Fair trade?

Riverside debate: Almost 140 acres on the French Broad River could revert to the city of Asheville’s ownership as part of a deal worked out years ago in the 1995 Water Agreement. photo by Bill Rhodes

Amid the recent furor over the future of Asheville’s water system, one important aspect has mostly escaped notice: In July, Henderson County is due to transfer a 137-acre Bent Creek property to the city. And while lawyers for both sides acknowledge the deadline, they’re keeping mum about its connection, if any, to the broader dispute over who will own and run the water system.

City Attorney Bob Oast tacitly acknowledged the upcoming deadline, saying, “There's that provision in the deed.” Asked about the larger issues, however, Oast replied, “I can't answer that.”

Similarly, Henderson County Attorney Charles Burrell, asked if the transfer is still going forward, said, “As far as I know.” But after agreeing that the water-system issues are extremely complex, he simply said, "I'm going to stop right there."

Sitting at the confluence of Bent Creek and the French Broad River just upstream of the Interstate 26 bridge, the parcel is assessed at $1.1 million, according to Buncombe County tax records. It's the only piece of property in Buncombe owned by Henderson County.

A long story

The story begins back in 1989, when Asheville voters rejected a plan to build a new water-treatment plant on the Bent Creek property (which the city had bought for that purpose some years before), due in part to concerns about the French Broad's water quality. Then, in 1995, Asheville and Henderson County cut a deal allowing the city to build a new plant at the confluence of the French Broad and Henderson County's more pristine Mills River. A nonbinding part of the agreement declared that the two governments “shall in good faith work towards the formation of a regional water authority.”

The deal also transferred the Bent Creek property to Henderson County as the potential site of a future sewage-treatment plant that could meet north Henderson's growing needs. The expectation was that a fully independent regional authority would be formed, and the property would be transferred to the Metropolitan Sewerage District to build and operate the plant.

That same year, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson was established. But from the beginning, there was trouble. Asheville owns the water system infrastructure, and the fledgling authority lacked full legal autonomy.

In 2002, after a failed attempt to work out another deal involving the Bent Creek property, Henderson County finally took title to it. That, however, started the clock ticking, giving Henderson until July 1, 2012, to transfer the property to MSD.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the city backed out of the water agreement, citing numerous concerns (for more on this complex situation, see "Water Torture," March 23, 2005 Xpress). Besides derailing hopes for establishing a fully autonomous regional authority, the move sparked enduring bitterness among Henderson County leaders, who’d already threatened twice to sue the city over its alleged failure to satisfy the terms of the regional agreement.

“There are very hard feelings between Henderson County and the city of Asheville, and no great desire to be a part of a system,” state Rep. Chuck McGrady noted last month at a water forum hosted by the local League of Women Voters. McGrady previously served on the now-defunct Regional Water Authority board.

Legislative remedy?

In 2008, another round of discussions concerning the Bent Creek property's fate also failed to reach a resolution. And now, with the deadline looming and no plans for a sewage-treatment plant on the site, Asheville appears poised to regain the property come July — unless state legislation giving the water system to either MSD or a new regional water authority intervenes.

That’s exactly what a committee chaired by Rep. Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County is currently studying. Moffitt’s original proposal last year called for handing off the system — which the city says is currently worth about $1.3 billion, including the watershed acreage — to MSD, with no mention of any reimbursement. Amid the considerable outcry that followed, Moffitt retooled the proposal to establish the study committee, which is charged with delivering a recommendation to the full General Assembly.

Xpress Contributing Editor Jonathan Barnard, has tracked local water issues closely over many years; he notes that in 2009, then-Henderson County commissioner McGrady said that if the county couldn’t negotiate its way to a settlement, it “was content to pursue a judicial or legislative remedy.”

McGrady now serves on the very study committee whose recommendation could help decide the water system's fate. And though he declined to clarify his current views on the matter, saying it was “irresponsible” of Xpress to break the story without first consulting him, McGrady did post some comments on the Xpress website.

"No sewer treatment plant was built on the property because, with the loss of some manufacturing facilities in Buncombe County, MSD has plenty of capacity and doesn't need to build a new plant,” McGrady wrote. “I've also been told that if a new plant were to be built, ideally it would be on the other side of the river. I don't know if that is true, since there is no need for further sewer capacity."

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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