The continuing saga of the former Biltmore School took another twist last week.
Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene told the commissioners at their March 27 meeting that she had great news: The WNC Historical Association has secured new funding to buy the Biltmore School property from the county. The group plans to convert the former school into a regional historical museum.
“We’re going to get whiplash,” said a smiling Vice Chair David Gantt. “We’ve got to give them an A for tenacity.”
Greene reported that the association had found six investors willing to put up the remaining money needed to buy the property from the county for $1.8 million. She asked the board to hold off on beginning the upset-bid process.
Over the past few months, the Historical Association’s prospects for raising the needed funds have seesawed.
At the board’s Feb. 20 meeting, the commissioners learned that the Historical Association had raised the money it needed to qualify for a grant from the local Janirve Foundation. But by the board’s March 6 meeting, commissioners learned that Janirve had decided not to provide the grant because of concerns about the association’s funding strategy. The board then gave staff the OK to obtain new appraisals for the property.
The property deal is now scheduled to close on April 13, Greene said.
Greene also told the board that she’s negotiating with Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook over a possible land swap or purchase of city property next to the Detention Center as a site for the county’s proposed satellite jail.
She reported that she’d gotten appraisals of three parking lots near the Detention Center. The city-owned lot that the county wants was valued at $750,000. Two nearby county-owned lots were appraised at $243,500 and $364,000, she said.
After the meeting, Greene said the county would like to trade the $364,000 lot to the city for the one beside the Detention Center and pay the city the difference, although the county is willing to buy the lot outright.
But the county is also still seeking a conditional-use permit from the city that would allow the satellite jail to be built on the former Union Transfer property, which the county bought on Jan. 26. The county’s plans to site a satellite jail on the South Lexington Avenue property generated a furor of protest from downtown-development advocates, who feared the move would throw cold water on efforts to revitalize the area just south of downtown. Greene termed the continuing pursuit of a conditional-use permit a “safety net” in case something goes wrong with plans to acquire the city-owned lot. The county applied for the conditional-use permit on March 2, according to city planners.
“It’s upsetting to a few folks,” Greene conceded later. “We’re just trying to keep on both tracks and hope and believe that we’ll end up on the track where we trade property, but we don’t want to lose time.”
Greene also updated the commissioners on the county’s reorganization of its offices. County officials are trying to move offices out of leased space. As part of that plan, the county has been planning to construct a new building at Recreation Park to house the county’s Recreation Services Department.
But a budget crunch prompted by the state’s withholding $1.3 million in reimbursements has put those construction plans on hold, Greene reported.
The county now plans to move Recreation Services from county-owned offices in the former Biltmore Press building (near the county courthouse) to offices on Riverside Drive owned by the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Although the MSD space would also be leased, it is less expensive ($7.25 per square foot) than the leased space at One Oak Plaza downtown ($14 per square foot). The Solid Waste Department also would move to the MSD offices.
Those moves would enable the county to move other offices from One Oak Plaza to the Biltmore Press building.
“Hopefully, we’ll be out of One Oak by the end of the calendar year,” Greene told the board.
Even after the move, the Recreation Services Department will still hold registration days downtown, Greene said later.
“Financially, it makes a lot of sense,” she noted.
Regional Water Authority Chair Jack Tate appeared before the commissioners to talk about the Authority’s becoming an autonomous agency.
He noted that the Authority’s board had voted in February to form a committee to work on the issue. The committee will draft a proposal to present to the Asheville City Council and the Henderson and Buncombe boards of commissioners. (See “Taking the plunge,” Feb. 28 Xpress.)
The arguments for becoming a truly independent agency include not having to pay the state Department of Transportation “nonbetterment costs” when water lines must be relocated in connection with state highway projects. Those costs are approaching $1 million per year.
Tate also said an independent Water Authority could operate more efficiently and could satisfy bond-rating agencies that are beginning to be concerned that the agency doesn’t control its own budget.
In view of the state’s continued loss of manufacturing jobs, Tate urged taking a regional approach to the issue: “We’re looking at the future of this area,” he said.
Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey agreed that county and city lines don’t matter when a potential industry is deciding whether to locate in the area.
Commissioner David Young asked Tate how they might get the process moving.
Tate said he thinks it’s time for each government to form a group to start discussing creating an independent Water Authority, adding: “I think it’s critical we do that. We risk further litigation, or some kind of fence at the county line in some kind of psychological sense.”
(Henderson County recently filed a lawsuit against Asheville, Buncombe County and the Regional Water Authority over a tangled property exchange that all parties had agreed to back in the mid-1990s.)
Commissioner Bill Stanley said the item is on the agenda of the Sustainability Task Force’s next meeting, which he invited Tate to attend. The task force, made up of leaders from the public and private sectors, will meet at 8:30 a.m. on April 24 in Asheville’s Public Works Building.
Young suggested that Greene get together with the Asheville city manager and the Water Authority’s director to pull together such a group. Ramsey suggested that the Henderson County manager be included, too.
“The evil of it all is the water agreement,” suggested Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air. “It is the most confounding configuration of articles you’ve ever seen.”
Ramsey noted that the board would have to renegotiate that agreement.
County resident Mike Morgan suggested taking the politics out of the equation. Both he and Candler resident Jerry Rice said the commissioners should keep water rates in mind during the negotiations.
County Attorney Joe Connolly asked the board to approve a settlement with Transmap, an Ohio company hired two years ago to take digital photos of county properties for tax purposes. The issue raised the ire of county residents concerned about their privacy, and the commissioners canceled a $162,000 contract in December 1999.
The county paid an initial $16,000 fee to the company, Connolly noted. But Transmap wanted an extra $80,000 because of the contract cancellation, he told the board. Now, however, the company is willing to settle the dispute for an additional $24,000 — a price that Connolly was willing to recommend to the board.
Morgan popped up to question why the county hadn’t written an “escape clause” into the contract. Although Stanley gestured for Connolly not to respond, Connolly noted that the issue was important to Morgan. Connolly explained that while he hadn’t negotiated the contract, he didn’t find fault with it, either. Putting an escape clause in every contract would substantially increase the cost of doing business, Connolly said.
The commissioners unanimously approved the settlement.
Air Agency nod
After deadlocking 2-2 at the board’s last meeting on an appointment to the Regional Air Quality Agency — Stanley was absent — the commissioners tried again.
This time, the board voted 4-1 to appoint William Church to fill the term of Doug Clark, who died in January. Young nominated Church, while Commissioner Patsy Keever nominated and voted for Liz Foster, a lawyer who once worked for the Nashville, Tenn., air-quality board.
Church, a Weaverville resident, works as operations manager for American Threshold Industries, which has a plant in Enka. During his interview, Church told board members that he’d learned about the vacancy through the Manufacturers Executive Association (an affiliate of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce).
During the meeting, Fobes of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air critiqued the decision, saying some commissioners were “most disappointing” in their votes.
“You bow to the Chamber of Commerce,” she declared.
Although Gantt had voted for Foster at the earlier meeting, he said later that he’d switched his vote to Church because he knew Foster didn’t have the votes to be appointed.
Odds and ends
In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved hiring the certified public accounting firm of Crawley, Lee & Co. to perform the county’s independent audit for the next four years. The Asheville-based firm has performed the audit for the past four years as well.
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, county watchdog Don Yelton criticized the board for trying to “rush business” so they could make it to a public hearing scheduled for later that evening on whether to enact limited zoning just outside the Asheville city limits. If approved, the move would prevent the city from extending its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Terming it “manipulation,” Yelton said that zoning the potential ETJ area would make it easier to zone the rest of the county.
And Peter Dawes (who videotapes meetings for his cable TV show) suggested that the commissioners appoint an ex-officio board member to the Water Authority. Under former board Chair Tom Sobol, Dawes was not allowed to both cover the meeting and speak to the board. But at this meeting, Ramsey didn’t tell Dawes to sit down.
Ryan Pickens, who chairs the Mountain Clean Air Task Force of the Western North Carolina Alliance, urged the board to endorse the N.C. Clean Smokestacks plan. While speaking, Pickens held up a paper sign for the TV camera that said, “For info, call 258-8737.” Ironically, the county’s public-comment logo (which is digitally pasted on the bottom of the TV screen) will obscure his sign when the meeting is broadcast.
CP&L’s Nancy Thompson argued against the clean-air plan.
After about an hour-and-a-half, the commissioners wrapped up the meeting so they could drive over to A-B Tech for their ETJ public hearing.