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.
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.
“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.