The lease of our worries

An April 2 decision by Woodfin’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has at least temporarily derailed Progress Energy’s plan to build a diesel-fired power plant on land adjacent to the old Buncombe County landfill. But the company still holds a $1-per-year, long-term lease on the property as well as an option to eventually buy it.

Power-less resistance: Residents applaud the town of Woodfin’s Zoning Board of Adjustment after its vote blocking a proposed Progress Energy power plant. photo by Cecil Bothwell

The utility needs a conditional-use permit from the board in order to proceed with the plan. The decision can be challenged in court, but this is rarely done and, when it is, the courts tend to uphold the original decision, professor David Owens of the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill told Xpress: “North Carolina cities and counties consider something on the order of 2,200 of these applications per year and approve 86 percent of the applications,” said Owens. “Ninety percent of the jurisdictions reported no judicial appeals in the previous year. In [2005], 12 of the appealed cases had been decided—the decision was upheld in 64 percent, reversed in 21 percent, and sent back for further board consideration in 14 percent.”

If there is an appeal, he explained, “The court sits in an appellate position and does not take new evidence; rather, the court reviews the local process to see that proper procedures were followed—[that] there is adequate evidence in the record to support the decision.”

The zoning board heard from expert witnesses both pro and con and cross-examined them, sometimes in severe detail. Ken Maxwell, the utility’s community-relations manager, argued that Progress Energy needs a new power plant to accommodate periods of peak demand. The Woodfin site is ideal, he maintained, and pollution would be modest. Asheville property appraiser Mark Morris, hired by Progress Energy to give testimony, said he could find no evidence that the company’s coal-fired power plant in Skyland had affected the value of adjacent property. But Warren Wilson College economics professor Susan Kask countered with research involving tens of thousands of homes across the country that she said demonstrated significantly reduced property values in the vicinity of power plants. And Asheville physician Clay Ballantine offered detailed information about the impact of diesel exhaust on cardiovascular health, childhood-asthma rates and projected medical costs.

Woodfin-based green builder Andrew Bowers took a more vivid approach, proclaiming, “Building Energy Star and HealthyBuilt homes less than two miles from a diesel-burning power plant is like putting a bird sanctuary next to a poultry slaughterhouse.”

Speakers representing the developers of the River Bluffs, Reynolds Mountain and Altura communities opposed the plant on economic grounds. In fact, the only people who spoke in favor of the project during the sometimes raucous, marathon public hearing were working for Progress Energy. Shortly after midnight, it was finally time to vote, and all seven zoning-board members present turned thumbs down on the permit—prompting applause, hugging, dancing and cheering from the dozens of area residents still in attendance.

In order to legally deny the conditional-use permit, the board had to find that the plant would cause harm to health, property values or negatively impact the lives of Woodfin residents. “We had what seemed like an overwhelming amount of evidence that it wouldn’t benefit Woodfin,” Chairman Robert Powers told the Asheville Citizen-Times.

But even if the plant is never built, it could still have long-term effects on the area. The company holds a 50-year lease on 78 acres of Buncombe County property, with options to renew for up to 30 years, the right to sublease, an option to purchase at the end of the lease, and a right of first refusal if someone else tries to buy the property. The lease also allows the utility to store coal ash from its Skyland plant on the banks of the French Broad River.

Asked about the company’s next move, Richard Yates, who handles project siting and development for Progress Energy, told Xpress, “We’re just considering our options and haven’t made a decision yet.”

Meanwhile, on April 3, three local grassroots groups—the Mountain Voices Alliance, PARC and the Canary Coalition—held a press conference on the steps of the Buncombe County Courthouse, challenging both the lease’s legality and the process by which it was awarded (see “What Price Progress?” March 7 Xpress). Later that afternoon, Elaine Lite, Heather Rayburn and Linda Larsen addressed the Board of Commissioners meeting during the public-comment period, repeating the groups’ questions.

Chairman Nathan Ramsey acknowledged having received the questions via e-mail and said they’d been referred to the county attorney’s office.

Asked why the lease had not been made contingent on construction of a power plant, Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue said it had been. But attorneys Rachel Doughty and D.J. Gerken, who have examined the lease on behalf of the grassroots groups, told Xpress that they found no such clause in the document.


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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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