Asheville City Council: Green partners

  • 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.

Energized: Council member Gordon Smith (right) says an energy independence plan could boost a green industry in Asheville Photos by Jonathan Welch

"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.

Paying a visit: Former Council member Holly Jones says she and her colleagues on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners want to work with the city on a new energy plan.

"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.

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31 thoughts on “Asheville City Council: Green partners

  1. Alan Ditmore

    Council should have given Mission an even bigger break on parking, and then should still eliminate parking requirements just as Bothwell wants to eliminate new city parking. Parking shortages are by far the best way to increase bus usage and reducing or eliminating parking requirements advances property rights as well.

  2. Viking

    Newman is listed as the finance director, or having the leadership role of their finance BU, according to the FLS Energy website. ‘Partner’ can mean things like minor investor with no leadership role in a corporation; and does not influence public policy as a key aspect of their corporate duties.

    It seems to me that Brownie is the architect of financing policies at FLS Energy, and is a leader of CleanTech financing polices as a public official.

    Do those two roles come into conflict for anyone? What if President Obama also worked for Lockheed Martin (a major defense contractor) as a top executive with public policy duties? Granted, that’s a major analogous up shift, but isn’t it at least illustrative?

    What is legal and what is ethical are two different ideas. FLS Energy’s profits stand to expand with AEII. I like AEII, but I wonder if the following conclusion is sufficient:

    MX: “(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.)”

    Of the local solar companies, FLS Energy is one of the largest. FLSE stands to be included among the benefactors of AEII, but given their already large market share they are positioned to be among the top profiters of AEII. Making money in CleanTech can mean reaching GHG reduction goals faster. But don’t we need to take the lead on ethics as well when it comes to best practices in sustainability?

    That there are other CleanTech firms in line to benefit is irrelevant in comparison to the specific question of how much does Brownie’s firm stand to benefit from policies he is taking the lead on? That is of course if anyone is interested in such things.

  3. Brian Postelle

    @Viking:

    Here is a link to an email from Brownie Newman to City Attorney Bob Oast discussing the implications if his work with FLS Energy:

    http://bit.ly/6JLeiF

  4. Viking

    It’s interesting that Newman thinks this is about the perceptions of City Council:

    “Since it is ultimately City Council that needs to make decisions about what may or may not constitute a conflict of interest…”

    He also elucidates how citizens may eventually view the broader implications:

    “While this distinction (FLSE’s lifetime profits from Newman’s council decisions) seems straightforward, I can see the potential for some grey areas.”

  5. Brian Postelle

    @Viking:

    From the email, I gather Newman is noting that Council has to vote to allow someone to be recused. Without that vote, a Council member cannot step away from the table. Last year, Carl Mumpower asked to be recused before a vote on expanding polling places, arguing that his Council candidacy gave him a conflict of interest. The others on Council (including two others running) did not vote in support of the recusal.

    Council has also long worked under the interpretation by attorney Oast that, unless the reason for recusal meets a certain threshold, Council members are required to participate in a vote.

    Of course, none of that cancels out your original question.

  6. Viking

    Thanks, Brian.

    I understand the difference between what is legal and what is ethical may be vastly different in this matter. The amount of money FLSE may be making from the policies Newman introduces/supports may be shockingly massive.

    $100 million + is also vastly different from discussions on expanding polling places.

    I think someone is waiting from something to happen to bring this matter into the public view. (MX of course has now cited the matter, which I think is an important first step). The potential lifetime corporate revenues with and then without each of Newman’s CleanTech policies in chart form should help.

  7. Politics Watcher

    Is the reporter defending Newman? Is that appropriate?

    On the other hand, the story appears to written to support Newman’s proposal, rather than a straight-forward news story, when those speaking in favor of the proposal are “equally enthusiastic” and even “gush.” Does the newspaper have any obligation to any cons to the proposal?

  8. Viking

    One of the things i like about CleanTech and community-level sustainability is the idea of innovations in free market capitalism. ‘Innovation’ has been a term mostly used in business contexts, however we need an overall view of systems innovation when it comes to society, politics, economics and our interface with the environment.

    I like AEII, but PW is right to ask for more analysis about the actual policy and what it entails. Where has PACE and similar polices been deployed and to what cost-benefits? I understand it is working in CA.

    I want polices like AEII, but how a politician in the middle of all this might grow richer is also import to analyze.

  9. Brian Postelle

    @ Politics Watcher:

    I don’t think clarifying someone’s stance is defending them. I have watched recusal conversations for years in Council chambers and think I can get to the quick of the legal issue, something that seemed a good way to address the conversation.

    As for the story, this is coverage of a Council meeting, in which Xpress typically reports on what happened in Council chambers between 5 p.m and whenever it is adjourned. The support you see in the story is from people who turned out to support the idea. Had there been any objections to the plan in public comment, you would have seen them here as well.

  10. Pitchforks & Torches

    Surprisingly, someone keeps deleting my posts in regards to questioning this manner of possible conflict of Brownie Newman’s connections. I wonder if this post too will be removed. I am breaking no rules, not using profanity, nor making false accusations. Just questioning the real facts. If this post is removed, it will only cause us to sharpen our points, and soak the torches and go to the larger general public and thus conclude that MountainX is not truly a paper for all people, just those who wish to purport their agendas. Wasn’t that what everyone hated about the Bush admin and Fox news??

  11. Politics Watcher

    Thanks for clarifying that your report is just about what went on at the meeting, not a report/analysis of the particular plan. Such a report, with pro and con voices, some analysis of the numbers, etc., would be helpful to citizens trying to understand the issue. Not at all clear why a homeowner would take out a “loan” from the city, at a 6.50% rate, to be paid for in higher property taxes, instead of a home equity loan at a much lower rate, with the home equity loan tax deductible.
    Also not clear if bonds are issued, and then dedicated tax not sufficient to pay, how are bonds retired?

  12. Pitchforks & Torches

    PW – Go to the city council page and the documents are there. Be prepared to be greatly surprised this thing was floated in the poor shape it was. If it were a high school project it would fail. This IS a plan, just an un0figured out plan. Sad to hear they used this to get ANY agreement. All the documents have the title “unfinished”. It contains more uses of the words Should, Could, May, Might, and other lawyer-like terms normally used to extoll false confidence when the information that is provided is not suitable to stand on its own merits. The council agreed to the concept, which sets into motion the “city funded study and pilot program”, folks, they bamboozled you.

    And really, does this measure truly live up to the sniff test of what city government is supposed to do by law, which is provide critical infrastructure services and protection of its citizenry. Or does this seem like a feel-good measure to save the world, and fund job growth for those like Brownie Newman’s company?

    BTW- Look into the documents and you see it is inter-dependent on state and national tax dollars to make it feasible. So when they say the term ‘revenue neutral’ they really mean the US tax payer is also providing the money. Revenue nuetral means something will stand on its own, without the assistance of an outside boost of funding (free money – off the backs of the US taxpayer). Not sure why we should also have to pay US taxes to fuel the funding. I want to pay for better schools, supplies, and teachers. How about a “bake sale for brownie” and allow companies like his to raise their own capital.

  13. Viking

    This is Newman’s extensive, complex rationale as to his and Bob Oast’s findings as to his legal vs. ethical status. Legal, but is this really the ethical standard we want to promote in WNC? Any Chuck Taylor lessons learned here? ;

    @Viking:

    Here is a link to an email from Brownie Newman to City Attorney Bob Oast discussing the implications if his work with FLS Energy:

    http://bit.ly/6JLeiF

    Brian Postelle
    Jan 21, 2010
    at 12:12 PM

    The council minutes for 2010 are not online… yet!

    This woman should have whatever data is available:

    The Office of Sustainability
    Maggie Ullman, Energy Coordinator
    Physical address: Room 208; Asheville City Hall
    Mailing address: P. O. Box 7148, Asheville, NC 28802
    Office: (828) 271-6141
    E-mail: mullman@ashevillenc.gov

  14. Pitchforks & Torches

    The documents are no longer online, and the meeting notes are not either. I thankfully downloaded all three docs, and will seek them out when returning to the office. I do not like the term ‘broad energy policy’ as BN floated the policy and created specific policy requests. I do feel his transparency attempts works for city related projects. Creating policy is not broad scope stuff….

  15. Politics Watcher

    Perhaps Gordon Smith or Brownie Newman could answer my question:
    Why should a homeowner take out a loan from the city, at a 6.50% rate, to be paid for in higher property taxes for ten or fifteen years, instead of a home equity loan at a much lower rate (currently 3.3%), with the home equity loan tax deductible and can be paid off as quickly as the home owner realizes the “savings” from the new energy efficiency?

  16. Pitchforks & Torches

    Wake up Gordy, your muse is a tired old message. If you want to reduce energy demand, fix the traffic lights FIRST. Example: We drove from downtown Asheville down Biltmore Ave headed south. On a Sunday (i.e no traffic) and caught EVERY light, except one. Causing us to stop, idle, waste gas, and accelerate again. This is ALSO why the traffic on this road sucks so bad during working hours. This would not cost too much to fix (probably free), but you people ignore the basics and would rather suck money off the government and tax payers. This is just ONE issue that can be addressed that would both save energy, reduce you carbon footprint, save the earth, and allow your ideology to have a home. Please limit your hooligans to issues that make sense.

  17. Gordon Smith

    PW,

    The city’s rate of interest is likely to be much lower than you envision. Also, many people are having a hard time getting loans due to credit issues. One of the strengths of the AEII is that the award and subsequent payback stay with the property, not the person.

    It’s a win-win-win-win situation.

    P&T,

    This program will be revenue neutral or positive. It will be a self-sustaining program that will pay for itself. It is entirely voluntary. You will not experience any effects of the program at all unless you choose to participate.

  18. Gordon Smith

    JWT,

    If the payback is a greater amount than the city’s bond responsibility, then it would be revenue positive. I’ll be looking forward to hearing from City staff on different ways to structure the payback.

  19. Politics Watcher

    Thanks to Gordon Smith. I’ll be interested to see what the city’s rate of interest would be and what the actual cost of the loan would be over its life through increased property taxes.

    I have a feeling that a lot of older people, on fixed incomes, who don’t plan to sell their homes, are more concerned about inflated home values, which has led to higher property taxes, than they are about savings on energy over, say, a 15-year horizon. If you’re 75 and living on Social Security and savings, you aren’t very interested in higher property taxes for the next 15 years.
    Find some ways of lowering property taxes, please. Influence the county to do the tax re-evaluations on schedule, so older, retired people who have been hit by the real-estate bubble can get some relief, now that housing prices MAY be coming down to reasonable levels.

    Your proposal seems aimed at the “youth market,” the readership of MountainX. Please find some proposals aimed at your elderly constituents/voters.

  20. JWTJr

    Gordon, How would the revenue be greater than the bond responsibility? Are you assuming the interest rate charged to the household will be greater than the bond will pay? Does this include administrative costs?

  21. I truly appreciate that Council Members are willing to openly dialog on prescient issues.

    Some years go a neighbor was the City’s traffic (co-ordinator /planner) and he re-designed the traffic lights to where one didn’t hit each and every light. You could get on a roll on Merrimon and go straight through town. Well somewhere in time, those lights must have gotten out of synch, because now, if you hit one, you hit them all. grrr! Such a small thing, but using a lot of un- necessary energy. I also notice lot of big empty buses around town. How much energy is being used there?

  22. J

    This almost sounds like a scheme run by the mob.

    The General Assembly passes renewable energy mandates (http://tinyurl.com/yhm4wvm) for the energy companies in NC. Attempting to comply with these mandates drives the energy prices up; and along comes Brownie Newman with just an absolutely wonderful idea about how to loan people money from the city coffers. Oh, and as a pure coincidence, this enterprising idea will create a scenario from which his firm will stand a chance to profit. And now the city’s going to profit too.

    Chalk it up to another victory for the corporatist party.

    It’d be interesting to see where Brownie’s numbers come from on page 4, I certainly didn’t see any citations.

    And I wish the case study was more than “assume this” and “if they use this much”. Considering millions of dollars are at stake, it would have been nice to see some real numbers.

    Will there be any limitations to the lending? If so much as 100 people want to partake in the program and qualify for the $20,000 level, that’s $2 million that’s been lent. How can the city lend that much money waiting 10-15 years to come back?

    What about letting homeowners deduct the costs of their energy renovations from their property taxes? It seems much simpler.

  23. Gordon Smith

    JWT,

    This’ll be a lot easier to talk about after we receive a staff report with possible implementation strategies, but one theory is that (1) our bond rating will allow an excellent interest rate for repayment; (2) by setting the interest rate on the energy retrofit award slightly higher than the bond repayment, there will be a surplus; (3) the repayment interest rate will still be lower than a standard home mortgage; and (4) since it’s added to the property tax bill as a special assessment it won’t require another layer of administration in that regard.

    Once we get the staff report back, this conversation will have a lot less gray area. Thanks for asking the question.

  24. Piffy!

    [b]This is ALSO why the traffic on this road sucks so bad during working hours. This would not cost too much to fix (probably free)[/b]

    For free? On what planet?

  25. Pitchforks & Torches

    Here are some questions that you obviously overlooked:
    What if the work is shoddy and people dispute the investment? What if people do not pay their taxes? How many homeowners are not currently up to date on their taxes? Show us the numbers. What if property values continue to decline (a little business advice to you Gordy, they are dropping in Asheville)? Hey Gordy, you state that folks who currently are having trouble getting credit, uh, hello, I know you come to city council with heartfelt feelings for the earth (and zero business acumen) but THERE IS A REASON THEY CAN’T GET CREDIT, BECAUSE THEY HAVE NOT BEEN PRUDENT WITH THEIR MONEY IN THE PAST. And you clowns want to give them a loan! Back in the barrel, the bull is coming. Hey Brownie, Gordy, use the term ‘revenue neutral’ WITHOUT adding in the Goverment ninny that will help fund the plan (state and federal $$ being counted in there)then I think you will see it is NOT revenue neutral. BTW – Brownies company will also receive federal tax dollars for their alternative energy focus. Seems like a real win-win-win for Brownies company!! Give him a fat raise for greasing the wheels. Maybe the city attorney is going to be hired as well. This STINKS like a skunk people. They are skewing the numbers, the information, and the TRUTH for their ideology and profits. Where is the outrage?

  26. Pitchforks & Torches

    A reminder to ALL citizens in Asheville. A city’s responsibilities are to provide basic services and for the protection of its citizenry. Anything that goes outside those boundaries are forays into ideology. And in this case, at the expense of the citizens, for a select FEW, and few businesses who will profit. BTW- If you can’t get the traffic lights right, do you think we feel you can pull this off with ASSUMPTIONS, shoulds, coulds, mights, cans, hopes, and prayers? These are not critical infrastructure issues, or protecting us citizens. The more you try and defend this, the more the wheels start to come off (and the wool). Baaaaa

  27. Pitchforks & Torches

    Just read over the originally posted PDF’s that were submitted to council to get the initial agreement. My findings outrage us even more as the lack of facts and overuse of assumptions is mind-blowing. Besides the atrociously poor grammar we found the following:

    1. Overuse of the words ASSUMING, ASSUMES, SHOULD, ESTIMATES, PROJECTS and other loose terms.

    2. ZERO referencing of sources of data presented as facts – This is of particular concern. The Sonoma project they source has the word ESTIMATION in the title!

    3. The scary fact they cite that a $50 million dollar project will yield ONLY 563 jobs. Sorry folks, that is NOT a lot of jobs over FIVE YEARS.

    4. The document cites that people will add on average $85 per month ($10K cost recoup over 15 years). HOW will you collect this, and get it rolled into people’s financing, will you send them a bill for this? Do you think the mortgage company will roll it into their Escrow plans, OR do you think they will assume collection responsibilities? What if a person does not pay, are you going have to send Vito after them? You will have to enforce and collect? Do you think it will be easy for people have that added onto their annual tax bill in lump sum? What is the average cost to apply a tax lien on a property?

    5. Spelling AND grammar errors on almost every page. Note, I too am not an English major.

    6. It says “explore if Buncombe County is interested in participating”. Do you people recall how well you negotiated the water deal with BC? We the people do not trust your negotiating skills, and since most of you have never run a business, you lack the skillset and business acumen to do so. Please do not learn on my dime.

    7. Brownie Newman and his hooligan pal are trying to make BN look like he is an innocent player more interested in BROAD POLICY. Well, based on their Jones Family Assumption Example. The FIRST thing listed is surprise, surprise, solar panels that cost $6500 (out of the $10K assumed investment). WOW, that is 65% going to a solar company. And the FIRST item listed for rebate is , surprise surprise, a solar tax credit from Federal and state which total $3350.00. A little reminder to council, those taxes are footed BY US, the People.

    8. The Jones family guess example states $2400 for new windows. Not sure what kind of windows they are looking at, but I can promise you these windows would probably not be sufficient enough to qualify for the tax incentives as they are the more expensive windows. We recently got quotes and all required an upgrade to qualify. NOTE, we have a small house and my windows were quoted at $11K. FUZZY MATH.

    9. All of the ASSUMPTIONS are based on ROSEY projections and all things going perfectly. There is NO ASSUMPTION or data pertaining to the possible caveats. That is NOT sound analysis or a smart way to handle potential investments.

    10. Too tired to do more as this is dizzying in its incompetence. If this was a middle school project (you know typical middle school science analysis project) the assumptions made, the lack of sources of facts, and spelling and grammar issues would drain a red pen, and FAIL.

    NOTE: Did you hear the Government is pausing non- discretionary spending? WHY, they are break, WHAT IF your assumption of funding is not available??

    I want to suggest what some other person who posted here and see if it makes fiscal sense to you, How about allowing people to write off these costs in their property tax bill!

  28. JWTJr

    “since it’s added to the property tax bill as a special assessment it won’t require another layer of administration in that regard.”

    I hate to be skeptical, but …..

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