Bent Creek property focus of water talks

Asheville and Henderson County are once again looking to draft a new water agreement, wherein Henderson will transfer ownership of a Bent Creek property to Asheville in exchange for cash. An alternate proposal is to sell the property to a third party and share the proceeds.

That was the upshot of preliminary discussions on water issues between Asheville and Henderson County held at the Asheville Regional Airport on Dec. 12. Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy and City Council Members Jan Davis and Brownie Newman attended, as did Henderson County commissioners Larry Young and Chuck McGrady.

Asheville originally purchased the Bent Creek property prior to the 1981 water agreement, intending to build a water treatment plant there. That plan was scuttled when a city referendum on funding bonds for the plant was defeated, in part because of environmentalists’ concerns about water quality in the French Broad River. Asheville’s search for a cleaner source of water culminated with the 1995 water agreement between Asheville, Buncombe County and Henderson County.

Under the agreement, Henderson County allowed Asheville to build a water-treatment plant in Henderson County at the confluence of the French Broad and Mills rivers, giving it access to more pristine Mills River water. In return, Henderson received preferential access to water from the Mills River plant, as well as commitments from Asheville and the old Water Authority to build lines in Henderson County under certain conditions. It also received title to the property in Bent Creek. In the years that followed, Henderson County twice filed lawsuits against the city, arguing that the city was not living up to its commitments.

Under the 1995 agreement, the Bent Creek property was intended as a site for a sewage-treatment plan that would support development in both Buncombe and Henderson County. But Henderson’s rights to the property were conditional, and ownership will revert to Asheville unless Henderson County transfers it to the Metropolitan Sewerage District by 2012. If MSD then decided not to build a plant on the site, ownership would revert to the city in 2022.

That timetable is likely to play a large factor in the negotiations to follow. Young and McGrady repeatedly mentioned the 2022 date and emphasized that it would be in the city’s interest to reacquire the property sooner rather than later for such purposes as building greenways. But Newman argued that the property will most likely revert to the city in 2012, since MSD has no plans to build another sewage-treatment plant and is highly unlikely to accept the property for that purpose.

Asheville and Henderson County were working on an agreement along similar lines in 2002. The deal, under which Asheville was going to pay Henderson County $2 million for the property, was scuttled after Asheville inserted some changes on other issues right before the Henderson County Board of Commissioners was scheduled to sign the agreement. Citing those last-minute changes and noting that it was the last meeting for several of its members, the Henderson board elected not to adopt the agreement on that day. The new board that followed included several Asheville antagonists who wanted nothing to do with an agreement with the city, and negotiations halted.

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