If you were standing anywhere near City/County Plaza late on the evening of Jan. 23, you might have heard a rattle and a crash — the sound of Asheville City Council members throwing down the gauntlet — coming from the Council chambers toward the end of a lengthy formal meeting.
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger led the charge. In response to a recently announced county plan to site a satellite jail on South Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville, Cloninger urged his fellow Council members to consider amending the Unified Development Ordinance by making jails and related facilities conditional uses under several of the city’s zoning classifications, including: Central Business District, Regional Business District (which is how the proposed jail site is zoned) and Commercial-Industrial District.
“We need to have a say in how such facilities are developed,” Cloninger declared, asking Senior City Planner Gerald Green to initiate the process of amending the UDO. At the same time, both Cloninger and Mayor Leni Sitnick commented that continuing the dialogue with the county about the issue remains a high priority. Cloninger also said the city should seek another site for the facility.
Council member Brian Peterson cautioned his colleagues against trying to tell county government how it should develop the jail (administering such facilities is the county’s responsibility). But Sitnick reminded Peterson that city residents are also county taxpayers and, accordingly, they have rights.
After a brief discussion, Council voted 6-0 to set a public hearing on the proposed amendment for Tuesday, Feb. 13. Council member Ed Hay recused himself from the voting because he owns property near the site. City Clerk Maggie Burleson indicated later that the matter would first come before the Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday, Feb. 7. If the city and county can’t agree on an alternate site and Council adopts the UDO amendment, the county might have to petition the city for a conditional-use permit in order to build the jail on its newly acquired property.
Buy now, debate later
Take 155 acres of undeveloped land inside the city limits. Add a park, a handful of soccer fields, a cabin once used by Thomas Wolfe, a river, a floodplain, some wetlands, anxious neighbors, a noisy 1,000-horsepower wood-chipping machine, and a new landfill built on top of an older one. Put these ingredients in a stuffy but not overly hot City Council chamber for four or five hours, stirring carefully (you don’t want the old landfill mound to crack). Then cross your fingers — and hope the taxpayers are pleased with the results.
Asheville City Council members tackled this tricky recipe as they considered authorizing the purchase of 155 acres on Azalea Road in east Asheville for an estimated $1.8 million. Although it wasn’t officially a public hearing, the meeting did include comment by local residents on a wide array of issues in connection with the city’s plans for developing the site. And questions about land use and environmental impacts lingered even after Council had voted unanimously to buy the property.
The city has been considering acquiring the parcel for 10 years; the current proposal calls for a park, soccer fields, nature trails, a compost/mulching facility, and a special landfill for concrete and other inert materials. Consultant Doug Jewell of Woolpert LLC, hired by the city to conduct a feasibility study, presented his firm’s findings.
The proposal, Jewell reported, is feasible and would be cost-effective for the city. Having its own landfill instead of paying to use the county landfill could save the city close to $500,000 a year, he told Council. Jewell also confirmed that more debris could safely be added to the existing landfill mound once the steep slopes (which show signs of cracking) are stabilized.
After the presentation, Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger produced a flier that project opponents had distributed among neighborhood residents. “From what I can tell, it contains inaccurate information,” said Cloninger, asking Jewell for clarification.
Jewell noted that the flier had misstated the property’s purchase price by a factor of 10, reporting it as $18 million (which elicited gasps from the audience when the figure was read) rather than approximately $1.8 million.
The consultant also addressed concerns about the contents of the old landfill mound, which was created out of debris from the construction of Interstate 40. Borehole samples and a review of disposal records, he noted, had shown that the mound consists of concrete, sand, gravel, asphalt, stumps and wood products, wallboard, some steel pipes, plus other items dumped there over the years, such as an old bathtub. Conceding that some minor remediation efforts would be needed because of the uncontrolled dumping, Jewell nonetheless maintained that, overall, the mound is safe. “It’s not going to go anywhere or hurt anyone,” he concluded.
But many in attendance challenged this claim, saying that illegal dumping had been rampant at the site over the past three decades. Beverly Hills resident Brian McKenna argued that the close proximity to the Swannanoa River and to railroad tracks could threaten the mound’s stability. He added that insufficient analysis of potential biohazards in the mound could leave the city vulnerable to environmental litigation.
Other speakers voiced concerns about the use of the proposed soccer fields. Rumors had circulated that the fields would be used exclusively by a private soccer association, which would host tournaments for out-of-town teams.
But local attorney Lloyd Sigman, the president of the Western North Carolina Soccer Federation, denied the allegation. Although the federation might partner with the city to build and maintain the fields, they would still be available for public use, he said. “It’s not just to bring in South Carolina teams; I estimate that we would have only two to three tournaments a year,” Sigman commented, adding that the money raised by the tournaments would help offset maintenance costs. More than 3,000 local children play organized soccer, he explained, adding that the four proposed new fields would go a long way toward meeting what he called a desperate need for more such facilities.
Some speakers expressed concerns about the project’s environmental impacts on the river and adjacent wetlands, about noise pollution from the proposed mulching facility’s wood chipping-machine, and about traffic congestion. Others echoed Sigman’s point about the dire need for soccer fields. Generally, the divided audience was polite, and many speakers’ comments were punctuated by frequent, warm applause.
Then it was time for Council members to discuss the issue among themselves. Council member Charles Worley said: “It’s hard for me to imagine a more perfect site. If we don’t purchase it now, we won’t have it.” And Council member Brian Peterson, while noting that some of the environmental concerns raised merit further discussion, added that if the city didn’t buy the property, a private citizen could still do so and use it as a landfill — with neither Council nor the public having any say about it. Mayor Leni Sitnick and Council member Terry Bellamy seemed to share this opinion. (Existing environmental education, of course, would still apply to the the site in any case.)
On a motion by Worley, seconded by Cloninger, seven voices raised in unison to support purchasing the property. After the vote, Council member Barbara Field added, “I’d like to see our consultant and city staff come back with some answers to the issues raised here tonight.”
Council will revisit the question of how to develop the site during one of its February meetings.
Sisters in struggle
It began as a seemingly uncontroversial agenda item: putting Council’s stamp of approval on a proposal to add Kastoria, Greece, to the Asheville Sister Cities program. But when program representative Getting Name began describing Kastoria, things soon grew more complicated. After noting that the city (which is in northern Greece, near the Albanian border) has a climate similar to Asheville’s, Joe Ferikes also casually mentioned that Kastoria’s primary industries are tourism and producing furs for coats. Mayor Sitnick commented that she finds the fur trade objectionable, adding, “A lot of citizens in this community would have a problem with it.” Ferikes quickly noted, “The fur industry is in decline — that’s why they want to expand tourism.”
Council member Hay pointed out that the Sister Cities program chiefly involves relationships between municipal governments and that the goals are to promote understanding and cultural exchange. Other Asheville sister cities, he observed, also have thorny problems, such as the civil unrest in San Cristobal, Mexico. Worley added, “I wonder what we’re doing that they would frown on.”
Apparently concluding that the pros outweigh the cons, Council voted unanimously to approve Kastoria’s selection. After the vote, Barbara Field brought down the house by commenting, “If we give up growing tobacco, maybe they’ll give up producing furs.”
Up in smoke
During the recent debate on a proposed statewide death-penalty moratorium, Vice Mayor Cloninger predicted that, simply by considering the issue, Council would be opening the door to a flood of requests for action on other broad social issues. Those words came back to haunt Council members when Dan Waterman of N.C. Hemp asked them to consider a resolution to create a community-based committee that would study the application and effects of marijuana-prohibition laws in the community.
During his presentation, Waterman cited Council’s action on the death-penalty moratorium, and one paragraph of the proposed resolution he distributed to Council members bore a striking resemblance to wording in the moratorium resolution. It read, in part: “It is our resolve that the laws prohibiting the cultivation and use of Cannabis and their local application have serious ramifications for our community. In order to determine whether or not these laws are being applied fairly in our community regardless of race, gender, age or social status … the local application and effects of these laws must be studied.”
Council unanimously rejected the resolution. Council member Bellamy said, “You’ve given us a resolution that you yourself can do tomorrow: You don’t need our help, and you don’t need our approval.” Cloninger added, “I move that we not adopt this resolution or any resolution brought by this organization.”