Putting the cart before the horse

The crowd assembled in the Buncombe County commissioners’ chambers on Jan. 26 grumbled at the mixed message: Less than three hours earlier, the commissioners had closed a deal to buy the Union Transfer property on South Lexington Avenue for $1.45 million, planning to site a new minimum-security jail there. Now they were asking people what they thought of the idea.

“You’ve already purchased the property, [and] now you’re getting public comment,” fumed Asheville resident Sharon Martin. “That’s not democracy.”

Making matters worse, the commissioners actually had until Jan. 31 to close the deal — and they had previously agreed to meet with property owners, city staff and other concerned citizens wishing to suggest alternative sites.

“Why is there such a rush?” queried Citizens for Change member Chad Nesbitt. Acknowledging those on hand to give commissioners their 2 cents’ worth, he added, “These people weren’t allowed to give any alternatives before [you bought the property].”

Even city staff expressed dismay about the commissioners’ haste. Finance Director Bill Schaefer, speaking as a private citizen, said: “I was personally disappointed that you [have] gone ‘Ready, aim, fire.’ ” Asheville City Council has charged Schaefer and Planning Director Scott Shuford with conducting “aggressive negotiations” on the potential use of city-owned property adjacent to the main jail.

On hand to face the music were assorted county staff members, architectural consultant John Cort, Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey and Commissioners Vice Chair David Gantt.

“It’s bad public relations,” conceded Ramsey, “because we [bought the property] on the morning we had this meeting.” But North Carolina’s open-meetings law, he noted, allows local governments to discuss real-estate acquisitions in closed session, seeking to explain why there’s been little opportunity for public comment before now, even though staff and commissioners have been looking for a jail site for at least two years. Ramsey added that the county is legally required to provide space for prisoners.

County outlines plans

According to county staff, neither the main jail nor an adjacent annex can provide the needed number of beds for nonviolent prisoners (such as DUI offenders and work-release inmates), and there’s also an increasing need to provide space for women. “But we’re not so stubborn we’re not going to look at other [options],” said Gantt.

Cort outlined renovation plans for the Union Transfer buildings: 21,000 square feet for a 40-bed female dorm and an 80-bed male dorm, and 14,000 square feet for county office space that would house the Mountain Mobility unit. There will be no barbed wire, he assured the crowd.

And Maj. Bill Stafford — who runs the main jail — promised, “We won’t house federal criminals.” Prisoners, he continued, won’t linger outside the building, and the transportation of prisoners will be barely observable: “We move prisoners around town [in unmarked vans now] and y’all don’t realize it,” revealed Stafford.

But those reports did little to appease the crowd.

“You guys are moving way too quick,” complained Harry Pilos, whose company is renovating the old Sawyer Motor Company building on Coxe Avenue. He mentioned potential environmental contamination from a former dry-cleaning establishment uphill from the Union Transfer site, suggesting that commissioners had “closed their eyes” to cleanup and other development costs that could inflate the project’s price tag. Pilos urged commissioners to work with the city to site the new jail at City/County Plaza “where it belongs.”

Cort and Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton assured Pilos that the environmental issues — such as the location of old water and sewer lines underneath the Union Storage structures — are being addressed. And Ramsey offered, “If you can come up with a better solution, we’ll sell [the Union Storage site] or use it for [something else].”

One property owner suggested that commissioners consider his Depot Street property, which includes the old Glen Rock Hotel that once served Asheville’s passenger-rail depot. A business owner suggested the old Paty building-supply property near the county golf course. Government watchdog Peggy Bennett asked commissioners to consider renovating the old jail on top of the courthouse. And Nesbitt of Citizens for Change and several others urged commissioners to use creative options such as house arrest to reduce the prison population.

Another option?

The site that seemed to offer the most promise is a city-owned parking lot near the present jail: Maj. Stafford reported that he could cut the cost of operating a new minimum-security jail in half if he could site it next to the current Detention Center.

Gantt remarked, “We’re real interested in that property. … We’re ready to swap for it right now.”

Trouble is, parking is already in short supply around City/County Plaza, and converting the lot into a jail would only make things worse. Even apart from the city’s parking woes, Creighton estimated that the county will need to build a parking deck in the area by 2005, and Schaefer said a stand-alone detention center on the site without addressing the parking needs would be “inefficient.” Stafford, meanwhile, cautioned that solving the problem by putting a parking deck under the detention center would create the possibility of an Oklahoma-style bombing. “All new jails are being built now without parking under[neath],” he said. But there’s no problem with building office space above a minimum-security facility, Stafford offered.

Ramsey and Gantt added their own notes of caution about the bigger picture: Citing prison-population projections and federal mandates, Gantt indicated that the county will probably need to build a second large detention center within the next 10 to 15 years. And Ramsey mentioned that other upcoming county needs will make it difficult “for the board not to raise taxes.”

That said, Ramsey emphasized: “We don’t own the [parking] lot. … If we build in the vicinity [of the main jail], we’ve got to build a parking deck.”

“Do it!” someone in the crowd yelled out.

Gantt and Ramsey said they would consider all the options presented.

And a more circumspect Schaefer remarked, “We don’t feel we’ve reached an optimal solution.”

Other citizens in attendance also offered their advice. County watchdog Jerry Rice urged commissioners to make city officials “full partners” in finding an amenable solution.

And local architect Donny Luke declared, “The most ideal location is here by the [courthouse and jail].” The door is open for a cooperative effort with the city, he said, adding. “I plead with you to take [that] opportunity.”

Commissioners took no formal action. County staff reported that Union Storage, which does not have to vacate the premises until Oct. 31, will pay $5,000 rent for each month it remains there after March 31.

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