An empty chair at an Asheville City Council meeting doesn’t typically spark heated discussion — especially during work sessions, where votes aren’t generally taken. But a notable absence by Council member Brian Peterson created a stir at the June 4 meeting, which had a controversial housing issue on the agenda.
A proposed change in the city’s housing code that would tie enforcement of mandatory minimum standards for rental housing to complaints by tenants has been simmering for about a year. Several months ago, a citizen task force handed Council a divided opinion on the move; since then, city leaders have been conferring with staff in search of some comprehensive recommendation on which way to vote. In past meetings and interviews, Peterson has balked at the severity of the proposed changes. But he was not on hand that Tuesday to discuss the matter with the fellow Council members, city staff and private citizens in attendance.
Speaking on Peterson’s behalf, Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy said the absent Council member was unable to attend the meeting and had asked that the housing issue be tabled.
In an interview after the meeting, Bellamy said she and Peterson had talked the previous Friday and that Peterson had said he would not be at the work session. Bellamy wouldn’t say whether Peterson’s absence was related to recent media reports concerning allegations made by Police Chief Will Annarino about a traffic stop in which the Council member was ticketed for failure to use his turn signal and driving on an expired license.
“We are inconveniencing a large group of people in the room — private citizens and staff. Under the circumstances, I’ll go along with it, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” commented Council member Carl Mumpower.
“I hate to keep delaying this issue. However, under the circumstances, this is one of the most important decisions we are going to make,” Bellamy replied.
Council member Joe Dunn expressed frustration at the last-minute request. “Sitting right here, this is the first time I’ve ever heard about it. It would have been appropriate maybe to discuss this a little sooner,” chided Dunn. “Knowing the situation with Councilman Peterson, we anticipated that he wouldn’t be here, but I think we’ve inconvenienced an awful lot of people.”
Dunn also called for an end to the delays, saying that Council should set a date date and stick to it. “If Councilman Peterson is here, great. If he’s not here, great — we’ll move on with the Council’s business.”
Bellamy asked that the issue come back to Council in a month, but her request drew little support.
Mayor Charles Worley said he would support tabling the issue, but only for two weeks; Mumpower took a similar position.
Council voted to table the housing-code issue until the June 17 work session.
All choked up
A group charged with exploring ways to curb ozone production in Western North Carolina briefed Council on its findings. The Asheville-Buncombe Council of the Mountain Area Early Action Compact presented a list of suggested actions that could help bring the region into compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
The 11-member group was recruited last December, when Asheville joined cities and counties across the region in establishing an “early action compact” designed to stave off designation by the EPA as a “nonattainment area” for ozone pollution. Other member municipalities within the compact have established similar groups.
The 14-point list, produced after brainstorming and consultation with state officials, is the first step in developing an official early-action-compact plan. The suggestions are divided into three sections: what the public can do every day, what measures should be taken on high-ozone days, and what local governments can do. No approval by Council is required, though the document does need to be approved by the Buncombe County commissioners.
At the individual level, the recommendations will seem familiar to many: Walk more, use mass transit, get your car tuned up, join a car pool. Local governments, meanwhile, are urged to take such steps as improving mass transit and limiting polluting activities (i.e. mowing, nonessential travel) on ozone-hazard days.
Speaking on behalf of the group (whose members represent business, citizen, science and environmental interests in Asheville and Buncombe County), local business owner Jan Davis noted, “It’s amazing the things the government has the ability to control.” But it will take some significant commitment and effort for the changes to have an impact, he continued. “It’s not just walking: There are parts in here that are going to require funding and legislation.”
Davis, however, remained skeptical about the viability of some of the proposed actions. “We don’t have the population to make [mass transit] work, or even that want it to work,” he declared. People love their cars, said Davis, who owns the Jan Davis Tire Store. The solution, he argued, is to make cars less polluting.
Council member Holly Jones seemed pleased with the direction the list was taking. Nodding approvingly throughout the presentation, she declared, “You need individual change, community change and policy change.”
Other responses were less glowing. Mumpower, while conceding that some of the suggestions are feasible, stressed that change should come slowly. “We can’t turn the world upside down,” he cautioned.
Time, however, is running out. An approved list must be submitted to the EPA and the state Division of Air Quality by June 16. Once they sign off on it, the list will come back to the regional group, which will have until Dec. 31 to craft an official action plan.
In a related development…
“I can think of no better lead in than that,” said Public Works Director Mark Combs, taking the lectern after Davis to deliver the news that funding for an alternative-fuel program in Asheville is finally available.
A $400,000 grant from the N.C. Division of Air Quality was all but ours when the 2001 state budget crisis put the financing on hold. Now the state has once again offered to fund a compressed-natural-gas fueling station for specially designed city buses and other vehicles.
In a later interview, Combs told Xpress that he would like to see the program begin with smaller fleet vehicles, such as cars and light trucks, before moving on to larger vehicles such as buses.
Such vehicles produce between 80 and 98 percent less carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, Combs told Council.
Besides enabling the city to begin buying the clean-running vehicles, the fueling station (to be located adjacent to the existing city facility across from McCormick Field) would complete a chain of such stations along I-40, noted City Manager Jim Westbrook, making use of such vehicles more feasible for longer trips.
Other local entities with fleets of vehicles, such as the Mission St. Joseph’s Health System and Buncombe County, are partnering with the city, reported Combs. Biltmore Forest, Woodfin and Progress Energy (formerly CP&L) have also expressed an interest in the program.
All told, the project is expected to cost about $1.2 million (including about $350,000 in partner pledges and in-kind contributions to get the program up and running). The city’s share (about $439,000) will pay for the new vehicles, but most of that money would have been spent on conventional vehicles anyway. The city, said Combs, is exploring options for covering the extra cost of the alternative-fueled vehicles. And once the city buys the vehicles, the cost of operating them will be significantly lower.
The fueling station, slated to be up and running by this time next year, will also service privately owned vehicles.
In a few years, the city’s ongoing 911 woes may finally be over. Currently, emergency calls originating within the city limits must first be funneled through a county dispatcher, resulting in delays of up to a minute-and-a-half. But an offer by Buncombe County to handle all such calls at the new dispatching facility it’s planning to build should eliminate those delays.
City Council agreed to the move, which Dunn called “a no-brainer.”
The only catch is what to do for the next two-and-a-half years until the new county facility is operational. Rather than creating an interim city system for handling all city emergency calls, Council instructed staff to explore another county offer — to temporarily assume responsibility for city fire and ambulance calls, while continuing to forward (with the same delays) emergency calls to the city police.
Calling all citizens
The following city boards and commissions have vacancies: the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency board, the Civic Center Commission, the Economic Development Strategic Plan Task Force, the Educational Access Channel Commission, the Housing Authority, the Recreation board, and the Regional Water Authority. The deadline for applications is 5 p.m. on Friday, June 13. For an application or more information, call 259-5601.