A game of chess

The plot thickened last week when the Buncombe County commissioners addressed the jail controversy at their Jan. 30 budget retreat, held in the county’s offices on College Street.

Commissioners discussed the city’s latest move — initiating a rezoning study in the part of downtown Asheville that includes the county’s newly acquired satellite-jail site. The commissioners also heard about city/county negotiations on a plan to swap parking lots, so the county could build a satellite jail next to the present Detention Center behind the county courthouse and City Hall.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton told commissioners that he’d met with city officials earlier that day to talk about applying for a zoning permit to make changes to the newly acquired Union Transfer property (123 S. Lexington Ave.).

But Creighton said he’d been told that city Planning Director Scott Shuford had already taken initial steps to rezone an area that includes the proposed jail site, from “regional business” to “office business” — which would prohibit siting a jail there.

The week before, on Jan. 23, City Council had begun the process of changing the Unified Development Ordinance to make jails a conditional use under all the city zoning classifications that allow jails — including the one that governs the Union Transfer site. (A public hearing on the proposed change has been set for Feb. 13.) If Council adopts the UDO amendment, the county might have to petition the city for a conditional-use permit to build the jail on the Union Transfer property. (See “Jailhouse blues,” Jan. 31 Xpress.)

“I thought they wanted to work with us on this,” Commissioner Patsy Keever remarked.

“That’s what they said,” Creighton replied.

“Just like always,” muttered Commissioner Bill Stanley.

Contacted later, Shuford said his office initiated a zoning study Jan. 30 of the corridor between Biltmore, Hilliard and Asheland avenues and Mission St. Joseph’s hospitals — which includes the Union Transfer property. Possible appropriate zoning districts include central business and office business, he said.

But under the city’s code, city officials can’t issue the county a zoning permit while the UDO amendment and zoning study are pending, Shuford said. Once the city starts an action that would make a use conditional or prohibited, the city has a right to turn down those uses while the changes are pending, Shuford explained. That’s as long as the developer hasn’t acquired a “vested right” in the property, Shuford said. One way to obtain a vested right is for a developer to spend substantial money on improving the property while relying on a validly-issued zoning permit.

“We do want to work with the county and are trying very earnestly to do so, and I think there’s a very great potential for us to reach a win-win situation,” Shuford said.

However, Shuford added that the city wants to maximize its flexibility to work with the county in a way that fits with citizens’ concerns about the impact of the proposed satellite jail.

“There’s a real desire to look for a solution that works for the city and the county,” Shuford concluded.

Wheeling and dealing

The commissioners also heard about various proposals for the city and county to swap parking lots, with the county paying the city any price difference.

One scenario had involved swapping a county-owned parking lot (currently leased by the city) behind City Hall for a city-owned lot next to the Detention Center. But the city wasn’t interested in pursuing that deal, because there are 10 years left on its 30-year lease with the county, Creighton said later.

Another option discussed was trading a different county-owned lot (by the walkway over Charlotte Street) for the one next to the Detention Center, Creighton said. But the city wants that deal to include building a parking deck, Creighton said.

Long-range county plans call for building a new parking deck at Oak and College streets to be financed in fiscal year 2005. But Commissioner David Young noted that, given current parking demands, he didn’t think the county could wait that long.

Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey said he thought they should build a parking deck and a satellite jail at the same time.

Young asked whether a county parking deck would eliminate the city’s parking problems around City Hall. Creighton replied that although the city would like a deck built behind City Hall, building new decks elsewhere downtown is a higher priority.

“So that’s where we stand right now,” Creighton summarized. “It’s a game of chess.”

Commissioners took pains to point out that the satellite-jail inmates would be low-level offenders, including people on work release and those serving weekend sentences for offenses such as drunk driving. Keever said some opponents of the jail plan seemed concerned about inmates wandering around and loitering.

Creighton acknowledged that some inmates might walk to work, and others might use public transit to get to the satellite jail. But he added, “It’s not a homeless shelter.”

And Vice Chair David Gantt stressed that the county could not change the satellite jail’s detention classification to allow more-violent offenders to be housed there.

“I think there’s been a lot of overreacting on the part of developers and City Council and people who’ve written me as to what’s going to be there,” Keever said.

Seeking common ground

Board Chair Ramsey noted that the potential savings in operating costs for a satellite jail next to the Detention Center might be great enough to enable the county to cut a deal with the city. Creighton estimated later that personnel costs at the Union Transfer site would be at least $200,000 per year higher, because more staff would be needed.

“I think that’s one deal that’s a win/win for everybody,” Ramsey said.

He added that he thinks the two sides should have a public meeting and that the county should tell the city leaders that if they can’t work out a deal, the county will use the Union Transfer site for the jail. Young noted that he and Gantt had also talked about a joint meeting.

“I think the City Council people themselves are willing to work [with the county],” Keever said, adding that she didn’t know where discussions were bogging down.

Gantt also noted that acquiring the city-owned property would give future boards more options as jail needs continue to grow.

During a break, Gantt said the commissioners would continue to work with the city on the issue, although the county wants to protect its interests.

“It takes two to tango,” he observed.

After the meeting, Ramsey was asked why the county hadn’t tried to acquire the city’s lot to begin with, instead of buying the Union Transfer site.

“That’s a good question,” Ramsey replied. “Hindsight’s 20/20. I think Union Transfer’s the best location for this facility — outside of that one lot. … I don’t think it was a mistake to buy Union Transfer. If it’s not [on] a city lot, that’s where it ought to be.”

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