Buzzworm news briefs

Lost in Transmission

Homegrown talk radio in the mountains took a knock last month when Asheville-based WZNN (AM 1350) traded its news-and-opinion programming for an all-sports format. The change from public affairs to play ball acknowledged sagging fortunes at the right-leaning station, which went on-air in 2004.

WZNN was hobbled from the outset by technical limitations, says Bill Fishburne, a former program host there. Despite its respectable 10,000-watt transmitter, located near Reynolds High School on Fairview Road in east Asheville, the station’s high position on the dial conspired with the mountain topography to yield a signal that was weak until midmorning, well past a.m. drive time.

“It was a great signal, if you happened to be parked at Reynolds High School,” Fishburne wryly notes.

WZNN’s launch as a talk station two years ago followed on previous success in radio by its original owners, Rick and Beth Howerton. Rick Howerton was something of a talk-radio pioneer in Asheville, having started WSKY here in the early 1990s.

Among its distinctions, WZNN was the first station in the region to carry Fox News host Sean Hannity’s popular radio program, which now is broadcast by competing station WWNC (AM 570). Last year, injuries forced Howerton to sell WZNN to the Hometown Radio Network, a modest-sized chain of stations headquartered in eastern North Carolina and managed by Lanny Ford.

Fishburne was with the station from the start, delivering local news and opinion during his 7 to 10 a.m. slot. He was fired by WZNN last October when advertising revenues declined. Other program hosts included local Ken Bagwell and nationwide talkers Neal Boortz and Laura Ingraham. Bagwell remains at the station, which is now a Fox Sports News affiliate.

Beyond the station’s transmission problems, Fishburne suggests that programming at WZNN suffered by tilting too far to the right and alienating some listeners.

“It became too conservative,” he says. “That snuffed out a lot of the local input. The station had signal issues, demographic issues and political issues all rolled into one. That’s just an awful lot to sort out.”

Fishburne says the station’s original bent, which he calls “moderate-conservative,” would have played well in surrounding counties, which tend to be more politically buttoned-up than Asheville and its suburbs.

Unfortunately, he adds, WZNN’s message never made it that far.

— Kent Priestley

Madison developments

More than 200 Madison County residents showed up for a Jan. 24 Planning Board rezoning hearing in Marshall. The crowd overflowed the courtroom and spilled into a balcony that County Attorney Larry Leake warned was dusty from disuse.

The board first considered a proposal by David and Jeannette Kendall to rezone portions of their property for development. The 80-acre parcel is located on the access road to Max Patch, a popular hiking destination. The Kendalls said their intention was to preserve most of the property while selling off 10 lots in order to recoup their investment and provide for retirement income.

Speaking for Friends of Max Patch, a community group, attorney Gary Davis of Hot Springs argued that the county covenants were created to limit development and that the proposed subdivision would impinge on area’s viewshed.

A dozen neighbors spoke out in opposition to the proposed subdivision and Davis concluded, “We ask that you reject this application. If you approve it, we ask that you put conditions on it.”

Leake delivered a lengthy legal opinion about the Kendalls’ options and advised them to drop their request and negotiate with their neighbors before bringing the plan back to the board. The Kendalls assented.

The second proposal came from Rick Bussey and Orville English, owners of B&E Ventures, a development company. Bussey and English also own Wolf Laurel Ski Resort. Their proposed development of 334 acres in the upper Laurel Valley would constitute an expansion of that resort into the Mars Hill watershed. Bussey presented their request for three changes that would shift the property from residential-agriculture to residential-resort or retail-business zoning. Their intent, he said, was to build up to 700 housing units and develop a retail area, an airport suitable for small jets and a sewage treatment plant that will discharge into Laurel Branch.

Davis, representing Lower Valley Watch, a Laurel Valley community organization, said that residents were “opposed to the total change in the valley that this development would bring. Until recently, Wolf Laurel was on the other side of the mountain.” He noted that 108 acres of the property wasn’t even owned by B&E. “Your rules require that the current owner make the application,” he told the board. “That property should be taken out of consideration.” He pointed out that the town of Mars Hill contains only some 500 homes. “This is bigger than Mars Hill, coming into Laurel Valley.”

Numerous residents spoke out against the plan, citing their love of the peace and quiet in the valley and concerns about traffic, erosion, and noise from jet traffic. Barbara Merrill presented a petition signed by more than 200 neighbors opposed to the plan.

While most of the crowd seemed opposed to rezoning, a few residents and Wolf Laurel employees and contractors spoke in support of the plan, citing its potential economic benefits.

In the end, Leake convinced the board not to set aside the “improper” request pointed out by Davis, on the basis that the developers would return with their request once they did obtain the property. All three zoning changes were approved by votes of 6-1, 6-0 and 7-0.

The zoning change will go before the Madison County Board of Commissioners for consideration at their March meeting.

— Cecil Bothwell

A stream of your own

We’ve all seen Adopt-a-Highway signs, and many of us are members of organizations or even families that have committed to lugging litter. But this region’s legion of water-sports enthusiasts knows that litter doesn’t stop at the roadside. Litter tends to float, and much of it winds up in our waterways, draped on branches, stuck on gravel bars and festooning banks.

Sharon Roberts, a genetic counselor at the Fullerton Genetics Center at Mission Hospitals and a sport kayaker, had seen the highway signs and the waterborne trash. She was looking for a public-service project for her department when she learned about RiverLink’s Adopt-a-Stream program.

RiverLink created the program in order to give local residents, neighborhoods, condo associations, schools and businesses a hands-on way to get involved in improving the water quality of the French Broad River watershed in Buncombe, Madison and Transylvania Counties. Their goal is to have every stream in the watershed adopted, and the organization asks adopters to perform two clean-ups and one visual-monitoring trip each year.

With information from RiverLink, Roberts made a presentation to the 30-some Fullerton Center employees at a staff meeting and the response was enthusiastic. They adopted a mile-long stretch of the French Broad River running downstream from the Amboy Road bridge. The group staged its first clean-up day in October, and a roadside sign giving the Fullerton team credit for the adoption went up Jan. 8.

Roberts told Xpress, “A lot of our people believe in doing small things for the environment, and they said, ‘Yeah, we can do that!’ About eight of us worked on the first cleanup.”

For more information, contact French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson at 252-8474, ext. 114, or riverkeeper@riverlink.org.

— Cecil Bothwell

Task Force finding common ground

Determined to meet their Feb. 28 deadline for a recommendation to City Council, the Asheville Civic Center Task Force began circling the wagons at its Jan. 23 meeting regarding the future of the Civic Center and its functions.

And in the process of reviewing testimony and impressions gained over the course of their hearings so far, several initial conclusions were made. Doing nothing about the Civic Center’s status, for example, doesn’t seem to be an option for the task-force members. Neither does “minimal” action, such as performing only the maintenance necessary to keep the facility in its present condition. “We want to do something more than remain static,” declared Jan Davis, chair of the task force.

After a bit more discussion, consensus emerged on a third issue, prompting applause from the audience. “I think it would be safe to say we could rule out the renovation of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium,” Davis said. “That’s a conclusion.”

The auditorium, which has recently been plagued by maintenance troubles, has a long history of serious functional handicaps, including inadequate dressing-room and backstage space, and legendary loading-area deficiencies that keep some touring companies from performing full-stage productions. Testimony before the task force has repeatedly emphasized the lack of adequate space to address those problems.

Ruling out options proved much simpler than agreeing on what to recommend for the Civic Center’s future, and task-force member and former Mayor Charles Worley cautioned that partners and funding would have to be identified before the city would “do what we want to do — and what we ought to do.”

His point was reinforced by fellow task-force member Sidney Powell. “I think you’re at the point where you’re going to have to find a way to pay for it, and just do it,” she said.

Funding, it was decided, will be the focus of the next task-force meeting. Meanwhile, the members continued to discus the Civic Center’s historic, current and future roles in the community.

Some members voiced support for finding a way to continue the facility’s multiuse functioning — whether under one roof or split apart. “This building has historically provided [for] the entire community, meaning every segment of the community,” stressed Worley, naming gun shows, sporting events and craft exhibitions to illustrate the diversity of uses.

Mention of a proposed arena to be built at UNC-Asheville added some fuel to the notion of relocating some of the Civic Center’s current functions, and task-force members requested information regarding that arena and any partnering possibilities.

Public comments made during the meeting included a suggestion that a “theater arts district” be developed downtown between the Asheville Renaissance Hotel and the Civic Center, and a reminder of the fact that the current, multiuse facility is an economic generator for the downtown area.

A final plan that “qualifies for the word ‘excellent,'” speaker Battle Haslam predicted, would release a substantial store of energy and support from “people who are willing to go for it.” Comparing that latent energy to a “magnum of champagne,” he suggested that “all the Civic Center has to do is uncork it.”

The task force’s next two meetings will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1, and Monday, Feb. 6, in the Civic Center Banquet Hall.

— Nelda Holder

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