Asheville City Council

Citing health risks as their top concern, Asheville City Council has formed a crisis committee to weigh the pros and cons of dissolving the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency.

“Asheville’s in an inversion 78 percent of the time, second only to Los Angeles,” Mayor Leni Sitnick pointed out during Council’s March 7 work session. “For this council, the number-one concern is the public health and must remain so … in evaluating where we go from here.”

The APCA’s future was placed in jeopardy when Haywood County abruptly withdrew from its 30-year partnership with Asheville and Buncombe County last month. Now, the two remaining APCA entities have until July 1 to decide whether to reconstitute the agency or allow the state Division of Air Quality to take over local air-pollution permitting and monitoring.

APCA board Chair Nelda Holder told Council that local pollution control could falter under state supervision. The APCA, she related, has more staff to monitor two counties than the DAQ does to cover the 17 Western North Carolina counties now under its watchful eye.

DAQ representatives, however, say their staff is probably more qualified than the APCA’s — and stress that the state is already involved in many air-quality issues benefiting Asheville, such as financing the Clean Air Campaign. “Our concern is that there is a lot of information given out about our agency that’s not correct,” said Paul Muller, regional DAQ supervisor in Asheville. He also revealed that his agency is prepared to add at least four or five staffers to monitor Buncombe and Haywood counties.

Council asked both agencies for more information about their services, and formed a committee (consisting of Sitnick, Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger, and Council members Terry Whitmire and Brian Peterson) to consider the issue. The committee will also look at whether the city of Asheville — which produces 70 percent of the area’s air emissions, according to the mayor — should operate its own air-pollution department. The catch, however, is that any decision made to avoid coming under the DAQ’s jurisdiction would have to be approved by the state’s Environmental Management Commission by July 1.

Council member Barbara Field said she’s most concerned about losing opportunities for citizen participation in the pollution-control process. The APCA has a citizen advisory group, she noted, and she wanted to know if the DAQ does, too.

“Not to my knowledge,” Muller responded, “but we certainly have no shortage of complaints.” With so many counties under its umbrella, Muller said, it would be difficult to come up with a fair process for citizen participation.

Avoiding botched annexations

Annexation is a thorny topic for Council, and after several months of smelling the roses, Richard Flowe has finally stumbled into the prickers.

The soft-spoken Flowe — who is president of Benchmark Inc., a consulting firm working with the city to prepare for future annexations — enjoyed some fairly uneventful appearances the first few times he came before Council. At the March 7 work session, however, he unveiled his draft plans for future city services (e.g., water, fire and sewer) in certain areas, and several Council members didn’t like what they saw.

In the Lake Julian area (certainly the biggest prize, in terms of property- and sales-tax revenues, in this latest round of proposed annexations), a cluster of several homes was not earmarked for inclusion in the Metropolitan Sewerage District’s system. Having determined that the rugged terrain around the homes would make it too costly to install sewer lines, Benchmark recommended retaining (and closely monitoring) the existing septic tanks.

Several Council veterans expressed dismay. Only moments before Flowe presented his plan, Council member Ed Hay had cautioned, “We want to make sure that these annexed areas receive nothing less than the highest levels of city services available.” Sitnick added references to “botched annexations” in the past, musing that Council members serving 10 or 15 years down the road will be chastised for annexation mistakes made now.

Field led the charge against leaving the septic tanks in place. “I realize we have terrain problems, but the state of North Carolina is doing everything to eliminate septic systems,” she pointed out — adding that, during several previous Asheville annexations, homeowners had declined city-sewer services and then, after the houses were sold, the new owners wanted to know why the city wasn’t providing services.

“I will not vote for annexation that doesn’t provide full services,” she declared. “We’ve done that before, and we’ve gotten in trouble before.”

Flowe replied that, in similar circumstances where there is difficult topography, it is now a common practice for cities to maintain homeowners’ septic tanks “almost like a utility, with a monthly service charge.” The city, he said, would provide annual treatments so the tanks are “functionally pro-environmental.”

He also told Council that the services plan could be modified right up to the time the final annexation ordinances were approved, anyway — but advised against slowing things down now, which could significantly delay the overall process. “The windows [of opportunity] are short, because the statutes aren’t implementation-friendly — which is unfortunate,” he concluded.

Whitmire asked Flowe to provide Council with a cost analysis comparing the septic-system proposal with having the MSD install sewer lines. She received support from several Council members on this request, and Flowe said he would get the figures quickly.

Matthew Dickens may be reached by phone (251-1333) or e-mail (mdickens@mountainx.com).

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