Taking sides over Parkside

When the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners sold a small piece of land to developer Stewart Coleman‘s Black Dog Realty back in November 2006, the transaction attracted little notice. Originally packaged with a slew of other items on the consent agenda, it was pulled, briefly discussed—and then unanimously approved.

By any means: Candidate Cecil Bothwell charges that the Parkside sale was illegal, and says it should be reversed. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Fast-forward to the current election, however, and things couldn’t be more different. It turns out that the parcel included a small piece of City/County Plaza—a public park in the heart of Asheville—and its sale without so much as a public hearing now stands at the center of a firestorm including lawsuits, public protests and packed Planning and Zoning Commission meetings.

Both the sale itself and the way it was approved—some commissioners said later that they hadn’t been clear about what they were voting on—have drawn sharp public criticism. Coleman plans to build an 11-story, mixed-use development—including condos—on the site.

Even the four commissioners currently seeking re-election are divided about the matter. Some say they regret their vote and that the whole affair points up the need for better communication. Others defend the decision, asserting that the criticism is just the nature of politics.

But candidate Cecil Bothwell, a contender in the May 6 Democratic primary, goes one big step further.

“This sale was illegal, and we should use any legal means to reverse it,” he declares. “That includes eminent domain, if [Coleman] isn’t willing to sell.” (Bothwell, a former Xpress reporter, covered the issue for this paper until late last year.)

Parkside, he contends, is an example of the kind of “government in the backroom” that Bothwell charges is far too common in the board’s decision-making process.

What do we do now?

by David Forbes

The controversial sale of public parkland to developer Stewart Coleman is getting plenty of attention by candidates for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. And while few have joined Cecil Bothwell in calling for reversing the sale (see main story, “Taking Sides Over Parkside”), many maintain that the decision shows the need for greater transparency in the way the board makes decisions. Here’s what the candidates had to say about it.

Democratic primary

K. Ray Bailey: “I’d do all I could as a county commissioner to make this a public process. There needs to be a common-sense approach here. I’m on the conservative side fiscally, so any decision to sell property is very important and needs to be considered very, very carefully.”

Cecil Bothwell: See main story.

Vernon E. Dover: “Some of the commissioners have said it was a mistake, though I don’t think we’ll ever know if it was intentional or not. We need to work with [developer Stewart] Coleman concerning what goes in there—and I certainly hope they will be.
“We don’t have all the details, and everyone makes mistakes, but I do believe we have to have transparency.”

Robert E. Hill: “Just from what I’ve observed, I think there were some meetings and discussion on this before the issue came up. Any meetings on topics this large [and] this important need to involve the whole board in public, before everyone.”

Holly Jones: “It’s done, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do to get it reversed. I don’t think it’s possible to buy it back. But I’m open to alternatives to fixing this problem.

“My model of public service includes rigorously following open-meetings law. My record [on the Asheville City Council] speaks for itself, and that’s what I’ll bring to [the Board of Commissioners]. This is a good example—anytime you sell property, it should be open, public, and there should be a firm record on what’s happening. People complain sometimes that Council meetings go too long. I think it’s better to err on the side of being open than seem fast and expedient but leave all these questions.”

Carol Peterson: See main story.

Keith Thomson: “I think things on the consent agenda need to be adequately explained. As a matter of principle, there needs to be transparency in government. Good planning requires transparency, so people can have an opportunity to improve plans.”

Republican primary

Steve Bledsoe: “Unfortunately this was a legal sale, so there’s not a lot that can be done. But I think it’s clear that a lot of the board didn’t fully understand what they were voting for. I struggle to understand how that could be. I think it’s partly the fault of staff, who should have fully informed the board—and it’s partly the commissioners’ fault, because they seemed to not care. Clearly there’s a communication issue here.”

John Carroll: Had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

Joe Dunn: I do believe that anytime you sell property, it needs to be open and transparent. This is the sort of thing that needed a big public hearing. There are a lot of things that have been less than up-front at the county level. That’s why I’m running—there needs to be a lot more transparency.”

Michael Fryar: “I’m neither here nor there on the issue. If it was done right, Mr. Coleman owns it, plain and simple. If it was done wrong, then it needs to be returned to the county, and the situation needs to be worked out.

“It is about transparency. If I’m a commissioner I’ll want to see the plot, the plan, the whole nine yards, before anything goes down. But there’s not a lot of transparency on either side—the city or the county.”

Ron McKee: Had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

Don Yelton: “You never sell anything unless you know what you’re selling. I think there’s tremendous problems with this [sale], and there’s tremendous questions over how it was done.

“But this is only a symptom of a larger problem—and that’s not conducting the people’s business in public.”

 

“They shouldn’t just have signed off on this,” he told Xpress. “It’s a bad project in so many ways; the effect on The Block [a historically African-American neighborhood] behind it hasn’t even been considered.”

Opinions among the other Board of Commissioners candidates seem to vary considerably and to cut across partisan lines (see sidebar, “What Do We Do Now?”). Although most say the issue demonstrates the need for more transparent decision making, none has yet seconded Bothwell’s call for canceling the sale.

A good deal

Longtime Commissioner Bill Stanley, now seeking a sixth term, has come under particular criticism from Bothwell, who asserted in an April 2 letter to Xpress that as a former owner of the neighboring Hayes & Hopson Building, Stanley was in a position to be aware of exactly what the board was selling—and should have informed his colleagues.

“Bill Stanley must have known,” Bothwell told Xpress.

Stanley, however, remains unapologetic. “It was a good deal, even though it wasn’t in the [Pack Square Park] plan,” he said. “It puts [the parcel] on the tax rolls.”

Stanley also dismissed the allegations of backroom deals. “People say that about things all the time,” he said, adding, “Everything we do is public enough.” The commissioner said he’s had nothing to do with the Hayes & Hopson Building since 1989, explaining, “I owned it for one year before I sold it.”

Commissioner Carol Peterson, who’s seeking a second term on the board, also defended the sale. “The facts were presented,” she said, noting that the commissioners had asked county staff several questions before the vote. Peterson said she feels the board’s behavior has been “absolutely transparent.”

But Board of Commissioners Vice Chair David Gantt, a Democrat who’s squaring off against Republican Nathan Ramsey for the chairman’s seat, says the decision was simply wrong.

“It was a mistake—it wasn’t real clear what we were voting on,” said Gantt. “I continue to regret that vote. We should have never sold something inside the park like that.”

Saying he knows of no way to reverse the decision, Gantt chalked the problem up to poor communication with county staff.

“Buncombe County is a big business, and a lot of things get delegated,” he said. “We rely a lot on [County Manager Wanda Greene], and she’s done a really good job.” Still, added Gantt, improvements need to be made—and in the future, he hopes to provide greater transparency to the public.

“Anytime there’s a sale of public property like that, we need to deal with it publicly, get it on the table, make sure we know exactly where the location is and make sure that people see it. We failed to catch that one.”

Ramsey, the current board chair, takes a somewhat different view.

“Our real mistake was not buying the Hayes & Hopson Building a number of years ago when we had the chance,” he told Xpress. “If we’d done that, this wouldn’t be an issue today,” because the county would also have owned the parcel Coleman wound up buying.

Ramsey said he finds it ironic that the board backed away from that deal due to Stanley’s prior involvement with the property. “We were worried people would see it as a conflict of interest—and now that’s exactly what they’re seeing anyway,” he noted. “Now it’s outside of the county’s control, whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. No matter what you do in this, someone will criticize you.”

To view documents related to the Parkside controversy, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.

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7 thoughts on “Taking sides over Parkside

  1. Gordon Smith

    Just a slight correction to the article:

    “Originally packaged with a slew of other items on the consent agenda…”

    The item was not originally on the consent agenda. It was added to the consent agenda at the beginning of the Commission meeting.

    The questions raised by this sale include:

    1. Why was former City Planning Director Scott Shuford in meetings with private developer Stewart Coleman, discussing how he might leverage public parkland against city owned property for a potential “swap”?

    2. Why did Coleman’s “independent” appraisal of the land not turn up the fact that it is parkland?

    3. Why are there two deeds to this property, and why didn’t Register of Deeds, Otto Debruhl, raise an alarm about the deal?

    4. Why did Coleman’s “independent” appraisal value the land at $322,000, while the County appraisal valued it at $600,000?

    5. Why was the land then revalued at just $306,000 for tax purposes, saving Coleman about $3,200 in yearly taxes?

    6. Why was this slipped onto the Commission’s consent agenda instead of having public hearing?

    7. When did County staff know this was public parkland? When did they tell the Commissioners?

    8. What were the circumstances surrounding Scott Shuford’s resignation just months after the land deal?

    9. Mountain Xpress, “Pay a visit to the Register of Deeds office in the county courthouse, however, and they’ll show you an aerial photo with a map overlay that clearly shows a pink property line extending well into what is now parkland—including the big magnolia and other trees in front of City Hall. Did anyone in county government look at that image before the sale was made?”

    10. Why are Coleman and the Marjorie Street property written into the minutes from the November 21, 2006 City Council work session when Shuford did not actually mention them?

    More on this land deal here:

    http://www.scrutinyhooligans.us/?p=5144

    http://www.scrutinyhooligans.us/?p=5062

  2. Gordon Smith

    According to the Hayes and Hopson building deeds and other information I’ve gathered:

    1986 – Stanley borrowed money from Wallace Hyde to purchase H&H;1986 – Hyde sold it to Stanley (who owed the mortgage to Hyde)

    1989 – Stanley and Hyde (formed partnership Hayes & Hopson Associates)

    August, 1990 – Stanley conveyed whole ownership to Hyde. Hyde rented it to the County for office space.

  3. Alan Ditmore

    The sale was necessary because Asheville desperately needs the high density housing to indirectly create affordable housing elsewhere by supply and demand. People can sleep in condos but not in Asheville parks. However 11 stories is not nearly enough as it takes over 30 stories to make housing affordable. NO HEIGHT LIMITS!!! Height limits cause homelessness.

  4. Cecil Bothwell

    I have copies of those deeds too. Gordon is exactly correct.

    But last night at the Fairview forum, Bill Stanley told the crowd that he’d only owned the building for one year (this to explain his failure to recognize that the parcel was park property). Meanwhile, he told both MountainX and the Citizen-Times that he thinks the sale was a good business deal.

    For him?

  5. Cecil, of course for him.
    Do you really think Mr. Stanley considers anyone else?
    Does not seem like it.
    Maybe he did once, but…

  6. the henge

    Typical political B——T wake up people they are stealing us blind the rich are getting richer and the average american is getting screwed this was illegal and they should have to pay for their crime because if they do not it will happen again, the laws were written for a reason not for the rich developers and crooked politicians

  7. Alan Ditmore

    Daytona FL is doing it right (or at least better) for affordable housing supplies. Boulder CO is doing it wrong. Asheville should follow Daytona, not Boulder.

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