Buzzworm news briefs

Sofas without borders

For travelers whose movements are forever bound to a shoestring budget, nothing quite says “home” like a futon, a couch, or, God help them, a loveseat — however exotic the destination.

Answering the need for a cheaper way of seeing the world, a loose network of travelers numbering 70,000 (and growing) was recently born. For the promise of casual, barebones lodging, they repay in kind by inviting other travelers into their own homes. They are intrepid, spirited and mostly young, with addresses in Bankok, Lodz, Sao Paulo and Houston. They are couch surfers, and they’re coming to your den.

When Asheville newcomer Cory Oberlin moved here from Venice Beach, Calif., last year, his trek took him couch to couch on a largely Southern route, from Flagstaff to Reno to Austin to New Orleans to Atlanta and finally Asheville. Earlier this year, he struck out for College Station, Texas, to take part in an environmental protest, where he and other Ashevilleans were put up by a couch-surfing host. The host, in turn, put the surfers in touch with other student protesters, magnifying their action.

“Couch-surfing creates an instant circle of friends,” says Oberlin. The movement’s biggest benefit, he says, beyond staunching the hemorrhaging purse or wallet most travel entails, is its promise of granting instant “insider status” to the newcomer.

“You’re instantly immersed — not into the tourist scene, but into the lives of other people who are rooted in the area. If you go out for a meal, it won’t be to a chain restaurant; when you take pictures, it won’t be of the typical tourist stuff. Basically, you’re making friends with the natives.”

Couch surfing’s origins may be lost to history, buried in the pages of dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and holey rucksacks, but its current champion is a 27-year-old named Casey Fenton, a computer programmer and political consultant who had the bright idea of linking travelers to each other through the Web. Fenton’s brainchild, www.couchsurfing.com is organized along the lines of convivial Web staples such as MySpace or Friendster, with each member posting a profile, their passions, likes and dislikes, as well as photos of themselves and the lodging situations they offer. To reduce the risk of members sharing sofas with boors or ax-murderers, would-be hosts are scrutinized through an elaborate system of referrals and certification.

This summer, Oberlin says, the Asheville hub of couch surfers — currently made up of around 50 travelers/hosts — will come together for a barbeque and sleep-out in another member’s backyard. To avoid dew-soaked couches, Oberlin said the surfers plan make an unusual concession to tents and sleeping bags.

“Couch surfing appeals to people of a certain mindset,” Oberlin says. “It’s a young movement, but it’s growing fast.”

– Kent Priestley

From treasure to tragedy

Mountaintop removal site
Blown away: This mountaintop removal site near Hazard, Ky., shows the type of long-range damage chronicled in the documentary Appalachian Treasures, which will be shown Thursday. Photo by David Stephenson, courtesy SouthWings

There’s treasure to be found in the hills of Appalachia, but some of it is reserved for the companies that extract it and ship it away to be incinerated. For the people who actually live in the coalfields, those precious black seams of coal can be more of a curse than a stroke of luck. In the scramble to get at them, coal companies routinely set off explosives to blast off mountaintops, effectively stripping away every treasure of the natural landscape that isn’t found deep underground.

Here in Asheville, members of the Earth Team at the faith group Jubilee! Community are working to highlight the connection between energy and electricity use and the destructive mining practices that mountain dwellers struggle with.

“Most people don’t realize the unasked sacrifices put upon these communities by our energy demand,” says Richard Fireman, Earth Team member and co-chair of Caring for Creation: Interfaith Partners of WNC. To raise awareness about opportunities to reduce electricity consumption, the group has held several educational movie screenings and sold more than a thousand dollars worth of energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. It’s all part of a campaign called “Covenant with the Future: Energy Use as Spiritual Practice for Justice and Peace,” headed up by Jubilee!

Their next event, a screening of the documentary Appalachian Treasures, will be held on Thursday, May 18, at 7 p.m. in the Jubilee! Summer Room, located next to Jack of the Wood pub in Asheville. Produced by environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, the 14-minute piece chronicles the impact of mountaintop removal through stories and anecdotes from the coalfield residents, all set to a soundtrack of traditional mountain melodies. And to keep viewers from departing in a fog of depression, the showing will be accompanied by a discussion led by Appalachian Voices staff attorney Scott Gollwitzer on how to take practical action to address the issue.

According to Gollwitzer, a key component of the Appalachian Voices campaign is to drum up support for the Clean Water Protection Act, which would outlaw the practice of dumping mining waste into waterways, rendering the valley fills that result from this type of mining illegal. “Basically, we’re trying to build awareness,” he says. “Or in the words of a friend, we’re trying to build a bigger choir.”

– Rebecca Bowe

Batter not miss this one …

What does it take to get kids reading these days? Carbs, you say? You may be onto something. This Saturday, May 20, the East Asheville Library will host a Pancakes in Your Pajamas brunch, open to children of all ages and their parents. Attendees should plan on arriving at 11 a.m. with a clean plate and fork, as well as pillows and blankets if they wish to remain extra cozy.

“It’s going to be hilarious,” says Jesse Mae Hansen, the library’s manager and one of a handful of griddle chefs for the event. “We’ve had a couple of grownups say, ‘I’ve got to find a kid to bring with me so I can come to this thing.'”

The flapjack-themed program will include a story time centered on pancake literature. “There’s tons of it out there,” insists Hansen. After a brief cleanup, children and their parents can take part in a “pancake craft,” the details of which, she concedes, have yet to be worked out.

“It’s just a good, fun, casual way to spend a morning,” Hansen says.

Another event sponsored by the Friends of the East Asheville Library, this one sans bedroom wear, takes place on Saturday, June 3. Hundreds of titles will be for sale at the East Asheville Library Book Sale, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. that day. Friends of the Library have first crack at the sale, beginning at 8:30 a.m. All proceeds from the book bazaar go to support the library and its programs.

If anyone mistakenly shows up in pajamas for the sale, it may be a little weird, says Hansen, “but we’ll still sell them books.”

For details about both events and the library’s hours and location, call 298-1889.

– Kent Priestley

What the mama saw, it was against the law

The Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods’ latest effort to induce the city to beef up its enforcement of the Unified Development Ordinance was greeted with polite thank-yous but little sign of concerted action on the near horizon.

At the May 10 meeting of the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, CAN member Joe Minicozzi presented a two-page list of recommended changes in the city’s enforcement, communications, process and training practices. The items ranged from specific requests that the city enforce the terms of Target’s conditional-use permit and take action concerning Prudential Realty’s illegal sign to general ideas for keeping residents apprised of development plans and decisions. Minicozzi also displayed an illustration showing how Staples could bring its signage into conformity with city regulations at a relatively reasonable cost.

All three committee members — Vice Mayor Holly Jones and Council members Jan Davis and Robin Cape — thanked Minicozzi for the list and voiced concern about the issues raised, but none suggested taking any specific steps to firm up enforcement of the rules. Davis, who chairs the committee, indicated that only the highest-priority matters were likely to be addressed, saying, “We recognize that staff has limited time and is overworked, and we aren’t going to be adding any new positions anytime soon.”

CAN has made repeated attempts to pressure city staffers to enforce the Unified Development Ordinance. Through petitions and conferences with staff and City Council members, as well as more formal legal actions, group members have challenged staff decisions on a series of projects that CAN alleges explicitly violate UDO rules. (See “Overseeing the Overseers,” Feb. 15 Xpress; “Board of Adjustment Rejects CAN Appeals,” April 5 Xpress.)

The Planning and Economic Development Committee had previously heard from CAN members at its April 12 meeting but turned them away with the suggestion that the group discuss its concerns with staff. “That was exactly what we were there to discuss — the failure of staff to respond to our concerns,” Minicozzi said later.

At the May meeting, Cape focused on some less-controversial suggestions, observing, “I think there are some very good ideas here about improving communication.”

Jones, meanwhile, said she was willing to ask Staples for improvements, but she wouldn’t tell them they had to make changes. Jones said she was overloaded and didn’t want to hear anymore about what the rules are and what is or isn’t legal according to the UDO.

“We did make a mistake on the Prudential sign and freely admit it,” conceded Planning Director Scott Shuford. But even though the sign is noncompliant and must be either altered or removed to satisfy the law unless the Board of Adjustment granted a variance, Shuford told the committee that he’d decided not to enforce the UDO.

No one on the committee challenged Shuford about this. Asked about it later via e-mail, Davis said: “[Shuford’s] response was that we [staff] had made an error, allowing one panel of the sign to be permitted illegally. I responded with a question, probably putting words in his mouth, asking if that grandfathered the sign until a change is made. My feeling of potential legal challenge by the owner was affirmed. I suppose the other side of that would be the CAN group challenging; tough on us taxpayers, either way.”

Cape told Xpress, “I think it fair that we start to try and change a culture [in such a way that] the fear of reprisal for mistakes is removed.”

City Council may consider CAN’s recommendations during a May 30 meeting on potential changes to the UDO.

– Cecil Bothwell

The Beast
Affectionately dubbed “The Beast,” this 1984, military-issue K-5 Blazer runs on waste veggie oil. The French Broad Brewing Company in Asheville recently started powering its boilers with the same stuff, a move that company Vice President Jason Smith says has slashed overhead costs while providing the opportunity to do the right thing environmentally. Corn A Copia, a local green-fuel business that utilizes used cooking oil from local restaurants, performed the equipment conversion and supplies the grease. Photo by Rebecca Bowe
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