Council protests downtown jail
It was hurry up and protest — in a polite way — at City Hall on Jan. 16.
At 3:30 p.m., Mayor Leni Sitnick received Council’s unanimous endorsement of her letter asking Buncombe County commissioners to delay the purchase of downtown property for a new work-release, minimum-security facility. By 4 p.m., Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford had rushed the letter to commissioners, who were planning to vote that afternoon on the purchase.
“This area [near Coxe Avenue] is just beginning to take off,” said Council member Barbara Field, minutes before Shuford hand-delivered the request for delay. The Downtown Commission and Coxe Avenue property owners area have expressed serious concerns about the county’s proposal, citing fears of its negative impact on redevelopment, she reported. While such a facility is needed, Downtown Commission members and property owners want county commissioners to consider other sites, such as property closer to the existing jail, Field concluded.
Council members agreed, but Brian Peterson cautioned, “I wouldn’t want us to set a precedent that every time one [local] government buys property, they have to go ask the other about it.” He urged Council members not to “meddle” too much.
“We’re not injecting ourselves. We’re not demanding anything,” said Sitnick.
The letter urges commissioners to delay action and give all parties time to consider “the impact of this facility on the continued vitality of the thriving growth corridor between downtown and Mission/St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger made a motion that Council endorse the letter. Seconded by Field, it passed, 6-0 (Council member Ed Hay abstained because he owns property across the street from the old United Van Lines property that commissioners propose to buy.)
[Editor’s note: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to purchase the property at their Jan. 16 formal meeting. See cover story on page 9.]
Azalea Road purchase likely
By Feb. 15, Asheville City Council must decide whether to purchase 155 acres on Azalea Road for the development of soccer fields and a “beneficial fill” site for debris such as concrete and old asphalt.
At their Jan. 16 work session, members heard a feasibility report from consultants Woolpert, LLC: “We feel the site is feasible as a community park and beneficial-fill location,” said consultant Doug Jewell, as he blazed through 42 slides, each detailing his firm’s findings.
The property consists of wooded land surrounding the Thomas Wolfe birth site, wetlands near the Swannanoa River, a former landfill, and flat land that appears suitable for soccer fields. Jewell said Woolpert LLC recommends preserving the wetlands, keeping the beneficial-fill area out of the Swannanoa River floodplain, and closing a portion of Azalea Road. Using the old landfill for city needs would save almost a half-million dollars a year by avoiding county-landfill tipping fees and reducing transportation costs, Jewell noted.
But Councilman Peterson brought up neighborhood concerns, including the possibility that the old landfill may pose an environmental risk, due to materials that are reportedly buried there, such as medical wastes and contaminated soil from a service station.
“There has been some minor dumping on the site, [with] previous violations of environmental rules,” Jewell noted. But all past violations have been corrected, according to state officials, he added.
There have also been some neighborhood concerns about the impact of a proposed composting/mulching facility, which city staff have recommended be located near the beneficial-fill site. Public Works Director Mark Combs responded that a 1,000-horsepower wood-chipping machine, likely to be used at such a facility, would run only about three days in a given three-month period.
And Council member Barbara Field remarked — a bit tongue in cheek — “Actually, decomposition is pretty quiet.”
“But it can be smelly,” Sitnick joked. “Composting, when it’s done right, doesn’t smell,” she added, after the laughter faded.
Peterson also noted that the county’s recreation director is no longer interested in partnering with the city on its proposed soccer field on that property, claiming the flood-prone fields present too high a maintenance cost.
“Yes, it will flood, but when [the waters recede], you still have a field to play on,” countered Asheville Parks Director Irby Brinson. Because it’s in the Swannanoa floodplain, much of the site is not suitable for building structures, whereas open fields and walking trails are feasible with minor maintenance, he argued.
As the presentation wound to a close, Council member Terry Bellamy asked that Council postpone its planned Jan. 23 decision on the matter. Having just taken part in extensive activities for the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, and now facing Council’s annual retreat Jan. 19-20, Bellamy said she needed more time.
But Cloninger pushed for quick action. The option to purchase part of the property expires Feb. 15, he noted.
After considerable debate, Council members decided to take public comment on Jan. 23, but not vote on the purchase until their Jan. 30 community meeting.
Pritchard Park a go
Council members unanimously approved a $260,000 contract with Carolina Construction Company for improvements to Pritchard Park, involving the construction of a terraced plaza, sidewalks, a decorative brick wall and gateway corners, plus the installation of some electrical components. The work should be completed in April, city staff reported.
To speed the project along, Council members waived their rule against taking formal action at work sessions.
Interstate 26 update
The push for a better-designed I-26 through town isn’t over till the concrete starts pouring: Representatives of the Community Coordinating Committee presented Council members with an update on Jan. 16, assuring them that a rumored two-year delay has now been whittled down to less than a year.
Former mayor Lou Bissette reported, “You probably heard: DOT said looking at [citizen-proposed] alternatives would push back the project two years. We almost fainted at the time.”
The committee — and citizens who attended several design forums — have asked the Department of Transportation to consider alternatives to its proposal to expand I-240 to an eight-lane highway through West Asheville, and completely overhaul the interchange at Westgate Mall and the Smokey Park Highway bridge. Despite DOT’s initial objections, the committee pressed its ideas, and eventually DOT officials came up with nine possible route alternatives for the interchange. The question remains of how and how much DOT will expand the actual highway through West Asheville.
Committee representative Brownie Newman handed out copies of maps featuring the alternatives, noting those favored by the committee, such as one that involves building a new bridge immediately south of the existing Smokey Park bridge.
New DOT estimates now set the delay at less than a year to consider these alternatives, Newman mentioned.
Bissette remarked, “I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for DOT, because every alternative treads on somebody’s toes.” Some routes wipe out Westgate Mall; others run over the Sunspree golf course or slice into the fringes of residential neighborhoods. But Bissette emphasized, “Our committee is committed to having this project completed on time.”
Improvements to I-240/I-26 through town are needed to absorb the increase in traffic that is projected to materialize when I-26 is completed to Tennessee, as well as ever-increasing local traffic that already exceeds Smokey Park bridge’s capacity.
Council members took no action on the report.