Vice Chair Billy Stanley, with commissioners Carol Peterson and K. Ray Bailey voted for Alternative 3, while board Chairman David Gantt and Commissioner Holly Jones voted against it.
“When I went out into the community and talked to people about this, the people I mixed and mingled with all through the county—all of those people said to me either 2 or 3 would be the better position because of cost and time, because of getting from point A to point B,” Bailey said.
The issue has been controversial. Alternative 3, a plan backed by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and a majority of the some commissioners, would demolish 61 homes, including 24 in the predominantly African-American Burton Street neighborhood.
The move came after a long public comment session, with citizens packing the boardroom and spilled out far into the hall. The vast majority of people speaking in public comment supported Alternative 4b, developed by the Asheville Design Center and geared toward separating local and interstate traffic while minimizing the amount of land required to build the project. Many of them vehemently opposed Alternative 3, including residents from Burton Street who said that their neighborhood will be destroyed.
Vivian Conley, a resident of Burton Street whose neighbors will lose their houses if Alternative 3 is built, had harsh words for its supporters on the board.
“I wish we could impeach them,” she told Xpress. “Who is he [Bailey] talking to? CEOs? CEOs don’t pay for anything. We’re the working people, we’re the tax-payers and this is what they want to do to us? It’s appalling.”
Peterson and Stanley both said they were concerned about the Burton Street neighborhood, and Bailey amended the motion to endorse Alternative 3 to encourage the North Carolina Department of Transportation to look for ways to minimize the impact there.
“DOT’s going to what they want to do — whichever one we vote for, they’re going to pick the one they like,” Stanley said. “But I’m going to fight for the residents of Burton Street. I’m going to vote for 3 to get it cracking, but I’m going to combat them over the Burton Street folks.”
Jones, who had earlier asserted that she’d heard very few people outside of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce who wanted Alternative 3, said she wasn’t buying it.
“I do think part of our role is to tell the truth:The truth is 4b exists because that’s the fight for Burton Street,” Jones said. “You can’t fix 3 and help Burton Street. I can understand there’s choices, but that’s why we have these alternatives, because people, among other things, wrenched at the idea of this community being torn apart. I feel it’s important for people to know that to vote for 3 and pretend that alternative won’t hurt Burton Street is just not real.”
Angered, Stanley shot back.
“Ms. Jones, are you implying I lied when I said I’d fight for Burton Street?” Jones denied that she was.
“Sounds like that’s what you’re saying,” Stanley said.
“I’m just saying those two don’t go,” Jones replied.
“None of them will go, DOT’s not going to build it. 4b won’t fly,” he said. “There’s 70,000 plus people in the city, there’s over 200,000 plus in the county. The City Council votes for the people in that city; we have to vote for all the people in this county. You’re not on that council anymore, you’re on this one.”
When the vote took place, Jones shouted out her “no” vote.
Gantt said he didn’t feel either commissioner’s behavior was out of line.
“They’re both advocates and they both feel strongly about this,” he told Xpress afterwards. “They’re both professional and they’ll have no trouble working together going forward.”
Asheville City Council has endorsed Alternative 4b. Some proponents of the plan at the meeting said that the commissioners don’t need to rush a decision, and that 4b has not been completely studied yet, while Council member Brownie Newman has warned that if commissioners voted for Alternative 3, it would send a “mixed message” to the state Department of Transportation.
Gantt, in explaining his vote against 3, noted that “the city has weighed in, and to contradict that creates a conflict that DOT can use to delay this. I hope they won’t do it, but they can do what they want. After this, I think we’re through with this on this board.”
The chamber’s president and CEO, Richard Lutovsky, made a presentation before the vote, asserting that 4b would result in a half-mile more driving time than 4b and that the ADC touting more land for commercial development under its plan was a mirage. ADC Chair Joe Minicozzi asserted that when the costs of the money it would take off the tax rolls was figured in, along with money-saving innovations that could be used on 4b, its costs could well be less than 3 and that it would better link parts of the community, while demolishing the least homes and businesses. Some people in the crowd wore bike helmets and said that Alternative 3 would make bike travel much more difficult.
One of the homes that would face demolition belongs to Steven Waters. It also belonged to his grandparents.
“My late grandfather worked hard for that home,” he told the board. “If my grandmother was still alive today, it would kill her to hear you say you’re going to put a wall in place of her house. While I commend you for your good research, all your numbers mean nothing to us. If people have a problem driving a half mile more to keep people in their homes and make it convenient for people to bike where they need to go and stop from damaging a man’s business, then those people do not need to be in this area.”
All told, the work will create a new highway crossing over the river, widening Interstate 240 in West Asheville and changing the configuration of the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange, known as “Malfunction Junction.”
The project has been in discussion for nearly two decades. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2013, and the estimated price tag for all the work comes in at anywhere from $500 million to more than $800 million, depending on exactly which course DOT decides to take.
According to Mike Goodson, the county’s engineer on the project, DOT will decide on an alternative this summer.
Click here to see what Alternative 3 would look like.
Click here to see what Alternative 4b would look like.
Here’s the Mountain Xpress I-26 Connector primer.