Asheville City Council

As city Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson put it, he went from one dogfight to another during Asheville Council members’ Feb. 17 work session.

First, he had to tell Council members about the dogs in Riverside Cemetery: Owners are continuing to let their dogs run free, despite a new ordinance requiring that the animals be leashed.

Council members passed that ordinance six months ago, as a compromise: Staff had recommended a total ban, arguing that dogs threaten cemetery visitors and defecate on graves. Instead, Council gave the leash ordinance a six-month trial run.

But the ordinance has been repeatedly violated, according to a three-page list compiled by city staff.

Vice Mayor Ed Hay remarked, “I run over there in the mornings, and I can testify to the number of dogs. … Sometimes the leashes are on, [but] they’re not connected with the [owners].”

“It’s wanton disregard for the law,” declared Mayor Leni Sitnick, looking at the list. Sitnick, stressing that violators should be fined, remarked, “I don’t know why we can’t put some teeth in this [ordinance].”

Council member Tommy Sellers started laughing.

“Oh, dear. You’ve got to bring some levity to government,” Sitnick countered, as everyone else laughed, too.

Sellers, who had previously supported banning dogs, recommended that Council do so as soon as possible.

City Attorney Bob Oast said that he could have a draft ordinance before Council by the next work session, in March. A public hearing isn’t required, he noted, but Council has allowed public comment on the issue in the past.

Council member Chuck Cloninger added, “Put people on notice: The six-month trial is not working.”

Selling Memorial Stadium

Next on Brinson’s list of fun things to do at a Council meeting: Explain why he is recommending selling Memorial Stadium.

“We have a $30 million need in Parks and Recreation,” he reminded Council members, adding that a Parks and Rec master plan will be completed soon.

“Selling park property … is totally against what I believe in. … I want to acquire parks,” Brinson declared, responding to public criticism of the proposed sale.

Nevertheless, he suggests selling the stadium to local architect Robert Camille and using the proceeds ($1.4 million) to build a sports complex (four baseball and two football fields) at Richmond Hill, plus a playground on three acres of Memorial Stadium property that the city would retain.

But Cloninger questioned whether the city would be getting the best price for the 21-acre stadium property. Council member O.T. Tomes seconded that concern, noting the desirability of downtown property.

Appraiser Ben Beasley set the stadium’s value at $1.16 million, but conceded that there wasn’t much to which he could compare the site in determining that amount. Smaller downtown properties sell for much more per square foot; on the other hand, much of the Memorial site is very steep and may not be easily developable.

Camille has said he plans to build a medical-office park on the flattest 7 acres and may build houses on the wooded slope. He also proposes buying 29 acres of adjacent land that runs up to the ridgeline, which would serve as a buffer area.

Shitnick expressed concern that the steeper parts of the property could be developed “all the way up” to the ridgeline: Because the property is zoned Institutional, it wouldn’t be restricted by the city’s Hillside Ordinance.

Council member Earl Cobb pointed out that the proposed Richmond Hill park would serve nearly 300 kids in the North Asheville Little League. All the same, he asked Brinson, “Have we ever studied … what [else] to do with [Memorial]?”

Brinson replied that he has attempted to “maximize the uses” of the stadium, providing field space for a variety of local groups. Staff has considered building baseball fields on the property and running a greenway trail between Memorial and the old White Fawn Reservoir on the ridge above, he said.

Camille is willing to allow the city to retain a right-of-way for a future greenway, Brinson continued. But staff conclued that the flat part of the Memorial property isn’t big enough to accommodate ballfields without infringing on the site’s other recreational uses.

“The missing issue is … we don’t have the money to do it,” he added.

Kenilworth resident Susan Andrew asked whether $1.4 million is enough money to put ballfields at Richmond Hill — as well as restrooms, a concession stand, roads and the needed infrastructure — and build a playground adjacent to the Mountainside Apartments, at the far end of the Memorial property.

Brinson insisted that it is, according to two separate estimates (one produced by staff, and one by a consultant) — barring unforeseen costs.

Another resident questioned the absence of any plan for much-needed soccer facilities, to which Brinson responded, “The city is committed to building soccer fields at Lake Craig.” Parks and Recreation staff have been working for years on a partnership deal with Buncombe County — which runs local soccer programs — and local organizations pushing for an east Asheville park and nature area at the old Lake Craig site.

After questioning Brinson, Sitnick urged both supporters and opponents of the sale to make further comments at a planned March 10 public hearing. “We will continue this dialogue,” she concluded.

Better buy it

Psst! The city doesn’t own one-third of the land beneath its $5 million Civic Center parking deck.

Turns out the little parcel, owned by Edith A. Parker Dawson, had been leased the city since 1974 for about $15,000 per year, according to Asheville Finance Director Bill Schaeffer.

On Dawson’s death, the city was to have the option to buy the parcel for $65,000.

Dawson lived to be 105 years old; she passed away on Feb. 4. Who could have known, in 1974, that it would have been cheaper for the city to buy the parcel right then?

“What if we don’t buy it?” Vice Mayor Hay asked Schaeffer.

“Then we have a $5 million property sitting on someone else’s land,” he replied.

“This is a no-brainer,” declared Council member Barbara Field, suggesting that the purchase go on the Feb. 24 consent agenda.

No more topless bars?

Saying that it all comes down to protecting community values, Council member Tommy Sellers called for a moratorium on new adult establishments in the city.

The General Assembly is considering a bill that would grant municipalities more regulatory control over such businesses, which include adult bookstores and topless bars. But until legislators make a decision, probably this summer, Sellers wants a moratorium on granting permits to any new adult businesses. “There are two in Asheville now and … maybe three more in the talking stages, I’ve heard, although [Police Chief] Will Annarino reports no permits have been applied for,” he said.

“I’m … surprised we could zone adult establishments out of the city,” remarked Hay, an attorney.

“Right now, you can’t,” replied City Attorney Oast — but Council could enforce a moratorium until state legislators vote.

“You’re sure we’re on solid legal ground?” asked Cloninger, who’s also an attorney.

Mayor Sitnick suggested that they talk about it further — in closed session. “We need to explore the legal aspects,” she observed, recommending that public discussion of the proposal be placed on Council’s Feb. 24 agenda.

Council members went into closed session shortly afterward.

For the record

City Attorney Bob Oast took issue with a Feb. 10 accusation that Patsy Meldrum, one of his staff attorneys, has a conflict of interest in the city’s ongoing cable-franchise talks.

Asheville Citizen-Times Executive Editor George Benge made that accusation during a last-ditch public push to get the city to release cable-franchise-fee information covering the past 30 years.

“I want to set the record straight,” Oast proclaimed on Feb. 17, as he stood up to address City Council and members of the public in attendance at the work session. “As attorneys in public [service], we’re used to disagreements. … But conflict of interest is serious.”

According to all state and federal laws he knows of, Meldrum is guilty of no conflict of interest, said Oast, declaring, “She is one of the most ethical attorneys I know.”

In past Council meetings, Oast has remarked that conflict-of-interest laws refer to situations in which an individual involved in regulatory, political or other activities might also stand to realize a financial or other gain from the subject of those activities.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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