add only a few dozen acres to the city, it’s projected to bring in millions in property-tax revenues over time and to eventually create more than 1,000 jobs.
The annexation laid the groundwork for an unusual incentive grant to the developers, Biltmore Farms and the Charlotte-based Crosland, worth an estimated $2.5 million over five years. Beginning in 2008, the city will rebate the total taxes paid by the developers on the portion of the property they own. Additional tax revenue will come from the owners of condos and other parts of the project.
Some Council members, especially Mumpower, were leery of the deal, a first for the city. In the end, it was approved on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, because he couldn’t get a clear assurance that it wouldn’t impact city taxpayers in any way. “I don’t want to accept this unless it’s a wash,” he said. “I think we want to be as clean and aboveboard as we can.”
Mumpower also had doubts about the developers’ request that the city assign a building inspector to the site full time, citing concerns about costs and favoritism. But City Manager Gary Jackson said the request was not unprecedented and, given the scale of the project, might actually prove beneficial to both parties.
“We are going to get efficiencies that are advantageous to the city and not a perk to the developer,” asserted Jackson. The city will pay for the inspector’s salary and benefits and equipment such as a computer and fax machine just as it normally would, while the developer will provide an office and phone for the inspector, according to the staff report.
Other Council members echoed Mumpower’s concerns, but ultimately, the project’s putative benefits—denser, multi-use development that would fuel a boom in jobs and future tax revenues—won out.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to put our money where our mouth is,” proclaimed Council member Jan Davis.
The ambitious plans call for 200,000 square feet of retail/dining space; a 50,000 square foot, 15-screen cinema; 100,000 square feet of new office space; a 150-room hotel; 264 housing units (175 rental units and 89 condos); and 1,850 parking spaces in multi-story garages. By using “smart growth” principles, the project will prevent 23 acres of sprawl and preserve 24 acres of open space, the developers say.
It will also add $123 million to the city’s tax base and eventually generate an estimated $652,000 per year in new tax revenues from the developer alone, according to Crosland representative James Downs. At least 310 construction jobs and 1,223 permanent jobs will be created, he predicted. The project could also spur further development in nearby Technology Park and southwest Asheville, according to a report by the developer.
In other business
As part of its consent agenda, Council unanimously approved a $6.63 million contract with Hickory Construction Co., the low bidder, for improvements to the North Fork and Bee Tree water-treatment plants. Later this year, the company will start work on upgrading the facilities—among the oldest parts of the city’s water system—in order to meet current and future state and federal water-quality standards, according to Water Resources Director David Hanks.