- Mission plans new cancer center
- City seeks FEMA reimbursement for storm costs
- Stream buffer proposal diverted
Asheville property owners flummoxed by the high cost of energy-efficiency upgrades for their home or business may soon have a partner in the city of Asheville. At its Jan. 12 meeting, Asheville City Council unanimously voted to explore establishing a pilot program in which the city would provide loans to cover such property upgrades as solar technology, window replacement and installing insulation.
Sustainability upgrades, noted Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, are expensive at the outset but typically pay for themselves over five to 10 years via energy savings. If property owners could get some help with the initial investment, more Asheville residents might be encouraged to make changes that would help curb the city's overall energy use, he said.
"Asheville has never been afraid of being a pioneer in cleaner energy," said Newman in proposing the Asheville Energy Independence Initiative. Money to bankroll the project could come from either a city bond issue or a rotating fund similar to the city's Housing Trust Fund, in which developers' payments on low-interest loans help grow the fund, making more money available for future projects. The property owner's debt, he said, could be included in annual property-tax bills. (Newman is a partner with the Asheville-based solar technology company FLS. But he says that, based on conversations with the City Attorney's office, the position does not warrant him excluding himself from votes on broad-based energy policy, only those decisions in which FLS is a direct bidder.)
Environmental advocates and industry representatives turned out in force to support the idea, saying it could not only lower the city's carbon footprint and save money, but also create jobs and help grow the local green sector.
"This has the potential to create careers," declared Torin Kexel of the nonprofit Green Opportunities. "There's a track here that I think is full of opportunities."
Equally enthusiastic was Chief Financial Officer Paul Szurek of Biltmore Farms, who gushed, "I think this may be the smartest idea to come before Council in a long time." Energy, noted Szurek, will only grow more expensive in the future.
Asheville Geothermal owner Rick Clemenzi said the loans would benefit both local companies and their customers, who often feel they can't afford the upgrades the industry offers. "They just flinch and say, 'It's too much money; I can't do it.'"
Homeowner Michelle Smith backed that sentiment, saying she just wants to make a start on boosting energy efficiency. "I would really like to be able to fix my windows and doors," she noted, adding, "It's been very difficult for me to be able to do even those first steps."
Meanwhile, former Council member Holly Jones, who now serves on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said she hopes the city and county can join forces in considering the initiative. "We are definitely going to be looking deeper into this," said Jones. "We would love to be looking deeper together."
Sustainability loomed large in last year's City Council election, which saw three newcomers win seats. Council members Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith, in particular, emphasized the idea during their campaigns, as did Robin Cape in her unsuccessful write-in re-election bid.
"I ran under this plan in 2008 and 2009," said Bothwell. "I feel like I was elected to do this."
For Smith, the move would mark a first step in fostering a new green economy for the city. "This is going to have ripple effects," he predicted. "We can become a magnet for this kind of business."
Council member Bill Russell urged caution before taking on what amounts to "hundreds of millions of dollars" in debt, however, saying, "We need to really look at finances to really get into this."
And Council member Esther Manheimer, while noting that she'd like to see solid numbers from staff, said she's open to the idea of the city fostering such a relationship with private property owners. "I think this recession is calling for a new day of public/private partnerships that create jobs," she observed.
City staff will research a pilot project, including scope and timeline, and present the plan to several Council committees before making a recommendation to Council.
This would not be Asheville's first foray into sustainability. In 2007, Council formed a Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment and, later that year, approved a resolution calling for city government to reduce its carbon footprint by 2 percent per year en route to an overall 80 percent reduction by 2050. In December, city staff reported that Asheville had achieved its fiscal year 2008-09 target, reducing its energy use by 867,000 kilowatt-hours while saving $65,000.
Mission to build cancer center
Mission Hospital got the go-ahead for a new five-story outpatient cancer center on its south Asheville campus. Late last year, City Council gave the hospital permission to temporarily close adjacent streets to accommodate the construction.
The $59 million structure, to be built on Hamilton Road between Brooklet Street and Victoria Road, will contain 118,000 square feet of space and include its own parking deck. As a level III project, Council would have reviewed it in any case, but Mission also requested a variance allowing fewer parking spaces than what the Unified Development Ordinance specifies. Square footage is typically used to determine the appropriate number of spaces, but according to the staff report, the cancer facility will need only about one-third as many as city code requires, due to the specific nature of the services to be provided.
According to Karen Grogan, administrative director of cancer services, Mission sees about 3,000 new cancer patients a year — the fifth-highest volume of such patients served by any North Carolina hospital. Currently, however, Mission's cancer facilities are spread over six separate sites.
"One glaring omission at Mission is the inability to offer patients a dedicated cancer center," oncologist Eric Kuehn told Council. "These patients have long walks and confusing access to get to these departments."
Council members unanimously approved the project.
Blizzard by the numbers
At its peak, the snowstorm that slammed the region Dec. 18-22 left 67,000 customers without power, 20,000 of them in Asheville, and spawned 974 calls to police, fire and rescue personnel. Emergency crews worked the most consecutive hours they had since the 2004 floods, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson told Council in his follow-up report on Asheville's response to the blizzard. The "10-year-storm event,' said Richardson, left a foot or more of snow in parts of the city and county. The dramatic number of power outages, he explained, stemmed in part from the rain-saturated ground, which caused more trees to fall. City workers, noted Richardson, cleared 50 streets of trees within the first 24 hours.
Asheville will seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a portion of the $525,342 the city racked up in emergency expenses. Not all of those items are expected to be approved, Richardson told Xpress. Snow removal, for instance, isn't eligible, but tree removal is. City and county agencies are pooling their expenses for submission to FEMA, he said, noting that to qualify, the eligible costs must total at least $667,000.
Not ready for prime time
A proposed amendment to the section of the city's storm-water ordinance concerning stream buffers on construction sites didn't make it to a vote. Instead, the proposal was rerouted to City Council's Planning and Economic Development Committee for review. City Council approved the current storm-water ordinance in 2007 but felt the buffer amendment needed more work.
The amendment, which echoes the Planning and Zoning Commission's recommendation last year that the city scale back its requirements to the state-mandated minimum, has already sparked some contention. Both the city and state rules call for a 30-foot buffer around streams, but the current city code requires a buffer for any land-disturbing activity, while the state directive applies only to projects disturbing an acre or more.
Some members of the Watershed Policy Committee, a group of stakeholders charged with helping draft new language concerning stream buffers, had been alarmed by the P&Z recommendation, having crafted their own formula that already considers slope steepness and stream size in determining how big a buffer should be.
Mayor Terry Bellamy said some Council members were concerned that the draft amendment had not been vetted properly and needed more input from the PED Committee.