Buncombe County Commission

You could call it the ultimate recycling project.

Last week, the Buncombe County commissioners unanimously agreed to partner with UNCA in converting a portion of the former county landfill near Woodfin into a “craft campus” that will house a new craft-studies program. The new facility will feature studios built using “green” construction techniques and powered primarily by methane from the decomposing trash.

At the April 6 meeting, four enthusiastic commissioners unanimously agreed to lease 153 acres at the 270-acre former landfill site to UNCA for 50 years at $1 per year. (Commissioner David Gantt was out of town.) The lease is renewable for an additional 50 years.

“This is gonna be a first-class operation,” declared Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, a strong proponent of the plan.

UNCA Chancellor Jim Mullen called the proposal a “win/win/win” deal for the university’s craft students, the local craft economy, and environmental stewardship in general.

The next day, the chancellor formally announced the plan at a packed press conference on campus, giving kudos to county government, the nonprofit HandMade in America and others.

The proposal envisions developing the facility in three stages. The first phase would create:

• clay and sculpture studios;

• a building housing a visitors’ center and a green-building exhibit, plus demonstration space, a gallery, a classroom, restrooms and offices; and

• a warehouse.

The second phase would add a glass studio and apartments for studio assistants, and the third phase would provide studios for metalsmithing and woodworking.

“Untransformed, the landfill is a mountain of decomposing trash, steadily burping methane — a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — [into] the atmosphere,” the proposal states. “This unique project partners … UNC Asheville’s policy of high-performance, toxin-free green buildings with the Buncombe County desire to return this land to sustainable, productive, public use.”

The project is expected to cost between $5 million and $6 million, with most of it coming from private donations and foundation grants, Mullen said after the press conference. William P. Massey, the university’s vice chancellor for alumni and development, estimated that groundbreaking is probably three years away, although Craft Campus Project Director Dan Millspaugh, a professor of art, said he hoped it could happen at least a year sooner than that.

The Energy Xchange — a HandMade in America project at Yancey County’s former landfill — is the prototype for using methane to power craft studios, the proposal notes.

The match would seem to benefit both partners. The project will help alleviate cramped conditions in UNCA’s existing art facilities, said Millspaugh. County officials, meanwhile, have tried to find a use for the property for years. In 2001, an 18-hole championship golf course was proposed for the site, but those plans ultimately fell through.

“I guess sometimes the best deal you make is the deal you didn’t make,” General Services Department Director Bob Hunter told the board. “I think this is a much better deal.”

The landfill was closed in 1997, but the county is required to monitor and maintain it for 30 years. The craft campus will occupy the portion of the property that hasn’t been used for garbage disposal, said Hunter.

“It’s always been our goal to make this into a good end-use and not just lock the gate and walk away from it,” he explained. “I grew up in Woodfin, so I’d like something to come back to that end of the county, and this will do it. I mean, this is a great project.”

Pack Square transformation

The commissioners also heard an update from Carol King on the Pack Square Conservancy’s plans for Pack Square and City/County Plaza. After her presentation, they unanimously approved the final design plan and the conservancy’s donor-recognition policy, which allows donors who chip in at least a half-million dollars to name major park features — such as stages and the entry plazas to the courthouse and City Hall. (The policy does not allow corporate names or those of for-profit entities to be attached to those major park features.)

In a related matter, local veteran Richard Griffin told the board that the Asheville City Council has donated $25,000 toward the estimated $100,000 to $120,000 cost of building the WNC Veterans’ Memorial Wall planned for City/County Plaza.

Toward the end of Griffin’s presentation, Chairman Nathan Ramsey neatly boxed himself into a corner by noting that anyone opposed to the project would also be against “mom and apple pie.”

“With that in mind, I move that we give $25,000 of county money to match the city money,” said Commissioner Patsy Keever.

“You can’t be opposed to mom and apple pie,” replied a surprised Ramsey, adding that he still thought it would be possible to raise the money via private donations.

The board voted unanimously to donate the $25,000, prompting a burst of applause from a beaming cluster of veterans who’d come out to show support for the project.

And futhermore …

During the public-comment session, the simmering controversy over public-access TV received yet another airing. Haw Creek resident Fred English (one of two speakers on the topic) displayed blown-up pictures of white-hooded Ku Klux Klansmen marching in downtown Asheville.

“This is what you’re gonna get, whether you like it or not,” declared English.

Ramsey asked County Attorney Joe Connolly to research the matter and report back to the board.

Meanwhile, county-government watchdog Jerry Rice complained that officials at the new Western Highlands Network (the new public entity administering local mental-health services) are considering building a new office structure when they ought to be focused on building a crisis-and-stabilization center for children and adults.

And Don Yelton noted that three Henderson County schools are recycling mixed paper — which he would like Buncombe County to resume doing.

In other business, the commissioners:

• unanimously approved spending priorities for the state Department of Transportation’s secondary-road program in Buncombe County for fiscal year 2004-05;

• proclaimed May to be both Motorcycle Awareness Month and Foster Care Month;

• and noted that Buncombe County’s Spring Litter Sweep will take place April 17-30.

At meeting’s end, the board went into closed session for about 10 minutes to discuss a real-estate matter and a personnel issue. The commissioners’ next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 11.

In memoriam Sgt. Hewitt

The April 4 shooting death of Sgt. Jeff Hewitt of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department lent a somber air to last week’s Board of Commissioners meeting. Hewitt was shot while he was trying to serve involuntary-commitment papers.

“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family, to all those at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department,” said Chairman Nathan Ramsey. “He was an outstanding officer, according to the sheriff, and he will be greatly missed by this county and our community.”

Ramsey called for a moment of silence in memory of the 34-year-old deputy, and the room fell quiet.

Donations to the Jeff Hewitt Memorial Fund may be made at any branch of HomeTrust Bank, or by contacting the Sheriff’s Department at 250-4503.

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