Buncombe Commissioners

  • Affidavit becomes latest Parkside flash point
  • County approves 2008-09 budget
  • New storm-water rules provoke debate
  • Auto parts company gets $1 million incentive deal

Normally, it would have been no big deal—a routine piece of red tape needed for a proposed development bordering county property to advance to the city’s Technical Review Committee.

But this was Parkside, and it sparked continued controversy at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ June 3 meeting. The proposed nine-story condominium project, to be built on former public parkland that the county sold to developer Stewart Coleman, has evoked a storm of criticism from people who say it was a backroom deal that handed valuable property to a private developer.

On the horizon: Activist Elaine Lite implores the Board of Commissioners to try to stop the Parkside project, while Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue waits to answer questions. Photo By Jonathan Welch

And last month, Coleman scaled back the height of the proposed structure—thereby avoiding the need to get the Asheville City Council’s approval. That seemed to leave the TRC review as the project’s final hurdle.

Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue emphasized that the affidavit did not constitute approval to use county property for staging construction of the project and did not address the question of easements needed to provide emergency services to the high-rise—all issues the board may have to deal with later.

“This affidavit is just our consent for the city to review the plan on an administrative level,” Frue told the board.

The commissioners agreed to put the matter on the agenda for their June 24 meeting, where it will be one of only a few matters up for consideration.

“We’ll take that vote in a public manner, so there won’t be someone out there saying this was done behind closed doors—[to ensure] that it was a very transparent process,” observed board Chair Nathan Ramsey.

Among the criticisms of the land sale has been the lack of a public hearing or even a clear explanation of the transaction. Vice Chair David Gantt has publicly stated that he wasn’t aware of exactly what the board was voting on. The sale was placed on the consent agenda (a list of routine matters collectively addressed by a single vote) and was only briefly discussed.

During public comment before the formal meeting, critics urged the board to take this opportunity to rectify what they saw as mistakes.

“I would implore you to very carefully consider the errors that happened a few months ago,” said Asheville resident Elaine Lite. “If there’s any way for the county commissioners to redeem themselves and reclaim our public space, even if it requires denial of certain necessary papers—if it is within your legal bounds, I would request that you do whatever is necessary to put this to an end.”

Ramsey asserted that because the property is now private, there is little that the county can do.

“There are a lot of people that have very, very strong feelings about this—aside from what Mr. Coleman believes are 80 fringe lunatics,” Lite replied.

Gantt said he hoped to get all options for resolving the issue before the board at the June 24 public hearing.

Asheville resident Barry Summers accused the county of hatching a backroom deal with Coleman.

“This was not a mistake,” said Summers. “Look at the e-mails that have come out: County staff deliberately wanted this property sold for development. They very clearly intended to pressure the Pack Square Conservancy to give public support to Mr. Coleman’s building when it was wildly unpopular—at the conservancy and with the public.”

Summers added that “it is very disturbing to see public institutions pitting themselves against one another over a private development,” asserting that Coleman intends to trade the property for even more valuable public land nearby.

“Our park is being held hostage for a speculative land deal,” Summers charged. “This is not how a world-class city does anything; this should be stopped. Do we really want to have our city and county governments going to war over a building the public doesn’t want, that violates the conservancy guidelines and that was initiated in a backroom deal to grab valuable public land? If you’re not stopping it, you’re helping it—and we are watching how you vote.”

Ramsey, however, took issue with Summer’s statements.

“We didn’t sell this behind the scenes—we sold it in a public meeting, just like we’re doing today,” he said. “We might not have notified enough people, but there’s notices out: That’s a legal process. To say the county was doing anything behind the scenes is just incorrect.”

Summers replied that he was aiming his criticism not at the commissioners but at county staff, who “clearly knew what was happening.”

Local blogger Gordon Smith said he hoped the commissioners would recognize “the obligation of the county commission in rectifying this error.” He also asked the commissioners “to take responsibility and ownership of your mistakes. I hope that you all take the opportunity to rectify this error.”

Not all the public comments were critical, however. Tom Israel, who works for Coleman’s development company, said that Parkside has met the guidelines of the Downtown Commission, the Pack Square Conservancy and has tried to work with both city and county government.

“We get a lot of support for this project: It’s good for the city, it’s good for the park, it’s good for the community,” asserted Israel. “I just hope that in these opinions you hear, we can differentiate fact from fiction. We respect opinions based on fact. We’ve only done what’s been asked.”

Coleman himself also came forward to offer a brief statement, asserting that the project hasn’t gotten a fair shake in the public eye.

“It’s been a misfortune that there’s been so many misunderstandings, so many misstated information and so many misstated truths,” he said. “We’ve jumped through all the hoops with this building that it’s possible to jump through—including removing floors; including setting the building back off the park. We’ve been challenged every time we’ve made a concession. We’d like to move forward with this project.”

Battening down the budget hatches

On a less contentious note, the board unanimously passed a $316.8 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. It shows a $6.2 million deficit, which the county will make up from its fund balance.

That, however, is down from the $6.7 million shortfall projected when the budget was first presented last month. County Manager Wanda Greene told the board that she’ll look for ways to save money throughout the year to minimize how much the fund balance will actually need to be tapped.

“There are ways we can do that, and we’ll look at slowing down hiring or hiring freezes,” noted Greene. And if tight economic times continue, she added, the county’s fund balance, in tandem with cost-cutting measures, should suffice to meet future budget challenges.

“We have a plan in place to identify savings we can tap into; we are ready on several fronts if we hit a recession,” she said.

Leicester resident Alan Ditmore criticized the budget allocations for parking and public schools.

“Government parking garages are the worst possible kind of socialism,” asserted Ditmore. “It’s devoid of welfare; it has all of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. I just walked four blocks to get here; I had a pleasant walk and a healthy walk, so I don’t see any reason to increase downtown parking.”

Funding public schools, said Ditmore, amounts to “exploiting childless taxpayers,” adding that sports programs “encourage bullies” and that the county should abolish the Planning Department.

Greene clarified that the parking decks will be paid for by user fees, not tax dollars.

Gantt, however, defended the spending on parking. “We don’t have to do that, but we’ve waited and waited for other people to do this. This board’s done the responsible thing: People want to be able to park near their park, their courthouse. Most people still take cars; we want downtown to keep growing,” he said.

Asheville resident Keith Thomson, meanwhile, praised the commissioners’ support of public schools. “That local funding is something I want to thank you for. We’ve got three of the best school systems in the state.”

Enka resident Jerry Rice, on the other hand, said the county should lower the tax rate by 15 cents. He also took issue with the way Buncombe County Schools funding is handled.

“I wish we could have more than one time a year [when] we could see departments speak on behalf of the budget,” said Rice. “The public schools don’t come, and I don’t like that—it’s not transparent.”

He also took aim at what he felt was excessive spending on recreation and supplemental pay for teachers.

“We’ve nowhere touched the needs of the people in this community,” said Rice. “We need this commission to set priorities before recreation. This budget doesn’t set that high enough.”

But Commissioner David Young argued that the supplemental pay for teachers serves as “golden handcuffs” that help keep skilled educators in Buncombe.

Young also praised the overall budget, saying, “Seventy five counties have a higher tax rate than us, and we do all this: This is a great budget, and I fully support it.”

Stormy weather

On a tie vote (Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent), the board postponed revising the county’s storm-water ordinance. Both Ramsey and Young expressing concerns about individual homeowners’ potential liability.

The current ordinance calls for penalties of up to $100,000 on homeowners’ associations that fail to maintain their storm-water systems. If a particular development’s association is defunct, however, individual homeowners must pay the fine.

“I just worry what could happen if a schoolteacher, for example, gets hit with that kind of burden,” said Ramsey.

If a homeowners’ association hasn’t yet assumed responsibility for maintenance, the project’s developer is liable.

The proposed revision merely updates the wording, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton explained. And Stormwater Administrator Mike Goodson noted that the county provides each association with a manual spelling out simple ways to maintain such systems.

But Gantt and Commissioner Carol Peterson defended the policy.

“The burden has to fall on someone, and if it’s not the taxpayer, it will have to be the homeowner,” said Gantt. “There does have to be a penalty here.”

The commissioners will revisit the issue during their June 24 meeting.

Turbo-charging forward (with $1 million in county money)

The board unanimously voted to give BorgWarner, a Michigan-based auto-parts manufacturer, $1 million in tax incentives for a recent expansion it undertook.

That $40 million expansion to the company’s West Asheville plant added 87 jobs, most of them at $15 an hour or more with benefits.

Ditmore, the only member of the public to comment on the incentive package, said he feels that such incentives favor bigger businesses, “because a small business isn’t going to have the time or knowledge to go through this process.”

In response, Gantt asserted that the board is always looking for ways to make the incentive process more friendly to small, local businesses.

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14 thoughts on “Buncombe Commissioners

  1. LOKEL

    With regard to the storm water issue.

    Shouldn’t the County (and the City for that matter), address the run-off issues with the developers/home owners BEFORE these developments/houses are built in the first place?

    To impose fines now, on homes that were approved by the County’s own inspectors during planning and construction, seems a little late!

    And, does the County and City control the run-off from their own properties? If they do not, then it is hard for me to imagine the legality of the imposed fines on the private sector.

  2. Asheville desperately needs the housing provided by Parkside and Coleman let all tenants down when he compromised on height. If he must compromise on height, I hope he at least makes the building strong enough so that it can be built taller after we destroy all zoning, at least 25 floors.
    Public schools destroy the environment by exploiting childless taxpayers
    and no tax incentive would be as simple as simply using the same money to lower the tax rate, which would require no application by small business whatsoever. The application process cannot possibly be made that simple, and complexity uses paper and so destroys the environment.

  3. The run-off maintinace language will allow the county to charge residents on a discriminatory basis. Which they will definately do, and which is no accident. Democratic commissions will charge Republican residents and Republican commissions will charge Democratic residents, campaign contributors will never be charged, and African Americans will always be charged.

  4. Gordon Smith

    The previous affadavit did, indeed, give explicit permission for Coleman to stage his building on County land. The new affadavit may or may not give explicit permission. However, the County can stop this project and start to play hardball with Coleman by denying the affadavit. Coleman is extorting the City and County with no plans to back down.

    Our County government will have to be tougher than Coleman if they want to get our land back.

  5. Gordon Smith

    Ramsey: “We didn’t sell this behind the scenes—we sold it in a public meeting, just like we’re doing today,” he said. “We might not have notified enough people, but there’s notices out: That’s a legal process. To say the county was doing anything behind the scenes is just incorrect.”

    Ramsey from the Nov. 21, 2006 County Commissioners meeting:

    “Uh, the Board Members have the agenda before them and the consent agenda items. I would like to note, we will add a resolution authorizing the execution of a non-warranty deed for 320,000… 322,000 to sell the, uh, property that’s adjacent to City/County Plaza. It’s where the, uh, Day Reporting Center was located. We will add that to our new business items, so is there a motion to approve our consent agenda items and to follow our agenda?”

    In otherwords – no one was notified. He added it to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting.

    http://www.scrutinyhooligans.us/?p=5593

  6. bobaloo

    Alan, I agree with you concerning such sentiments as building up, not out and fighting suburban sprawl, as well as providing affordable housing in Asheville proper.

    What I don’t understand is why you would possibly think these condos are going to be even remotely affordable to the people that need housing the most.

    Who, exactly, do you think the target buyer is going to be with these upscale condos?

  7. The Buncombe housing market is all one market with all one supply and demand curve. All Buncombe housing will become affordable when supply reaches demand and not until.
    More specifically, the Windsor Hotel was renovated to serve about the same luxury market that Parkside will serve, killing one. It would not have been renovated if new buildings like Parkside had been built in time to serve that market. The incentive to renovate the Windsor would not have existed.
    Also, the housing bubble may burst making virtually everything affordable, but only if supply reaches demand. And eventually all buildings will deteriorate and become affordable, just like cars, including Parkside.

  8. Barry Summers

    Coleman has changed the game yet again. Hours after City Council unanimously approved the resolution condemning the sale of the land, he walked in to the City Planning dept. & filed a new building proposal for that land. He claims he no longer needs County land for staging, so no need for an Owners Affidavit, so no need for a public hearing at the County. He still wants to build his road through the park, and he expects the City to let him close Marjorie Street and use that as his staging area. Is the City Council going to lay down & take this, or are they going to do something to stop it? There are no half-measures left. You’re either stopping it, or you’re helping him build it.

  9. Barry Summers

    Yeah that’s hilarious. Government shouldn’t prevent people from building condominiums in the middle of the freeway, or on the White House lawn, or in the middle of Central Park, or on top of the house where YOU live, or on top of a cemetery, or in the watershed that serves an entire city, or any other place that sane human beings know you don’t try to build condos. Get real.

  10. The only possible rival on your list to the right to housing is DRINKING water, which only needs a few acres of watershed. The right to housing trumps all the other sevices mentioned above.

  11. William P Miller

    Alan, Alan, Asheville is a town for locals with connections, retirees with a pension and housing equity, and the idle rich from Manhattan and Miami Beach. This is not a town for NE transplant gen-xer’s who cannot get a good paying job here. And the taxpayer will not subsidize you here. Go back to Joisey, New Yawk, or where ever you are from, get a good job, earn good money. Then retire and move here when you can support yourself…just like many have done. My good luck? Local born and raised. Ah, hard work and them good ol boy connections. Life just aint fair for a young, entitled transplant is it?-:)

  12. This is not a zoning issue.
    This is not a housing issue.
    This is not a business vs. government issue.
    This is an issue of a private citizen setting up a means of keeping is land usuable by the public. He trusted his local government to keep his land in that condidition. We see now that trusting the goverment is a mistake, and he was probably foolish for doing so, but essential fact is that an individual made his wishes known for his property. To protect our own property rights, we must honor and carry out those wishes.
    Now, I am against zoning.Nothing would please me more that burning every copy of the UDO in a bonfire, perhaps with marshmellows and hot dogs. But like, I said, this isn’t about zoning. This is about property. And I am against the erosion of property rights and the continuation of shady back-room deals even more.

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