People, parks and dollars

What are better parks worth to you? $30 a year?

That’s what proponents say the city’s proposed $18 million in parks, recreation and greenway bonds would add to the average city resident’s property taxes. Voters will determine the bonds’ fate in a referendum on Tuesday, May 11. But bond opponents note that several other bond proposals are also in the works, and question whether some aspects of the proposed park improvements might infringe on property rights.

Dip into the city’s history, and you’ll learn that Asheville’s oldest parks are probably Aston and Montford, both dating from the 1890s. At the turn of the last century, some parks were privately funded and operated for profit — like the park-with-casino on Beaucatcher Mountain (now the site of Seely’s Castle). Another popular recreational facility, Riverside Park (built by the Asheville Electric Company), featured Thursday-night fireworks, boat rides, a merry-go-round, a skating rink and other amenities. Badly damaged by fire, its remains were washed away in the massive flood of 1916.

Most of the city’s modern-day park facilities date from the 1970s, funded largely by federal grants and other monies available from outside the community. Today, these facilities are decades-old, in need of repairs, and unable to meet many of our current needs (there’s a shortage of soccer fields in the city, for instance).

“People are always saying we need to invest in our community, in education and in business. This is part of that equation,” proclaims Asheville City School Board Chair Susan Fisher. City residents of all ages need ball fields to play on, parks to picnic in, and community centers to gather in, she continues. Improving our existing facilities and building new ones answers that need, which Fisher calls a quality-of-life issue.

But meeting that need could cost $57 million, if City Council tried to fund all the improvements and additions recommended by a consultant’s study last year. Balking at that price tag, however, Council directed staff to come up with a short list of top priorities, like creating a ball-field complex on 181 city-owned acres at Richmond Hill and renovating rundown facilities like the Burton Street Community Center.

“The [trimmed-down] plan covers all types of recreation needs,” explains Maggie Clancey, campaign manager for the Parks and Greenways Campaign Committee. If the bonds are approved, they will fund improvements to existing facilities and construction of new park facilities and greenways throughout the city, she reports: ballparks, walking trails, senior-citizen centers, rugby fields, dog parks, nature trails, picnic facilities, air conditioning for community centers, improved landscaping, parking and lighting at facilities, outdoor basketball courts and children’s playgrounds.

It’s a long list of specific projects: $6.6 million for new facilities, $6.4 million to renovate existing ones, $3 million for greenways, and $2 million to buy land for future parks. “It’s not designed to give us $18 million and we’ll do what we want with it,” says Parks and Recreation Department Director Irby Brinson. According to the requirements for securing the bond monies, all projects have been identified and their costs carefully researched and estimated, he indicates.

That’s a crucial point, notes Clancey. From phone surveys conducted by the Campaign Committee, she’s learned that some voters fear the bond monies will come to the same fate as the proceeds from the sidewalk bonds issued years ago: frittered away by unforeseen costs, leaving little to show for the increase in taxes. City officials concede that, in the past, some planned projects went by the wayside because of higher-than-expected costs. They also say that by the time the bonds had been paid off, some of the earier projects were already in need of repair.

“People want to make sure they get what they pay for — that’s a leftover attitude from the sidewalk [bonds],” says Clancy. Like Brinson, she stresses that all the money has already been earmarked for specific projects, adding that a citizens’ oversight committee will be appointed to make sure things get done. “We can deliver,” Clancy promises.

Some city residents, however, remain cautious. Says Carol Collins, “I am not against having adequate ball fields and parks to serve our city’s youth, or citizens of any age. … But I have more questions than answers.” For starters, two other proposed bond referendums are also in the works: one for the Buncombe County Schools, and another for affordable housing. “Individually, these may seem insignificant, but collectively, they are going to take a big bite out of taxpayers’ paychecks, at any income level,” Collins asserts.

But county officials say the school bonds will not raise taxes and are, primarily, a refinancing of existing school debt. The affordable-housing proposal, however, could add another $15 a year to the property taxes of the owner of a $100,000 home in the county. Collins also questions the proposed greenway projects. “As a proponent of private-property rights, they raise a number of concerns to me,” she observes. Primarily, Collins says she’s worried about what tactics the city might use to acquire the permanent easements needed for greenways, and she wonders what the benefits might be for private-property owners. “Are people being pressured or manipulated? … Is the city granting any type of tax or financial incentive of any kind to gain easements?” Some greenway opponents see such projects as unconstitutional takings of land and want compensation for property owners.

But Brinson, speaking about the ongoing Broadway greenway project — for which the city has hired the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to negotiate with property owners — responds, “Not one inch of that was acquired by condemnation.” TPL has first attempted to convince property owners to donate the land; failing that, the land is appraised, and TPL makes an offer. Property owners who donate conservation easements get a tax credit, and the city maintains the land, Brinson explains.

Clancy, A TPL employee on loan to the campaign, also spoke to Collins’ concern: “There is no attempt to coerce people or condemn property. … We’re a nonprofit organization whose mission is to conserve land for people where they live, particularly for providing open spaces for people in urban places. That’s why we exist.”

But that doesn’t entirely reassure some residents. One riverfront property owner declined to support anything associated with RiverLink (a partner in one of the proposed greenway projects); the nonprofit group is spearheading riverfront redevelopment, and the project has also involved Carolina Power & Light, which donated some of the land.

And Clancy reports that at least one city resident contacted in the phone surveys asserted that — although he didn’t object to park improvements, per se — he wouldn’t support anything advocated by the present City Council, which accepted RiverLink’s donation of the Asheville Motor Speedway property last year. (After the 1999 season, racing will be banned at the 30-acre site, which is slated for future development as a park but would not be funded by the bond money).

No funds would go directly to RiverLink, either, notes Brinson, although the city has partnered with the nonprofit in greenway projects along the French Broad River. He points out, too, that many of the earmarked projects involve such partnerships: The Haw Creek greenway project has already begun, with neighborhood residents privately raising money; the WNC Soccer Association and the WNC Youth Sports Complex organization are working with the city on developing the old Lake Craig property; and other local sports organizations have agreed to help maintain some parks and fields.

Twenty-five-year city resident Tom Byers urges voters to approve the referendum. As special assistant to UNCA’s chancellor, he’s seen the results of a city initiative that created a greenway along Weaver Boulevard — which will, one day, connect with a Broadway Avenue/Reed Creek greenway. “Eventually, it’ll be a natural thing to walk or bike from downtown to UNCA,” says Byers, who envisions a citywide system of greenways linking various parts of the city and providing safe routes for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“I’ve also raised two children in Asheville, and know firsthand that Asheville has been a little short on youth facilities. We badly need them,” adds Byers, citing a lack of baseball and soccer fields.

“As a longtime Ashevillean, I love my city dearly, but it needs some improvements in the area of recreation and youth sports. And this bond is an opportunity to address that need.”

What the money would buy

New facilities: $6.4 million

These would include new sports complexes (for soccer, baseball, football, rugby, Ultimate Frisbee and similar sports), indoor facilities (a pool, in conjunction with the Asheville City Schools, and a gym, in conjunction with WNC Youth Sports Complex organizers), walking trails and playgrounds at those complexes, a dog park, boat-and-fishing access, and picnic areas, as follows:

• Richmond Hill Park: a 181-acre ball field and wooded park.

• Lake Craig Park: a multiple-use facility for soccer, wetlands conservation, walking and city composting.

• White Fawn Park: a ridgeline park on city-owned property.

• French Broad River Park: an extension of existing city-owned parks along the river, linking Amboy River Park with a greenways system.

• Aquatics facility at Asheville High School: a joint project involving city schools, the Parks and Recreation Department and private sponsors.

• Tot-Lots: small, neighborhood parks, distributed throughout the city, that would include playground equipment, benches and picnic tables.

Improvements: $6.6 million

The following parks and community centers would get such improvements as new ball-field lights, air conditioning, landscaping, upgraded parking areas, new scoreboards and bleachers, access for the disabled, stream-bank stabilization, kitchen renovations, walking trails, resurfaced basketball/tennis courts and more:

• Burton Street Community Center

• Ray Kisiah Park

• Roger Farmer Park

• Memorial Stadium/Mountainside Park

• Shiloh Center/Park

• Montford Center

• Reid Center

• Senior centers: Senior Opportunity Center and Harvest House

• Valley Springs Park

• Murphy-Oakley Park

• Walton Street Park

• Montford Park

• Malvern Hills Park

• Charlie Bullman Park

• West Asheville Park

• Vance School Park

• Livingston Street Park

• Weaver Park

Greenways: $3 million

Bond funds would be allocated for the following greenway projects: completing the Reed Creek/Broadway Greenway; extending the French Broad River Greenway, implementing plans for the Haw Creek Greenway (a joint effort involving neighborhood residents and the city); and developing a greenway along the Swannanoa River. No funds have been allocated for the Asheville Motor Speedway property, donated to the city last year by RiverLink.

Land acquisition: $2 million

These funds would be set aside to buy land for new parks, to meet the increasing demand for parks and recreational facilities throughout the city.

Project-review committee

A citizens’ review committee would be established to oversee the expenditures and progress of all projects funded by the bond monies. This citizens’ committee would meet with city staff on a quarterly basis to review all expenditures for each individual renovation or improvement. It would also have to approve any funding changes associated with these projects. Bond supporters say this committee would provide accountability, ensuring that each project is completed as specified by the terms of the bond referendum.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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