Second cut: Council again considers joining billboard lawsuit

To log or not to log: Local members of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy asked Asheville City Council to review the rules governing commercial logging in the Bee Tree and North Fork reservoirs, pictured above. Clear cutting done in the late 1980s (right) spurred citizen protests; today, no clear cutting is allowed. Above photo by Bill Rhodes; right, file photo. file photo

Asheville City Council March 13, 2012 meeting

  • River District design review strengthened
  • • Too much watershed logging allowed?

For the second consecutive meeting, Asheville City Council members wrestled with whether to join a lawsuit challenging new state rules that allow dramatically increased clear-cutting in front of billboards.

“It's an impenetrable statute: It's difficult to read and difficult to follow,” City Attorney Bob Oast declared during the March 13 session. “The new law allows a fairly significant degree of [tree] removal, and there's very little deference to [local] city codes.”

The suit, filed by the environmental group Scenic NC, is seeking an injunction against the rules; the lead attorney had asked the city for a decision by March 16. The options, noted Oast, ranged from filing a friend-of-the-court brief to joining the lawsuit outright.

Judy Mattox, who chairs the local Sierra Club chapter, encouraged Asheville to get on board, saying the city's share of court costs would probably amount to less than $1,000. At this writing, no other municipality had joined the suit.

The rules took effect March 1. Asheville has already received three requests for new clear-cutting, noted Oast, though none is near approval.

During Council’s Feb. 28 session, several members had expressed concern that the new rules would damage the mountains' scenic beauty. This time, however, Council went into closed session to discuss its legal options, and Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer had to be recused, because her law firm represents a billboard organization.

In a March 15 letter to the plaintiffs’ attorney in the lawsuit, Oast cited the city’s concerns about the process and the new rules, but asked for more time to consider the city’s response, preferably until after March 27, when Council can be consulted again.

Other business

In other action, Council members:
• Voted 6-0 (Cecil Bothwell was absent due to a family emergency) to lower the threshold for projects to undergo design review in the River District to 1,500 square feet. Although the review is mandatory, compliance with the committee’s recommendations is voluntary. The Design Review Committee is also seeking defined geographic boundaries for the district, rather than the current zoning-based system, but that will be dealt with at a future Council meeting.
• Heard a quarterly financial report. Revenues are slightly below projections, with sluggish growth in the property-tax base (up 1.3 percent) offsetting recovering sales-tax revenues (up 6.2 percent).
• Heard a report on the transit system, which has brought several new, energy-efficient buses online and rolled out a marketing campaign. Transportation Planning Manager Mariate Echeverry said the system has made real improvements, noting that more efficient vehicles and route changes could help the city cope with rising fuel costs. But unless the federal or state government provides more funding, she added, other goals, such as providing Sunday bus service, will remain out of reach.
Carl Silverstein, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, urged the city to review the rules governing its conservation easement for the land around the Bee Tree and North Fork reservoirs, particularly the amount of commercial logging allowed. Amid the continuing debate over the fate of Asheville’s water system, he noted, logging in those watersheds has once again become an issue.

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

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