Buncombe Commissioners

  • CTS contamination spreads
  • New storm-water rules approved

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners sold a piece of parkland to developer Stewart Coleman; now they want it back. But they’re asking the city of Asheville to make it happen. At their June 24 meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution encouraging the city to agree to a land swap so that Coleman’s controversial Parkside condominium project would not intrude into the adjacent Pack Square Park.

Protesting Parkside: Before the commissioners’ meeting, protesters gathered around the magnolia tree on the parkland sold to developer Stewart Coleman. Someone brought a chainsaw to point up the potential loss of the tree. Photos By Jonathan Welch

The county resolution encourages the city to swap adjacent land it owns (presumably a parcel on neighboring Marjorie Street) so that Parkside could be set farther back from the park; currently, part of the proposed project would occupy a section of parkland near City Hall that the county sold to Coleman in 2006. To sweeten the deal for Asheville, the county is also offering to pay the city for any parkland it acquires from the developer. Coleman originally paid the county $322,000 for the land; county staff now estimates its value at $540,000.

The Asheville City Council has unanimously condemned the county’s sale of the property to Coleman, however, and some commissioners questioned the likelihood of the city’s accepting such an exchange. The Council resolution condemning the sale states that the county should be the one to get the land back.

“The City Council doesn’t seem very receptive to a land deal,” noted Chairman Nathan Ramsey during the commissioners’ June 24 meeting.

Tom Israel of Black Dog Realty, Coleman’s company, sounded a similar note, saying, “So far, the City Council has shown no interest in such an exchange. Though if it was relevant, we’d certainly consider it.”

If the city doesn’t agree to a land swap, the county will explore other options for regaining the property, the resolution states. It also says that if the land were returned, the county would work with the city to set up a permanent conservation easement on it.

After a presentation by Israel, Ramsey praised the Parkside project, calling it “a beautiful building” that “looks very nice.” But “political realities,” he added, meant that the board had to try to find a way to get the parkland back.

Moving Parkside back would satisfy the Pack Square Conservancy’s guidelines in a way that the current plan does not, said Herman Turk. Turk serves on the board of the nonprofit, which is overseeing a massive redesign of the park.

But most of the 10 residents who spoke during public comment condemned the proposed deal.

“We support a buyback on the parkland—but not at the terms Mr. Coleman has demanded,” said Jake Quinn, who presented a statement signed by groups including the Mountain Voices Alliance and Asheville Democracy for America. “The [county commissioners] should speak long and hard about the ramifications of handing him a profit for his speculative land deal and forcing the county taxpayers to foot the bill. We also hope that the county and city will reject a land swap, since Mr. Coleman refused to follow established procedures. Considering the contempt he has displayed for development rules and the community, there is no reason to reward him with special treatment.”

Quinn urged the commissioners to consider several options, including using an easement to prevent Parkside from being built on the land, reaching out to philanthropists to get the money to buy back the land, adopting a “permanent parkland” zoning designation, and using eminent domain, if necessary, to reclaim the property.

County Manager Wanda Greene said the county had offered Coleman $2.8 million for the disputed parcel and the neighboring Hayes & Hopson Building but that Coleman had refused, asking $4.5 million instead. Under state law, the county is not allowed to pay more than the appraised price for property.

A full and proper cleanup?

Abandoned but under scrutiny: An aerial view of the CTS of Asheville plant. The subdivision where contaminated wells were found is less than a mile to the northeast. Xpress File Photo

Late on the afternoon of June 19, Buncombe County staff was alerted that a well in The Oaks subdivision in south Asheville had tested positive for trichloroethylene, a toxic industrial solvent that has been found at high levels beneath the nearby former CTS of Asheville plant.

When the same well was tested this past winter, TCE—a suspected carcinogen—was not detected. But a retest conducted by the county found the contaminant at 23.7 parts per billion, nearly four times the safe limit for drinking water under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The well, which serves three residences housing seven people, was the third one in The Oaks to test positive for TCE. A municipal water-line extension to that neighborhood is already under way, thanks to a partnership between the county and the city of Asheville formed in response to the earlier test results (see “Buncombe Commissioners,” May 21 Xpress).

Once the new test results were in hand, the first step was to notify the homeowners and ensure that the EPA supplied them with bottled drinking water, Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone told Xpress. After that, a new agenda item was tacked onto the Board of Commissioners’ June 24 meeting: A resolution demanding, among other things, that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the EPA retest all the wells within a one-mile radius of the CTS site.

“We went back to the commissioners, basically saying this will be the second well where we’ve seen in our retest either an increase or a new reading,” Stone explained. “For us, in the absence of any other scientific explanation, that raises the concern that you’re seeing an expanding or moving plume.”

The resolution, which the commissioners unanimously approved, also asks that DENR and the EPA “present to the community a very specific timeline and scope for … any remedial actions that they’re responsible for,” according to Stone. It instructs county staff to “pursue all avenues possible for getting the EPA to contribute to the cost of … public water [hookups],” she said, and encourages the county-appointed CTS Citizens Monitoring Council to continue raising questions on the completeness and accuracy of the paper trail. The resolution was forwarded to federal and state officials.

On June 26, two days after the Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the Citizens Monitoring Council held its own public meeting at the Skyland Fire Department. With roughly 100 area residents in attendance, as well as interim county Health Director Sharon West and Health Department staffer Eddie Shook on hand, the meeting featured a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation delivered by resident Tate MacQueen.

MacQueen, a history teacher, approached the session accordingly, using deeds, documents and Google Earth images to tell a story that went all the way back to 1959, when CTS of Asheville was first incorporated. Spotlighting documents detailing the 350 gallons of TCE the facility produced each year and referring to how “wastewater from the electroplating area drained by gravity into a 12,000 gallon pit,” MacQueen shared with the crowd his conviction that hazardous waste from CTS’ operations is “most assuredly the cause of the contamination” detected now. At one point, the crowd applauded the county for having extended a water line to The Oaks.

Although the meeting was partly a teach-in, the underlying goal was building cohesion among area residents. “This is an overwhelming, Herculean effort if you try to do it on your own,” MacQueen warned. But he urged them not to back down in their demand for “a full and proper cleanup, and safe drinking water.”

A natural at public speaking, MacQueen also told the residents not to take “no” for an answer. He urged them to remain calm and composed, yet firm, adopting this sort of mindset: “I have information, I have knowledge, I have power—and you can’t hoodwink me. We can play nice, or I can take the gloves off.”

by Rebecca Bowe

Asheville resident Veronika Gunter also urged the county to block Parkside.

“You can take action to stop this: Land speculators are not owed a return on investment, [and] the public is due good stewardship,” she said. “We need to stop having this deference for developers. They’re salesmen; they’re always refining their pitch. When you’re hearing a salesman who’s going to make millions, I hope you keep that in mind.”

Before the meeting, Asheville resident Julie Clark stood outside the boardroom with a sign pinned to her shirt that superimposed the word “Outrage!” on a picture of Parkside.

During public comment, she said: “The county commissioners got us into this mess; the county commissioners should get us out of this mess—not try to dump it on the city. Get our public land back for public use, period. No land swap. No more sweetheart deals.”

Meanwhile, activist Steve Rasmussen presented a petition with 1,003 signatures asking the board to rescind the land sale.

“This is sacred space to democracy, [and] to proceed with anything resembling a land swap is a violation of that democracy,” Rasmussen declared.

Ramsey said later that he would not support using either eminent domain or condemnation to get the property back; he also defended the original land sale as legal.

CTS situation worsens

In response to the unwelcome news that another drinking well near the former CTS of Asheville plant had just tested positive for trichloroethylene, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution addressed to state and federal officials (see sidebar, “A Full and Proper Cleanup?”). The resolution demands that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources work more in concert with the county, present a clear timeline for taking action, and foot part of the bill for connecting area residents to city water.

“We’re concerned that the [toxic] plume is expanding and creating additional health risks,” said Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone, trembling visibly. “We feel like there’s a lack of information available from EPA and DENR. We continue to not have a full set of facts to make a decision.”

The resolution also calls on the state to retest all wells within one mile of the hazardous-waste site. The county is already offering to test wells outside the one-mile limit at the owners’ request.

“Our Citizens Monitoring Council continues to raise questions about the completeness and accuracy of the records of both EPA and DENR,” she said, adding, “We immediately want that information: a synopsis of actions taken and remediation ordered at CTS.”

Commissioner David Young praised Stone both for her work on the resolution and her efforts to address residents’ concerns but said the word “request” should be changed to “demand”; the board then approved the resolution.

“We need a strongly written letter from us saying that there’s a problem here, a signficant problem,” said Young. “We want them here, we want them solving this problem, we want them taking the actions they should be taking. They’re failing right now. Let’s be tough; let’s call them to action.”

Vice Chair David Gantt agreed.

“They’ve had a long time to fix this, and they haven’t done it—and it doesn’t look like they’re doing it,” said Gantt. “It’s time to get on the stick.”

“I’m sure they’re shaking in their boots,” Ramsey remarked.

Young shot back, “Well, if they start hearing from senators, they’ll get the idea.”

Revised storm-water rules approved

After deadlocking over proposed new storm-water rules three weeks earlier, the commissioners quickly and painlessly approved a revised version. On June 3, Ramsey and Young had objected to a provision saying that individual homeowners could be fined up to $200,000 for storm-water problems in their development if there were no homeowners’ association.

But on June 24, Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue reported that revisions had been made to spread any fines among all a development’s residents.

“We took the concern that a future body might not be equitable in enforcing these rules to heart,” he said. “The financial burden will now be applied evenly among all those responsible.”

The revised measure passed unanimously, with no discussion or objections.

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