Asheville City Council

This isn’t Las Vegas, and the house doesn’t win all ties. A divided City Council turned down Paul and James Young‘s request to conduct soil tests on city-owned property.

The 3-3 vote at the Jan. 11 formal meeting (with Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger abstaining, to avoid a conflict of interest) appeared to kill any chance for the Youngs to build and operate a racing facility on the 54-acre parcel, wedged between the Asheville Regional Airport and the French Broad River.

“It’s not over,” proclaimed James Young, who operated the now-defunct Asheville Motor Speedway and says auto racing is his family’s whole life. “This is my home, and this is what I want to do for the community.” The hunt will continue for a suitable spot in Buncombe or Henderson County, he said. But what about the airport property? “No comment,” he responded disgustedly.

Racing enthusiasts and opponents of the airport racetrack once again squared off in the Council chambers. For more than three hours, Council members heard testimony from the affected parties and discussed the issues — primarily, the economic and quality-of-life impacts on the racing community and surrounding neighborhoods (in particular, the amount of noise 30 race cars would make). Much of the debate, however, centered on the merits of a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Asheville Regional Airport.

“The 1993 Airport Master Plan Update indicates an aeronautical need for the property proposed for the racetrack and it would not be in the best interest of the airport or the FAA to release the property,” the FAA wrote to Asheville Regional Airport Director Mike Armour. But it was a later portion of the letter that spurred a good deal of the debate: “The FAA may approve an interim use of aeronautical property for non-aviation purposes until such time as it is needed for its primary purpose.”

There is a precedent here: In 1986, Council leased airport land to the N.C. Department of Agriculture in order to create the WNC Agricultural Center. Unlike the current situation, however, a five-lane highway divides the Ag Center land from the remaining airport property.

In the long-range portion of the airport’s master plan (which looks ahead from 13 to 20 years), the property in question sits in the path of a proposed 6,800-foot-long runway and additional airport facilities, reported Armour, and there are also concerns about a racetrack’s effect on airport safety. All of the land around the airport was bought with FAA grants in 1959, and anything affecting the efficiency and safety of airport operations “runs the risk of jeopardizing future FAA grants,” he warned. Since 1982, the airport has received $20 million in such grants, which have helped fund $24.8 million worth of airport improvements.

On the other hand, the airport now serves about 75,000 passengers per year, and those numbers would have to climb to somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 to justify building the second runway, Armour said, under heavy questioning by Council member Terry Whitmire.

Meanwhile, the Youngs’ attorney, former Mayor Lou Bissette, asked Council members, “So, what’s new?” about the letter. He said everyone “knew from day one” that the property was earmarked for future airport expansion, and that any lease to the Youngs would be terminated whenever the Airport Authority needed the property. The letter, Bissette added, is the same as one Council received from the FAA in 1986, when he was mayor, about leasing the Ag Center land. “If the Youngs want to run the risk of losing their money, why shouldn’t they be allowed to?” he asked.

Bissette also reminded Council (and audience) members that the Youngs were asking the city only for permission to conduct soil tests on the property, to determine whether it would be suitable for a racing facility. If it passed, he said, any design plans would have to be approved by the Airport Authority in a lease agreement, anyway.

With Vice Mayor Cloninger not participating (because he’s an attorney who also represents the Youngs), the voting went as follows:

Council member Ed Hay stuck to his guns from the previous meeting. “It really feels like this is airport property, and it is most clearly in my mind that this is the decision of the Airport Authority,” said Hay. The Authority twice voted against the soil testing, he noted.

Council member Charles Worley seemed inclined to hedge his bet. Worley first said he believes the issue has sparked something of an overreaction, stating, “I regret that we don’t have a racetrack in Buncombe and Haywood counties.” But he added: “I very strongly believe in the long-term … the cost of getting it back is always extremely high. I plan on voting against soil testing — at least for now.”

Council member Brian Peterson said he is skeptical about the need for a second runway, and he’s interested in the lease and tax revenues the racing facility could generate for the city, as well as the possibility of creating an additional public-recreation space. “We should consider the impact on the area residents and also the economic impact on the Asheville racing community,” he observed, adding, “Asheville should be big enough to have a racing community, and I would like to support that community.”

Mayor Leni Sitnick tipped her hat to the historical and cultural significance of racing inWestern North Carolina, saying she hoped this wouldn’t be a “litmus test” for future racetrack sites. But for her decision, continued Sitnick, she had to revert to a plank in her campaign platform: “The airport is crucial to our future.

“There is great validity in the concern from neighborhood groups in the area [about] the impact in quality of life. What level hasn’t been determined, but no doubt there will be an impact. With great conflict in my heart, and great support and compassion for the racing community… I’m going to abide by the Airport Authority.”

Council member Barbara Field voted to allow the soil testing, noting that pushing the resolution along forces the airport’s hand in the process: “I really think it’s the airport’s decision. I’d like to let them make that decision.”

Council member Whitmire also supported the soil testing, basing her decision on the last paragraph of the FAA letter, which approves “an interim use of aeronautical property for non-aviation purposes.” There was precedent, she said, in the agriculture center, White Westinghouse, and the N.C. Arboretum.

With the 3-3 tie, however, City Attorney Bob Oast noted that the motion had failed.

Kerry Bodenhammer, who owns a Hendersonville shop that builds racing cars for the likes of Dale Earnhardt and also sells parts locally, said he expects to lose 60 percent of his business without a local racetrack. Does he think a track can be built in the area? “There’s always potential, but there will always be opposition,” he said.

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