Speedway foes and advocates alike were spilling out of the full-to-bursting chambers at the Asheville City Council’s last formal meeting of the millennium.
But, faced with passionate public comments about the proposal, City Council decided not to rule, just yet, on a request that could lead to a new speedway complex being built on city-owned property adjacent to the Asheville Regional Airport and the French Broad River. Both the Airport Authority and several neighboring homeowner associations voiced opposition to the project during the Dec. 21 meeting, and Council opted to study the proposal further before taking any action.
“We are very sensitive to this issue, and we don’t take the decision easily,” said Mayor Leni Sitnick, adding, “Hopefully, we’ll come up with the fairest and best one.”
The property in question is a trapezoid-shaped, 54-acre parcel that sits in the flood plain. It’s bordered on three sides by the Buncombe/Henderson County line and the southern end of the airport’s runway.
Paul and James Young , who formerly operated the now-defunct Asheville Speedway, were asking Council for permission to conduct soil tests, over a 90-day period, to determine whether the land would be suitable for a race track. If it would, then the Youngs would attempt to purchase the property at a later date.
“Not only to relocate the speedway, but also to build a community center,” noted James Young. “A place to entertain, where we could hold bluegrass festivals and fiddlers’ contests — maybe in conjunction with the fair.”
The racing facility, said Young, would include an oval track and perhaps a drag strip, too. It would operate two nights per week — for four hours, closing at 11:30 p.m. — from April to September. And, to sweeten any deal, Young also proposed awarding $5,000 grants to 10 local high-school auto shops and police departments. The students and police could use the grants to build race cars to compete against each other at the new track.
“We’ve got to provide some entertainment for the young folks,” argued Young, “and create respect and responsibility between law enforcement and the kids.”
But the Asheville Regional Airport Authority appears to be standing squarely in the Youngs’ way. Authority Chair Bob Turner said the property figures in the airport’s Federal Aviation Administration-approved master plan — as the site for a parallel 6,800-foot-long runway and additional airport services. He also pointed out that Asheville’s airport is the fourth largest in the state, serving more than 500,000 passengers a year and employing 3,310 people.
“We’ve identified the property for further aviation projects, and do not permit any non-aviation activities on it — and never will,” Turner declared.
Neighborhood representatives boisterously applauded Turner’s anti-track comments.
In light of the airport’s plans for the property, Council member Charles Worley said he’d “be hard-pressed to do something [else] with it.”
Sitnick echoed those sentiments — though she also asserted that she very much supports the local racing scene, noting that she won last year’s celebrity autocross.
“We obviously have to respect the airport’s needs,” said Sitnick. “It, too, has a tremendous economic impact on the community.”
But Council member Ed Hay had perhaps the strongest words against the proposal:
“You can tell by looking at the picture: Any airport expansion going west would have to take into [account] that property,” Hay maintained, adding, “I think we can all agree that we’re not selling the airport.”
Several residents of nearby subdivisions, including Fletcher Town Council member Milton Byrd, voiced concerns about increased pollution, traffic congestion, property devaluation and noise, should the track be built. Those communities are already bordered by Interstate 26, a limestone quarry and the airport.
“When the news of the track came to Fletcher, it was almost a rioting situation outside the town hall,” noted Byrd.
“Within our neighborhoods are a few households supporting this race track; however, the majority are in strong opposition,” explained Jamie McArthur, president of the Wildwood Community Association.
And when track supporters countered with the argument that jets and big rigs are louder than race cars, residents said the highway and airport noise is intermittent.
“I’ve deluded myself into thinking the I-26 traffic is waves washing on the beach,” said Charles Swensen. “And when I come home in the evening,” not much is happening at the airport.
Meanwhile, noted track opponent Bob Chapman, Charley Crawford has already moved a lot of earth to make way for a new $10 million race track he’s building in Canton, apparently with residents’ approval. The driving time from Asheville to Canton is roughly the same as the drive to the airport, argued Chapman.
“I strongly support a race track for the Asheville community,” proclaimed Council member Barbara Field. “I’ve got a lot of experience in drag racing and stock-car racing. I didn’t do it, but the guys I went out with did. I’ve got grease under my fingernails.”
But Field went on to say that she doesn’t see why the area would need two race tracks.
@factshead:Grove Arcade lease retooled@factstext: In the wake of their lengthy Dec. 14 work session, Council members voted unanimously to restructure the city’s lease agreement with the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation.
The new lease will enable investors such as CaroHome, a subsidiary of Carolina Power & Light, to take advantage of lucrative tax credits — their main incentive for investing in the $16 million project to convert the historic Grove Arcade, which the city owns, into a public market.
“The investor has already committed about $700,000 upon signing, with the rest due shortly after,” said foundation Executive Director Aaron Zaretsky, when asked how soon the deal would come together. “They’re not just whistling ‘Dixie’ — they are investing.”
This time, there wasn’t much debate on the proposal. The major sticking point at the work session had been the fact that the city couldn’t terminate the new contract for five years. But the new agreement includes an additional guarantee for the city. If the foundation fails to make the debt-service payments on the $2.5 million in bonds that are financing the project, CaroHome becomes responsible for paying half the debt — using revenues derived from retail and residential units.
“I’m satisfied the city is protected,” observed Council member Ed Hay, an attorney, pointing out that his specialty is financial deals that don’t work out. “If anything,” added Hay, “it enhances the city’s financial end.”
City plans forum on I-26 connector
City staffer Scott Shuford presented Council with a plan for soliciting meaningful public input on the proposed Interstate-26 connector — a community-based design workshop, to be held in mid-February.
At their Dec. 14 work session, Council members had asked Shuford to bring to their next meeting a reasonable plan for helping the community reach consensus on the issue — without delaying the project.
The workshop, to be held over a Friday and Saturday, would involve design experts, Department of Transportation representatives, and citizens coming together at tables to discuss the issues and review maps and other materials, Shuford explained. A technically capable academic would be enlisted to facilitate the process and act as a neutral party.
“This is the last opportunity for people to have significant and meaningful input into the DOT’s plan,” the mayor pleaded. “All you people who have written the letters and made all those phone calls, make it your duty to come and do this!”
A couple of Council members said they had received phone calls questioning whether there was enough time to pull together a mid-February event. And Council member Hay suggested that, with an extra couple of months, some private money could be raised to fund the forum.
Council member Field said she, too, had received such calls, but didn’t like the idea of using private funding.
“With funding coming from private sources, like the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, the people would think the process was tainted,” she said. “I don’t think we should let that happen.”
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger leaned more toward Hay’s way of thinking. With the private funding, he figured, the forum could afford to bring in the top traffic specialists.
“I think we could have a better variety of sources, which would enable us to have a better, more effective meeting,” argued Cloninger.
Sobol gets third term
A divided Council nonetheless cleared the way for Chairman Tom Sobol of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to serve a third consecutive term on the Regional Water Authority board, in a 5-2 vote.
Expressing concerns about setting a precedent for ending term limits, and the need for fresh faces on boards, Council members Terry Whitmire and Brian Peterson cast the dissenting votes.
“As an activist, over the years, I’ve come before the Council many times about adhering to the boards-and-commissions term limits,” said Peterson. “I’d feel like a hypocrite if, when suddenly getting on the Council, I start wavering.”
But Vice Mayor Cloninger, Mayor Sitnick and Council members Field, Worley and Hay all agreed that Sobol’s experience — both on the water board and with the county commissioners — was the deciding factor, for them.
“It just makes good sense that the person be Tom Sobol,” echoed Hay.
The commissioners also wanted Sobol to continue representing the county on the board, because of his experience with water issues. But Regional Water Authority bylaws limit board members to two three-year terms. To bypass that limit, City Council, the Board of Commissioners and the Water Authority Board all had to agree. The county reappointed Sobol as a representative to the Water Authority at their Dec. 7 meeting.