Buzzworm news briefs

Pause for the Cause: The best of Blue Ridge

Dozens of high-quality crafts, products and services from Western North Carolina artisans and entrepreneurs will be up for bid at “The Best of the Blue Ridge” auction on Friday, April 8, starting at 7 p.m. The event will benefit the Mountain Area Information Network and its low-power radio station, WPVM-LP 103.5 FM.

The auction will be held at the Jubilee! Community Church (46 Wall St. in downtown Asheville).

“A key part of MAIN and WPVM’s mission is to support local artistic expression, as well as locally owned businesses,” said MAIN Executive Director Wally Bowen. “We are privileged to work with hundreds of entrepreneurs and artists through the Blue Ridge Web Market, our free e-commerce portal, and our low-cost Web hosting service.

Local artist Austin Hill, a volunteer disc jockey on WPVM, is organizing the auction. “There’s going to be something up for bid to interest everybody,” noted Hill, “from fine-art pieces and travel packages worth hundreds of dollars to jewelry and pottery to some really unique and fun services.”

Admission is free, and appetizers will be served. Complete details and the full auction catalog are available online (wpvm.org/auction.php).

— Cecil Bothwell

Proposed state laws further muddy water situation

In the often-tortured negotiations between Asheville and Buncombe County over the future of the water system, the potential for legislative action was always the joker in the deck. But last week, it became clearer how that card might end up being played when state Reps. Bruce Goforth, Wilma Sherrill and Susan Fisher introduced what they called “Sullivan Act II” and “Sullivan Act III,” barely making a March 30 deadline for submitting proposed legislation in the House.

The Asheville City Council’s announcement last June that it intended to pull out of the Water Agreement was based, at least in part, on a re-evaluation of the impact of the original Sullivan Act, which barred the city from charging more to water users served by mains that county water districts had financed with their own bonds. The city had concluded that the 1933 state law now covered only a tiny percentage of current system customers — those living in areas that hadn’t been annexed in the interim who were still connected to the actual pipes the water districts had laid back in the 1920s.

Thus, pulling out of the Water Agreement would enable Asheville to impose higher water rates on most customers living outside the city, thereby lessening the burden on city residents. It costs less to provide city residents with water, Asheville argued, because of the higher density of lines and the smaller number of electricity-hungry pumping stations within the city.

Buncombe County, however, has a different interpretation of the Sullivan Act, maintaining that it still applies to most water customers outside the city — namely all those within the geographic boundaries of the old water districts. But as currently worded, Sullivan Act II would make the argument over its applicability moot. In fact, it goes beyond the county’s take on the original law, banning rate differentials for all Buncombe County customers “currently or hereafter connected to the water lines currently maintained by the Asheville/Buncombe Water Authority.”

With the dissolution of the Water Agreement, the lines covered by the original Sullivan Act — however many that turned out to be — would revert to the county (as trustee of the former water districts). And Sullivan II assigns Buncombe County the responsibility to maintain those lines “in proper repair in order that there may not be a waste of water by leakage.”

When the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Sullivan Act in 1958, it noted that “the City of Asheville is under no duty to sell water to consumers residing outside its corporate limits. … However … it would seem that the City, in view of its control of the water in the area, does have a moral duty to furnish water to these districts.”

This interpretation gave Asheville an ultimate trump card in negotiations with the county: the ability to simply stop supplying customers outside the city with water (though to the best of Xpress‘ knowledge, no Asheville official has ever suggested actually playing that card).

Sullivan III, however, is apparently an attempt to eliminate any possibility of that happening. “Consumers of water outside of the corporate limits of the City of Asheville,” the bill states, “shall be entitled to purchase water from … the city of Asheville… so long as there is excess capacity.”

Asheville Mayor Charles Worley said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the state legislators’ decision to introduce the bills. Worley as well as Council members Joe Dunn and Brownie Newman all told Xpress last week that they felt the bills would hinder, rather than help, the chances of Asheville and Buncombe County reaching an agreement.

Meanwhile, Sen. Martin Nesbitt said he’d read the bills and supported their introduction, noting that they were not yet law and could be revised. Stressing the importance of stability in water supplies, Nesbitt said state legislators were attempting to head off an instance of “gotcha politics,” in which one set of elected officials imposes its will on “people that can’t elect them.”

In explaining why she’d co-sponsored the bill, Sherrill said that while she continues to hope Asheville and Buncombe County will work things out, the region “couldn’t run the risk that they can’t.”

— Jonathan Barnard

A spectrum of women

Eight women of various ages — some childless, some with young children or teenagers, some with grandchildren — will come together for an intergenerational panel discussion entitled “Different Needs, Different Times” from 1 to 3 p.m. on Friday, April 15 at UNCA’s Humanities Lecture Hall.

The panelists will discuss “how women respond to the changing concerns that come in their life whenever they go through a certain age change or status change such as college, family, marriage, divorce, children — all those various stages,” explains Mary Lasher, senior vice-president for the Asheville branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

The event, which is free and open to the public, kicks off the 2005 North Carolina AAUW Conference. The discussion will be moderated by William Spellman, a leader in intergenerational education at UNCA. Men are welcome to attend.

Last month, the 150-member Asheville AAUW — one of the largest and oldest branches in the state — celebrated its 90th birthday. AAUW is itself the nation’s largest and oldest organization that promotes women’s equality.

For more information, visit www.rtpnet.org/aauwnc/asheville.

— Lisa Watters

Shelter from the storm

WNC is still digging out of the mess created by last September’s torrential rain and ensuing floods — figuratively, at least, and, in some cases, literally.

In the forests, the effect of the storms on man-made structures was severe. “Roads and trails were washed away, culverts were blown, and large landslides and fallen trees blocked and damaged roads,” notes a March 19 press release from the USDA Forest Service on Zillicoa Road.

But repairs are moving forward. So far, nearly $800,000 for 32 construction contracts has been awarded, of which four have been completed. There are currently 18 projects under way, principally in the Pisgah and Appalachian ranger districts of the Pisgah National Forest and the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. Most of the work should be completed within the next three months.

While repairs progress, the Forest Service is urging hikers, runners and mountain bikers to remember that unrepaired storm damage can present hazards — particularly to those who head out on a familiar trail unaware that damage may have occurred since their last visit last summer. Basic safety rules are more important than usual: Avoid going out alone; tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return; take the proper gear; pay attention to warning signs; don’t use routes marked as closed; and contact the local ranger office for the latest info on trail closings and storm-damage reports.

For more info on financial aid, call 211. For more info on area National Forests, call (828) 877-3265.

— Cecil Bothwell

Imagine the future

Mention economic development at a cocktail party and you just might be greeted with yawns. But on April 13 at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, that very topic will be tackled in a way that is anything but boring. The university recently announced that the public is invited to attend a one-day forum where 130 panelists, presenters and speakers will talk about the way the creative culture and natural environment must be factored into economic-development strategies.

Dubbed the i7 Futures Forum, WCU spokesperson Bill Studenc describes the event as “economic development with a postmodern twist.”

According to Studenc, the university is bringing together a mix of creative thinkers from science, government, technology, education, arts and the humanities to “collectively imagine what our region will look like 20 years from now. …The structure is dialogue — poets talking with economists, engineers talking with painters, philosophers talking with entrepreneurs, and every combination in between — to see what type of future we might envision for our region.”

Among the many topics (or “strands,” as organizers are calling them) for the day are biotechnology and native botanicals, recreation, tourism and environment, government policy and research, creative and performing arts, engineering, “green” construction, architecture and design, the creative class, communications and broadband, the search for meaning, sociology and native culture — and many more.

The event will be held at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center on Western’s Cullowhee campus. The i7 Futures Forum is free to the public, but the deadline to register is Friday, April 8.

For more information about the i7 Futures Forum at Western Carolina University (or to register), contact the Center for Regional Development at (828) 227-7492, or visit www.wcu.edu/crd.

— Brian Sarzynski

Lower-impact construction methods

Earth moving for building projects can create a significant and detrimental runoff problem in nearby streams. To curb such damage, the N.C. General Assembly enacted the Sedimentation Pollution Control Act in 1973. The maximum penalty for not complying with the law is $5,000 per violation per day, payable by the owner or developer of the site.

French Broad Riverkeeper Phillip Gibson saw a chance to keep our rivers healthier and help developers avoid fines by offering Clear Water Contractor training. Together with Mike Goodson, Gibson put together a free, one-day education and certification program. Completing the class permits builders to display a Clear Water Contractor logo on vehicles, stationery and advertising. Participating businesses are listed on the RiverLink Web site as well.

The certification is a marketing tool, says Gibson. “If you are a homeowner or developer seeking a contractor for your development project,” he explains, “just look for the Clear Water Contractor logo on their truck or ‘dozer.”

“Since 2000, over 600 contractors have participated in the Clear Water Contractor Training program,” Gibson notes.

Through partnerships with Michael Brookshire of the Buncombe County Erosion and Sediment control program and Marc Pruett from the Haywood County program, two workshops will be conducted in Buncombe and Haywood counties on April 11 and 12. The first will be held at the Mountain Horticulture Crop Research Station and the second at Haywood Community College. Speakers from local, state and federal regulatory agencies will be on hand to train contractors.

If you are a contractor interested in attending the upcoming free workshops, contact RiverLink at 252-8474, ext. 114 to receive a brochure. Advance registration is required and space is limited. (The workshops are open only to contractors.)

— Cecil Bothwell

Next stop: Lexington Station

Around town, it’s known as the Union Transfer Building — an aging hulk of concrete block that once was home to a moving-and-storage company — which, ironically, moved out of downtown. But if the Asheville City Council approves developer Steve Moberg‘s proposal, the entire 1.7-acre site on the south side of downtown will be bulldozed to make way for Lexington Station — three mixed-use buildings housing retail, office and 66 one- and two-bedroom condominiums priced from $159,000 to $257,000.

Neighbors of the proposed development may find it more palatable than living next to a jail annex or an ambulance-dispatch center, two plans put forth by Buncombe County officials after the county bought the property in 2001. The jail-annex proposal sparked a rift between between city and county officials, with Asheville leaders arguing that the annex would stifle future development in the neighborhood, bordered by South Lexington Avenue and Church Street. The proposed ambulance-dispatch center also troubled city officials and owners of adjacent property, who maintained that having sirens blare at all hours of the night would have a similarly negative effect on the area’s prospects.

The jail-annex dispute was eventually settled when the city and county agreed to a land swap that would enable the county to build an annex adjacent to the current jail. The county sold the Union Transfer property to Moberg in 2004. No announcement has been made as to where the ambulance-dispatch center will be sited.

Meanwhile, the city Planning and Development Department will recommend that Council approve the plans, City Planner Alan Glines told Xpress. “This development will enliven the whole neighborhood,” said Glines. “There’s already the Orange Peel and Wild Wings — which have been a nice jump-start — and I think we’ll see additional development in that part of downtown because of Lexington Station.”

The city Planning and Zoning Commission will review the proposal on April 6, paving the way for possible consideration by Council sometime in May, he said.

— Brian Sarzynski

Secret water negotiations may skirt open-meetings law

After Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey revealed that a private meeting between two county commissioners and three Asheville City Council members was scheduled for March 12, Xpress challenged the meeting’s legality — and Mayor Charles Worley canceled the gathering (see “Meetings in the Sunshine?” March 16 Xpress). In his response to Xpress, Ramsey said such secret meetings had been ongoing for months. Worley concurred, and both politicians said they believed these meetings are legal under the North Carolina open meetings law.

But attorney Mike Toddy of the N.C. Press Association explicitly disagreed, telling Xpress that a meeting arranged in order to avoid the strictures of the open-meetings law is automatically deemed to be subject to the law. Xpress then filed a public-documents request with all members of the Board of Commissioners and City Council, asking for the minutes of any meetings that had occurred and for access to related correspondence and e-mails.

Council member Joe Dunn copied to Xpress an e-mail he had circulated among his Council colleagues. The e-mail stated: “I am not sure we must ‘buckle under’ to these threats by the media. I have read [City Attorney Bob Oast‘s] information concerning the open meetings laws. I believe that a very good argument can be made that the city has NOT set up a special committee to negotiate this agreement and has the right to talk informally among ourselves.”

Dunn continued: “I see this technicality as a clear way for us to proceed with out worrying about breaking any laws on NC. I see it as defensible and legal for us to do this.” In the course of the e-mail, Dunn outlined some of the arguments Oast had made in a communication to Council.

But in Toddy’s view, this explicitly states that an effort has been made to circumvent the law. Xpress also requested a copy of the city attorney’s memo, which Oast declined to provide, stating in an e-mail, “My legal advice to the Council is privileged and confidential, and I cannot disclose it.”

Reached by phone, however, Toddy countered, “The councilman’s e-mail to the press has eliminated any argument of attorney/client privilege.”

At press time, Oast had not responded to Toddy’s assertion.

The potential dissolution of the Water Agreement is a major issue for all county residents, regardless of whether they live within the city limits. Yet both Ramsey and Worley have said that discussions about this matter have been held for months — out of sight of the very people who will be most affected. Watch these pages for news of future developments.

— Cecil Bothwell

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