Deadlines are looming, and the Asheville City Council says it won’t wait for political foot-dragging when it comes to matters affecting the public’s health.
At their April 11 meeting, Council members voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on the future of the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency in April — with or without participation by the Buncombe County commissioners — after word trickled in that the commissioners preferred to wait until after the May 2 primary.
“There comes a point where you have to take some leadership on something like this,” observed Mayor Leni Sitnick, who appeared concerned after political activist Peter Dawes said he’d heard that the commissioners didn’t want a public meeting until May 16.
The air agency’s future was placed in jeopardy in February, when Haywood County abruptly withdrew from its 30-year partnership with Asheville and Buncombe County. Now, the two remaining APCA entities have until June 1 to formally decide whether to reconstitute the agency, operate it out of a county department, or allow the state Division of Air Quality to assume responsibility for permitting and monitoring local air pollution.
Hazel Fobes, the chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, urged Council to push for retaining the air agency in its present form, rather than having the county’s Emergency Management Department monitor local air pollution. “No one government should operate the air board,” said Fobes, adding, “I don’t think you can do that with an ambulance service.”
Fobes also asked Council to try for a joint city/county public hearing, and Council members said several times that that had been their intention all along.
But if the city waited until May 16, Sitnick said they might not be able to meet the Environmental Management Commission’s June 1 deadline for making a decision on the agency’s future.
The public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18 in Council’s chambers.
Where’s the money?
Without officially endorsing any of the recommended projects, Council gave a task force the go-ahead to explore potential funding mechanisms for a new Asheville Civic Center.
“It’s been an interesting week,” said Council member Ed Hay, who does double duty as chair of the Task Force on the Future of the Civic Center. For the second straight week, Hay made a presentation to Council on the troubled venue.
The task force has recommended using the existing Civic Center site to build a new convention center — perhaps retaining and refurbishing the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — and building a new sports arena somewhere that’s consistent with downtown-revitalization efforts. Now, the group must figure out how to fund these projects, and convince some of the doubters on City Council that it’s all necessary.
Earlier that same week, Hay said, a delegation of city and county representatives and other interested parties had gone to Greenville, S.C., to learn how that city had funded its new arena, the Bi-Lo Center. Hay doesn’t think Asheville needs a venue that large, but the way Greenville generated the public’s portion of the $65 million project raised some delegation eyebrows. An auditorium-district tax generated $12 million, and another $18 million came from a room tax.
“That’s $30 million we don’t have,” noted Hay. A state grant provided another $2.5 million, and the rest of the money came from private developers. Hay suggested that all three Asheville projects might be funded by a similar public/private partnership.
Council voted unanimously to accept the task force’s report, which Hay likened to ceremoniously giving the OK to research funding mechanisms, but not before Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger had again questioned whether Asheville needs a new sports arena.
“How are we going to pay for this, even with the public-and-private partnership?” asked the vice mayor. “This city has a lot of needs. Right now, we have a Civic Center that doesn’t have any debt service, and we can’t even fund the maintenance on that.”
Developer gets fee discount
City Council passed a resolution, 6-to-1, allowing a developer to partly sidestep Asheville’s new fee-in-lieu development ordinance, designed to help fund sidewalk construction.
Karl Lail had asked the city to waive the sidewalk requirement for his proposed warehouse on Sweeten Creek Road, because the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to widen the road and build sidewalks there in two years, anyway. The city will have to pay 40 percent of the cost of those sidewalks, within the city limits.
“It’s more of a timing issue,” said Lail, who would have had to pay a $1,520 fee — the cost of building a sidewalk along the approximately 100 feet of road frontage. “I wouldn’t have a problem with paying the fee, if it wasn’t already funded.”
City Engineer Cathy Ball urged Council to deny Lail’s request, to avoid setting the wrong precedent for future development. Council, however, decided that this is a special circumstance and asked Lail to pay just 40 percent — the city’s portion of the construction cost — instead of the full fee.
Council member Charles Worley said it was the fairest, most logical solution.
Council member Brian Peterson cast the lone dissenting vote. “I think it sets a bad precedent,” he commented after the meeting. “We just adopted the fee-in-lieu policy a month ago. It was fine then.”