The Asheville City Council’s April 8 formal meeting was surprisingly brief, clocking in at just under two hours. The evening’s brevity was a marked departure from Council’s more typical endurance-testing legislative marathons. Indeed, based on length alone, one might conclude that the April 8 gathering was a walk in the park.
But the evening’s light agenda gave citizens a chance to air their grievances during public comment — including sharp criticisms of the Asheville Police Department’s decision to close Pack Square’s Vance Monument and Council’s decision to consider selling public property in Pack Square to the Grove Park Inn.
Council’s walk in the park quickly became a forced march through the thorny issues surrounding the First Amendment and the people’s stake in legally dedicated public parks. This, in turn, raised the specter of the city’s having to clearly address some very muddy legal issues: who owns Pack Square and City/County Plaza, what the boundaries are, and what these properties can legally be used for.
Asheville resident Kevin Nuttall delivered a critique of both the Vance closing and Council’s willingness to consider the Grove Park Inn’s proposal to construct high-rise buildings on two sites around Pack Square. Representing the Lighthouse Group, a local health-education-and-outreach organization, Nuttall began his comments by praising Capt. Tom Aardema and Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick of the APD for their having “dialogued with the citizenry in the heart of downtown Asheville over the last few months.” The officers, he continued, “have demonstrated themselves as being seasoned professionals and have displayed admirable skills while managing and remaining responsive to peaceful protesters.”
After extending the olive branch, however, Nuttall quickly shifted ground. “Recently,” he charged, “the department’s tone, tenor and public policy appear to have altered considerably. Several police officers have seemingly projected intolerance on a spectrum from subtle to extreme.” Nuttall also challenged the APD’s claims that the closure was in the interest of public safety, calling them “thinly veiled assertions [that] merely serve to facilitate the displacement of peaceful protesters from this extremely visible location” (emphasis his).
Nuttall then turned his attention to another aspect of Pack Square: Council’s recent dealings with the Grove Park Inn. “It appears that there is an attempt under way to sell off part of Asheville’s history,” he observed, noting that if the city sold the parcels in question to the Grove Park Inn and allowed them to construct two high-rise buildings on Pack Square, they would be violating the terms of Pack’s original 1901 agreement with Buncombe County.
Based on his own research, Nuttall maintains that the land now under consideration for sale was deeded to Buncombe County and “intended for the public’s benefit, in perpetuity.” And though there is some question about the accuracy of that claim, it is one that the city will certainly have to address before proceeding with any development plans.
Nuttall suggested that the city conduct a title search on the property before entertaining the Grove Park Inn’s formal proposal. Citing provisions in the deed, Nuttall asserted that “any attempt to sell, lease, or otherwise convey any part of the aforementioned land can result in the immediate forfeiture of the same, including buildings and improvements thereupon, to the rightful heirs of George Willis Pack. This caveat includes City Hall.”
Certain things are known. In 1901, Pack arranged a land swap with Buncombe County. In exchange for donating an adjacent parcel for a new county courthouse, Pack received the land the county owned around the Vance Monument. The agreement clearly spells out that Pack’s heirs would hold this land “in trust for public use as a public square, park or place forever.” The subsequent history of the property, however, remains in doubt.
Nuttall, meanwhile, still wasn’t done. Coming full circle, he returned to the closure of the Vance Monument. “The land upon which it sits is part or parcel of the same tract [of land] … dedicated to the public forever and to be used for the purpose of a public square, park or place. A portion of this land was barricaded on the afternoon of March 23, surrounding Vance Monument — quite in contradiction to the wishes of the late Mr. Pack. … This decision, perhaps facilitating a request made by proponents [of] a violent solution in the Middle East, appears to place Pack Square in jeopardy, as it now may legally have to be forfeited to [Pack’s] legal heirs, whom I can only hope are viewing this proceeding.”
Next up to the microphone was Asheville resident Paul VanHeden, who also voiced his disappointment over the city’s decision to close the Vance Monument:
“As an immigrant to this country, I am always in awe when I see the constitution of the United States. When the Iraq conflict began, I would send my relatives in South America pictures of the demonstrations going on in front of the Vance Monument — showing them that this is what democracy looks like. I was proud of both pro- and anti-war protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights. … The barrier that has gone around the Vance Monument disturbs me on the very deepest level of my being. … Even if it is technically legal, we must ask: Is it really the right thing to do? After all, this is supposed to be a free society. What they’ve basically said is that due to the convenience of our police chief and our police force, we’re going to go ahead and trump the First Amendment.”
Council members listened intently but remained silent during the public presentations, following their standard practice.
Before they adjourned to go into closed session, however, Council member Brian Peterson asked City Attorney Bob Oast how long the monument would be closed, noting that he’d been contacted by “numerous citizens” with varying political views who’d expressed outrage about the closure and the unsightly barricades that now encircle the city’s central landmark. Oast said he’d been meeting with representatives of the APD and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to consider “things like numerical limitations” for using the park if it were reopened, noting that no decisions had yet been made.
Peterson urged Oast to expedite the process, especially if reopening the monument would require action by Council — an ironic request, given that the closing was accomplished without formal action by Council.
“Let’s see if we can get the park open again,” pleaded Peterson.