Buncombe County Commission

“Money isn’t everything, but it is how we pay for schools and health care.”

– Nathan Ramsey, chairman, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners

Weighing in on the continuing controversy surrounding the Grove Park Inn’s proposed high-rise on City/County Plaza, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 at their Sept. 2 meeting to endorse the project (see “Tower of babble” elsewhere in this issue). Chairman Nathan Ramsey called the move “a no-brainer,” stressing the importance of quality growth in lieu of sprawl.

Commissioner Patsy Keever cast the lone dissenting vote, declaring, “I’m frustrated that we want to put buildings everywhere.” Keever later proclaimed, “Money isn’t everything,” to which Commissioner Bill Stanley responded, “It’s pretty close.” Ramsey then weighed in, observing, “Money isn’t everything, but it is how we pay for schools and health care.”

The mixed-use development, which would include retail and luxury condos, would be sited on a grassy, city-owned parcel adjacent to the Biltmore Building. The city held a public hearing on the project on Aug. 19 and is slated to vote Sept. 16 on whether to grant the GPI an option on the property.

After the Board of Commissioners meeting, Keever further clarified her position, saying: “We need to make Asheville welcoming. This could be a disaster for our public land.” Asserting that “affordable housing is our biggest problem,” Keever noted that, as happens in many other cities, big business is squeezing out any hope of such development.

We need more time

But what didn’t get resolved during the nearly four-hour meeting was the status of the design guidelines proposed by the Pack Square Conservancy for new construction around Pack Square and City/County Plaza. City Council approved the guidelines on Aug. 19; now it was the county’s turn to vote.

The conservancy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization formed in 2001, is spearheading the redesign of the city’s central public space and leading a $6.5 million fund-raising campaign to pay for the project. Asheville Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford has said that part of the reason for the guidelines is to reassure potential donors that there will be a measure of control over the square’s future appearance.

Carol King, who chairs the conservancy’s board, gave a slide presentation explaining the mandatory guidelines, which the conservancy has said are meant both to ensure that new construction blends with the existing historic structures and to create development opportunities in the area. The detailed guidelines would apply to new developments containing more than 5,000 square feet of space.

Ramsey, however, worried that the guidelines are too stringent and could hinder development. An equally concerned Commissioner David Gantt described the guidelines as “the UDO [the city's Unified Development Ordinance] on steroids.” King explained that although the Grove Park Inn doesn’t have a design for the high-rise yet, the guidelines are “designed to be a win/win situation.” But she also conceded that “the Grove Park Inn may decide it’s not economically feasible to adhere to the guildelines.” Both Asheville Mayor Charles Worley and Buncombe County Commissioner Bill Stanley serve on the conservancy’s 11-member board, which would be able to grant variances in specific cases.

The commissioners, however, seemed baffled that King was requesting immediate action despite having presented only a limited amount of information. County staff met separately in closed session to discuss the guidelines. The commissioners finally decided to put the issue at the head of the agenda for their Sept. 16th meeting (the same day the city is scheduled to vote on granting the Grove Park Inn an option to purchase the site for the proposed high-rise).

Woodfin residents, Water Board at loggerheads

Another issue claimed center stage at the Sept. 2 meeting, however: the proposed logging on the Woodfin watershed. The commissioners had invited Charles Rector, director of the Woodfin Sanitary Water and Sewer District, to give an update on the status of the project, which is intended to raise money for repairing the agency’s aging water lines. Among the many members of the public packing the chamber were nearly 20 concerned Woodfin residents who’d come to share their frustrations and concerns.

Woodfin’s water system, said Rector, was built in the 1920s, and the lines are now leaking and in need of extensive repairs – to the tune of about $11 million. The agency’s proposed solution, inspired by a similar move by the town of Mars Hill, is to log the watershed and sell the timber to raise money for repairs. Accordingly, the Water District hired forester Dave McGrew to serve as both consultant and contractor for the project.

Concerned citizens, however, called attention to the conflict of interest created by McGrew’s dual role, particularly given the large amount of money changing hands. Cameron Cantwell of Friends of the Creek, a community group formed to oppose the proposed logging, outlined several objections. The group believes it’s dangerous both to the watershed’s ecology and to the residents who travel the narrow roads that would be shared with giant logging trucks. Friends of the Creek members also fear that logging the natural area would open it to development, and that the helicopter logging seven days a week would be noisy and disruptive. The group also maintains that the town of Woodfin has not applied for either state or federal grants to help pay for repairs and hasn’t raised water rates in several years — measures that it says all the surrounding towns and cities have taken. (Under pressure from concerned residents, however, the Woodfin Water District has begun submitting grant applications, including one to the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is also seeking a grant on behalf of the water board.)

Patsy Keever asked why Woodfin doesn’t simply increase the amount of water it buys from the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson, instead of revamping their own decrepit system. Rector had no definitive answer to the question.

“In the end,” Cantwell told the commissioners, “we’ll have more people, not clean water. Is that in the best interest of the county? Do we need to develop 100 percent of this county?”

After Cantwell spoke, however, County Attorney Joe Connolly jumped up to the microphone and angrily asked the board to deny any further public comment on the matter, declaring, “We invited this board to speak — we should not subject them to personal attacks.” Chairman Ramsey acknowledged him but nonetheless allowed others to have their say. Five more area residents stood and spoke, mostly voicing concerns about stream health and the dangers posed by logging trucks. Friends of the Creek wants the issue to stay on the table until a new water board can be elected to deal with it.

School board retools budget

For the third straight year, the Buncombe County Board of Education asked the commissioners to transfer budgeted school funds from capital outlays to current expenses. School board member Bill Hamby explained that during the 2003 legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly had cut $1.75 million in school funding. The school board, he said, had passed an interim budget that had tried to address the wide-ranging impacts of the budget cut, which included such diverse matters as textbook purchases and personnel funding. The commissioners unanimously approved an $851,000 budget amendment.

Waste not, want not

County Attorney Joe Connolly, backed up by Commissioner Stanley, advised the board not to take action on a proposal to ban corrugated cardboard from the landfill. Connolly explained that the legal documents are still being prepared and will be ready for a vote at the first scheduled meeting in October.

The commissioners recessed at 7:20 p.m. and resumed briefly at 7:45 to publicly adjourn, after announcing that a decision on the Pack Square design guidelines had been postponed until the next regular meeting (Tuesday, Sept. 16th).

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