Sonja Korner had crawled out of bed shortly after 3 a.m. for a quick trip to the bathroom when she noticed how light it was outside her Riverview Drive home. It was Aug. 5, and the early sunrise was actually a fire that had engulfed the house across the street—one of a string of new structures called Grandview, suspended over a slope that drops steeply away from the roadside.
“It was too hot to stand here,” Korner recalled, standing on her front porch. She and some neighbors, she said, had watched firefighters battle the blaze, trying to keep it from jumping to the next house.
The fire destroyed the West Asheville house, which was still under construction. “I can tell you right now, [arson is] definitely the case,” Investigator Jeff Tracz of the Asheville-Buncombe Arson Task Force told Xpress. “There’s no other option.” No one was living there, he noted, and the electricity had not yet been connected.
In an Aug. 9 e-mail, fire Chief Greg Grayson told Xpress that the investigation was continuing and that investigators were examining the possibility that the fire had been a cover-up for the theft of copper wire—a growing problem at construction sites nationwide. (He later determined that no copper wire had been installed in the house.)
As to possible involvement by environmentally minded saboteurs, Tracz said that “people in the neighborhood are making the comments and statements about ecoterrorism, but it may not be the case.” And Grayson said that “routine contact with state and federal agencies did not provide any intelligence that indicated ecoterrorist involvement at this time,” said Grayson.
Neighbors did not seem surprised by the arson, and they expressed little sympathy for the developer, BATT Associates.
“It’s not totally out of the blue, because of the opposition,” Korner told Xpress. Indeed, the heat has been building on Riverview Drive ever since construction began last September. Many neighboring houses sport signs in their front yards proclaiming, “Hills need trees, not cookie-cutter development.”
The once-wooded slope is now lined with near-identical houses overlooking the rail yard. Propped up on tall, steel stilts, the houses appear to be suspended in the air.
“This is anti-Asheville,” declared neighbor Marston Blow. “It is so profit-driven. It is so obvious.”
Jen Dombrowski agreed, saying, “It is thumbing its nose at Asheville.”
Jonathan Scott, a spokesperson for the Asheville-based BATT Associates, defended the development. “If it is some sort of ecoterrorist group, I think they are picking on the wrong guy,” he said. “The more density we can achieve in the city limits, the less burden we put on our rural areas.” And the unusual construction method, he noted, avoids cutting and grading on the steep slope. Runoff from construction sites is a growing problem locally.
In a later e-mail, Scott acknowledged the neighbors’ displeasure. “We live in a community where people have strong opinions about development—and that’s a good thing,” he wrote. “When people exercise their right to free speech without breaking the law or destroying private property, we have no problem with that.”
But Scott also reaffirmed his belief in the project. “When Grandview is completed and the landscaping package is added, I think most everyone in that neighborhood will see what a good thing it is for the overall community.”
Surveying the ashes a couple of days after the fire, a construction worker explained that the site can’t be cleaned up until the arson investigation is finished. Even the steel frame was rendered useless by the fire, he noted, and the framework for the house next door may also have been damaged.
Meanwhile, whatever the motive for the arson, some Riverview Drive residents seem more concerned about the damage they feel was caused by the development itself.
“The fire was violence, but so was that,” said Blow. “He’s had a loss, but so have we.”
Nonetheless, says Scott, BATT Associates intends to complete the 15 houses along Riverview Drive. The price of the houses has not yet been determined.
And though the jury is still out on who set the fire and why, some predict that it will only stoke the growing local tensions between developers and those calling for a moratorium on new construction. “It’s just going to deepen the chasm,” noted Blow.
And Korner observed, “It doesn’t stop anything.”