After a closed session earlier today, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners decided to delay acting on reacquiring the Parkside land until after Aug. 25, when a summary judgment in a lawsuit by George Pack’s heirs is expected. Also, election records reveal that Parkside developer Stewart Coleman and his employees have donated $1,500 to the re-election campaign of commissioner Bill Stanley and $600 to that of Chairman Nathan Ramsey; both commissioners have defended the controversial project.
In a brief announcement after the two-hour closed session, Ramsey read a statement of the board’s position:
“There will be a summary judgment in the case on Aug. 25 in the lawsuit of the Pack heirs, and we will wait and see what the outcome of that case is,” Ramsey said. “We will continue with all parties to look for a solution to this case. We received legal advice from our counsel about all options, including condemnation [eminent domain], and we are restricted by North Carolina law not to pay in excess of fair-market value.”
The project has drawn controversy following the sale of public parkland in late 2006 to Coleman, who plans to build a nine-story condominium building on top of that and a larger, neighboring piece of land (containing the Hayes-Hopson building) that he also owns. Coleman originally paid the county $322,000 for the land. It has attracted a firestorm of controversy, with Asheville City Council unanimously condemning the sale. Protesters and activists have asserted that Coleman benefited from a backroom deal, and a large magnolia tree on the former parkland (which would be cut down if Parkside came to be) has become a rallying point for daily protests and vigils.
Questioned by reporters after the meeting, Stanley denied that the donations from Coleman and his employees affected his votes.
“Those checks came in the mail. It doesn’t change what I say or how I vote,” Stanley, a Democrat, said, also indicating he opposed the possibility of using eminent domain to get the property back and still believed the original sale to Coleman had been a good deal.
Ramsey also said the donations played no role in his positions. He too has previously indicated that he does not support using eminent domain to gain the property back, partially because a court would decide what amount the county would have to pay Coleman for the property.
“I haven’t voted any differently than any of the other commissioners,” Ramsey, a Republican, said. “We’re all on the same page: We don’t want the taxpayers to get stuck footing the bill” for reacquiring the land.
Earlier in the week, Vice Chair David Gantt said that he was in favor of purchasing the Parkside property soon, noting that “it’s time to get this nightmare behind us.” Gantt also said the county had offered Coleman $4 million for the Hayes-Hopson building and the former parkland — but Coleman wants $4.5 million.
Today, he said, “The summary judgment may change some of complexities of where we’re at, and we felt it was important to get more information from our partners. We’re limited by state law to pay fair market value for any parcel of the property. So we’re going to have to continue our talks and look for other partners.”
He then added, “My position [on purchasing the property] hasn’t changed, but it takes three people on the board” to take such an action.
Commissioner Carol Peterson said after the closed session that she still didn’t regret her original vote, though she added that due to facts that have come to light since, she does favor getting the property back.
“Where I am now is that we should wait for the judgment on the lawsuit and getting all the people together to play nice — but there are a lot of people to bring to the table,” she said.
Peterson said she didn’t favor using eminent domain except as a last resort.
“There’s no control over the amount of money we’d have to spend; it has to do with the expectations of the property,” she said. “I haven’t decided what that amount is and I don’t think anyone [knows]. I’m not much on unknowns.”
As for what the board could do before Aug. 25, she simply said, “Well, discussion is always good.”
Governments are generally hesitant to use eminent domain, Charles Szypszak, an associate professor of public law and policy at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government and an expert on property law, said.
“It’s not very popular, and governments are very reluctant to use it,” he told Xpress. “But the law allows them [governments] to take land for recreational purposes, though the fair-market price will actually be set by the Superior Court.”
In that process, he said, the county would name what it thought was a fair price, “while the owner would call their experts to say it’s worth this much, then the court would decide.”
That the county had previously sold Coleman the land, he said, “doesn’t matter, though the value may have changed since the county sold it, and the court would have to take that into account when it set a fair-market value.”
Still, while unpopular, eminent domain is very hard to stop, if a municipality chooses to go that route.
“Someone can try to contest it, but it takes very extreme circumstances. The only way you can stop it is to prove there’s a case of fraud — and that’s very, very rare,” he noted.
Here’s a video of the commissioners’ announcement:
— David Forbes, staff writer