Asheville City Council

The Asheville City Council threw local air-pollution control a lifeline.

At their May 2 meeting, Council members unanimously supported maintaining an independent local air agency. It would include both an autonomous decision-making board and a citizens advisory committee. Council expects the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to sign on, with the details to be worked out over the next month.

This appears to signal a positive fate for the Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, whose future was placed in jeopardy when Haywood County unexpectedly withdrew from the agency in February. Since then, the city and county have wrestled with whether to continue the independent agency, make it part of county government, or let the state take over local pollution control and permitting.

Things reached a fever pitch at an April 18 public hearing, in which developers, residents and industrialists alike were united in their calls for an independent air agency. “I’ve never been at a public hearing where 100 percent of the constituents were aligned, but in fact they were,” said a visibly exhausted Mayor Leni Sitnick. “I’ve spent the last week reading a two-foot pile of material on air pollution, collected over the last two years.”

The mayor, part of an ad hoc committee formed to advise City Council, said she had received many letters from representatives of major local industries, all asking that the air agency be maintained.

Asheville’s first attempt to address its air pollution problems came in the 1940s, when a Smoke Abatement Program was implemented to reduce emissions from more than 400 coal-burning boilers in the city. The APCA came on line in 1965, when the city joined forces with Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Transylvania counties. Reluctant to contribute financial support to the agency, Transylvania and Henderson withdrew in 1970; the remaining three entities formed the interlocal agreement that remained in effect until Haywood’s recent departure.

Until a couple of years ago, the APCA had been plagued by charges of mismanagement and ineffectiveness. But thanks to recent reforms, the agency now has strong citizen support and is widely viewed as preferrable to relying on the underfunded state Division of Air Quality. Stricter enforcement of fines has also made the APCA self-supporting.

Nationally, only California and Texas have dirtier air than North Carolina; last year, there were 54 days when ozone levels in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were declared unsafe. Smothering under haze compounded by frequent temperature inversions, Western North Carolina faces the threat of being declared a “nonattainment area” — a federal designation that would limit both industrial development and highway construction.

“Essentially, we all are the canaries in this region,” said the mayor. “The people and the trees on top of the mountains have suffered.”

Council members said they would leave the door open for other local governments to join the agency. Waynesville, the mayor noted, has voiced an interest in signing on. “Everybody is interested in seeing if we can expand the agency to include other municipalities and counties,” added Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger.

But Council member Charles Worley, while expressing strong support for the APCA, also sounded a warning. In the distant future, he suggested, it might be necessary for the city to step aside and let Buncombe County represent Asheville. Having both the city and the county represented on the agency’s board might discourage other counties from joining, he said. “The city steps aside, so it can truly be interlocal in nature,” predicted Worley.

But because Asheville has by far the largest population of any municipality in the region, the mayor said she wouldn’t be inclined to do that.

Big Brother isn’t watching

When local legislators head to Raleigh for this year’s “short session,” beginning May 8, they won’t be filing a bill to approve the use of video cameras to catch drivers running stoplights in Asheville.

City Attorney Bob Oast presented City Council with a small legislative package that got smaller in a hurry. “Because this is a short session, our legislators are requested to certify that bills introduced by them are not controversial, and the city typically requests only routine amendments, if it requests anything,” Oast explained.

The first two bills posed no problem. One would eliminate certain minor discrepancies between state law and the city’s charter regarding public notification of special meetings; the other concerns notification of garbage removal. The city, Oast said, already complies with the general laws.

The third bill, however, met immediate opposition on Council. Sponsored by the Asheville Police Department, the bill would add Asheville to the list of municipalities allowed to use cameras to catch people running red lights. Fayetteville and Charlotte have been using such a system since 1997. The vehicle owner receives a $50 civil (not criminal) citation, which does not result in points against their license.

City Manager Jim Westbrook said the cameras are placed at the most congested intersections, and the system has “substantially reduced the number of accidents and insurance costs.”

“I support it,” declared Worley. “I think it’s gotten considerably worse with people running red lights. I see it happen every single day.” Council member Ed Hay and Mayor Sitnick concurred, but the momentum stopped there.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with going down that road of surveillance cameras,” said the vice mayor, noting the flak over the cameras around Pack Square, supposedly installed to monitor traffic. Council members Brian Peterson and Terry Whitmire also expressed some reservations. “Cameras staring down will do more harm than good,” said Whitmire, adding, “People want to feel secure in this small town.”

Hay summed up the situation: “It sounds like, to me, we consider it controversial. I’d like to take it off the short session.”

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