Buncombe County Commission

The Pack Square Conservancy’s plan for a major reconfiguration of Pack Square and City/County Plaza got a big boost at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Feb. 15 formal meeting.

Architect's rendering of Pack Square renovation
courtesy of Pack Square Conservancy
Architect’s rendering of Pack Square renovation; from Biltmore Avenue on left to County Courthouse and City Hall on right

Conservancy Board Chair Carol King reported that the group’s board of trustees had decided to begin soliciting bids for construction when funds collected for the project totaled $8.4 million. “We are now approximately $2.5 million short,” she said, adding that the Janirve Foundation has pledged a $2 million contribution when $6.4 million in other funds are in hand. Pledges to date include a pre-election promise from Rep. Charles Taylor to ask Congress for $4 million for the project.

Asked if the Bush administration’s proposed federal budget, which would slash funding for nonmilitary programs, will include money for Asheville’s park, Taylor spokesperson Deborah Potter told Xpress: “It shouldn’t affect the funding. The $4 million is to be spread out over several years and will come from the Interior [Department] budget. Congressman Taylor is head of that committee.”

But Donna Clark, communications director for the Conservancy, told Xpress that the group won’t count on the federal dollars until the check is in the bank.

King told the Board of Commissioners that she wanted “to give you the opportunity to participate.”

The commissioners obliged, granting $2 million in county funds to the project on a 5-0 vote. Added to contributions received from individuals, organizations, foundations and government agencies, this put the project about $500,000 shy of the immediate fund-raising goal.

Skirmishing with veterans

In an unusual move, board Chairman Nathan Ramsey — perhaps recognizing the potential for controversy over the county funding — allowed public comment on the plan (which had not been scheduled for a public hearing). Discussion of the county’s contribution focused largely on a veterans’ memorial that was added to park plans relatively late in the process.

“There have been some concerns about the veterans’ memorial project,” noted Ramsey.

King said that although dozens of groups had proposed memorials for the park, only the veterans’ project had received Conservancy approval. The problems, she said, seemed to result from confusion over the wide array of boards and agencies to be contacted by the veterans’ group. “We created a consortium,” she explained, “so the vets can deal with one group with representatives from the city, county, Parks & Rec and the rest.”

Weaverville resident Don Yelton told the board he’d heard rumors that a bronze statue of a woman holding a baby, which was to be included in the memorial design, had been rejected by the Conservancy. He also asked where the memorial would be located.

King replied that two spots along College Street have been offered to the veterans, pointing out the locations on a site plan. She also emphasized that the Conservancy has taken no position on the memorial’s design and hasn’t even seen drawings at this point.

Walter Plaue, who heads up the project’s funding committee, reported that the fund-raising goal jumped from $100,000 to $200,000 after “we found out how expensive artists are.” To date, the funding committee has raised more than $180,000, he said.

“Ours is not going to be a war memorial,” Plaue stressed. “This is to honor anyone who has put on the uniform of this country — everyone from WNC who has served.” Explaining the inclusion of the female figure, he added, “We feel it is an absolute, integral part of this memorial that family be included.” The figure will be cast in bronze to blend in with the Urban Trail.

Plaue also acknowledged that “there are some issues, some tweaking, some fine-tuning that needs to be done” to the plans for the memorial.

King then explained that both the county and city governments had approved a promise from the Conservancy that the names of contributors would be included in some fashion in the park. The veterans, she said, want to put names of their contributors on a bronze plaque, which the Conservancy would place in the park pavilion.

But as King spoke, Plaue emphatically shook his head “no.” He later told Xpress that the veterans have promised their contributors that the plaque will be located on the monument itself.

Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny raised the question of cost overruns, which he deems inevitable on a project of this scale. “Will the county be asked for more money when we have a big mud hole out here, with streets closed off, and they are out of funds?”

Commissioner Bill Stanley assured Gorny that the Conservancy board is made up of a group of “very fine minds” who will see to it that the project comes in at cost.

The long goodbye

County Manager Wanda Greene outlined recent efforts to resolve the looming dissolution of the Regional Water Agreement, which Ramsey described as a “train wreck.”

Greene read from a proposal the board sent to the Asheville City Council on Feb. 4. It included: creating an independent city/county parks and recreation department that would manage all such facilities in Asheville/Buncombe; establishing an independent board to deal with the Civic Center; maintaining the same water rates for city and county residents; and urging Council to recognize that a regional approach to water service is best for all concerned.

As of Feb. 15, the city had not responded.

Commissioner David Gantt urged his fellow board members and county residents to pay attention to three key issues in the water discussions. “No. 1: There is the concept that the city might use water as a forced annexation tool,” he warned, explaining that other municipalities have made forfeiting opposition to annexation a precondition for getting water hookups.

“No. 2: differential rates. And No. 3, which is somewhat less important: How will we settle up the ownership of property, including payment for improvements made by the county?” Gantt repeated this list of concerns twice in the course of the discussion.

Ramsey noted that the county has spent $10 million on improvements to parks-and-recreation facilities that will revert to the city with the dissolution of the Water Agreement.

The board, said Ramsey, has scheduled a public hearing on the agreement for Monday, March 14, at 6:30 p.m. It will be held in the fifth-floor courtroom of the Buncombe County Courthouse.

New narcs

The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department requested approval to hire three new officers for the Metropolitan Enforcement Group, which targets illegal drug trafficking. Capt. Lee Farnsworth said the multiagency force is one of the most successful in the Southeast. Although the group may not make headlines, it has a great track record on drug-trade interdiction, handling cases with national ramifications. “The thrust of MEG,” said Farnsworth, “has always been long-term investigations.” Under pressure from City Council to step up drug enforcement in public housing projects, the Asheville Police Department withdrew from MEG in December, Farnsworth explained. He also noted that one sheriff’s deputy on the force had retired Jan. 1 and another is due to retire soon, leaving the group shorthanded.

In response to a query from Gantt about the cost of the MEG hires, Farnsworth said, “about $154,000 per year.”

The hiring request was approved 5-0.

Green and healthy

RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin presented plans for Hominy Creek Park, which is located at that creek’s intersection with the French Broad River across the street from the National Guard Armory in West Asheville. By improving the landscaping and adding trails, a picnic shelter and restroom facilities, she said, more people would be attracted to the park — a place where the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department would like to see more activity.

The Hominy Creek plan also dovetails with an overall scheme to link the French Broad River Park with the North Carolina Arboretum via bike and hiking trails. RiverLink is negotiating with the N.C. Department of Agriculture to permit such a trail to cross the WNC Farmer’s Market property, which is the last significant break in the requisite right of way for such a connector.

No county funding is needed, said Cragnolin — just an endorsement of the project. She also asked the board to impose a permanent conservation easement on Hominy Park, noting that preserving the greenway in perpetuity would greatly enhance fund-raising efforts.

Sam Stickney, board chairman of The Health Adventure, also came seeking an endorsement. The 36-year-old museum, he said, has purchased a site in Montford and hopes to have a new, expanded facility “built and endowed by 2008.”

The commissioners unanimously approved both projects.

All for one

In other business, the commissioners reappointed the entire Board of Equalization and Review: Cynthia Eller, Frances Naeger, Garrett Ramsey, Pat Roberts and Chuck Tessier.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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