Hillcrest bridge fears unwarranted?

LGBT history month recognized: Asheville resident James Dye thanks the city for recognizing LGBT history month in a proclamation. Mayor Terry Bellamy, who has opposed several of the pro-LGBT measures the proclamation cited, read the statement. photo by Chris Wood

Asheville City Council June 14, 2011 meeting

  • June declared LGBT History Month
  • URTV producers not giving up
  • P&Z gets expanded powers

Asheville City Council’s June 14 meeting was relatively short, but it covered a lot of ground.

One major item, however, concerned something that didn’t happen. Despite predictions of increased crime when the city reopened a pedestrian bridge to the Hillcrest Apartments following a tragic death, crime has actually declined, police say.

“We've had no pedestrian deaths [on the adjacent stretch of Interstate 240] and no real increase in crime related to the opening of the bridge,” Interim Chief Wade Wood told Council. “Based on the area's history, we anticipated a rise in drug and prostitution crimes. That has not occurred; we've seen a decline. We attribute that to more hours dedicated to policing the area.”

Wood said the APD is applying for a grant to fund five new officers dedicated to policing the city’s public-housing complexes.

During last year’s debate over reopening the bridge, some residents of Hillcrest and surrounding areas opposed the idea, fearing that the additional access point would spark increased crime. The bridge was closed in 1994 at the request of the police and residents concerned about crime.

Wood did note that surveillance cameras installed in recent months had been vandalized. About 100 people (including many Hillcrest residents) turned out for a protest at the housing complex in May, saying that the cameras, combined with the housing project's geographic isolation and heavy police presence, left them feeling as though they were living in a prison.

Bellamy delivers LGBT proclamation

Proclamations aren't usually newsmakers, but when Mayor Terry Bellamy read one declaring June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month, it was notable in several respects.

First, the proclamation was issued midway through the month, instead of at the last meeting before it began. This year's Black History Month proclamation, for example, was delivered at Council's Jan. 25 session.

“Whereas perhaps 12 percent of Asheville's population is LGBT and whereas the city of Asheville values a diverse community, a diverse work force and diverse ideas,” Bellamy read. “Whereas LGBT citizens and their children face stigma and harm due to the lack of acceptance, understanding and equality,” she continued; the proclamation ends by urging “citizens to reflect upon LGBT history and celebrate a culture where all citizens are respected for who they are, regardless of sexual orientation.”

The proclamation also noted measures Council has passed, including an equality resolution and domestic-partner benefits. Bellamy opposed those measures and, in both cases, became quite angry during the discussion. Activists have criticized her positions and the justifications she gave for them.

Council member Jan Davis cited a proposed amendment to the state constitution banning both same-sex marriage and local domestic-partner-benefits ordinances. If the bill proposing the amendment appears to have a realistic chance of passing, the city needs to take a stand, said Davis, who originally opposed Asheville’s domestic-partner benefits but later changed his vote.

“We passed it, and we should defend it,” he declared.

Not done yet

During the public-comment period, Council members got an earful from former URTV producers. The city recently decided to remove its equipment from the now defunct public-access channel’s studios, having decided not to renew the contract after the nonprofit shut down amid a bitter dispute with Buncombe County over funding.

Former producer Milton Byrd said he wanted to mediate between the producers, the city and the county concerning the best way to revive the channel and solve “the public issue, which right now represents a very big trust issue. This is a First Amendment platform.”

If the situation can’t be resolved, asserted Byrd, “The attorney general is looking at this, the FCC is looking at this, other national organizations are looking at this, as well as looking for legal representation. This is not a done issue: URTV is still trying to reorganize.”

Meanwhile, continued Byrd, the producers “have not been addressed, they've not been communicated with, and they feel like there's been some inappropriate decisions made without them.”

The city and county are conferring on a request for proposals from groups interested in running a public-access channel. City Manager Gary Jackson and Council members encouraged Byrd and his colleagues to get involved in those discussions.

Former producer Chris Chiaromonte struck a much harsher note, accusing both local governments of a conspiracy to destroy public access.

“URTV was deliberately started with the intention of not succeeding: It was designed to fail in two years so the city could get the equipment and resell it,” Chiaromonte charged, declaring, “The smoke screen is lifted!” He added that if URTV doesn’t receive the $1.5 million he claims it is due, the city and county will face God's judgment.

But when Chiaromonte predicted that David Gantt, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, would end up in prison, Bellamy banged the gavel, telling Chiaromonte to calm down.

Other business

Council members also: • Approved a zoning change needed to allow a tailgate market at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. • Approved the formation of a permanent Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. • Voted 6-1 to transfer responsibility for HUD-related fair-housing investigations from the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, which has recently faced financial and staffing difficulties, to the state Human Relations Commission. Bellamy voted against the measure but gave no explanation. • Granted the Planning & Zoning Commission the power to approve major subdivisions and medium-sized (level II) projects. The Technical Review Committee, which considers only the letter of the rules, had been the final arbiter of such projects. The changes are intended to provide a more appropriate venue for public comment, as the commission can also take into account the city's overall development goals.

Activist Steve Rasmussen said the change is appropriate, but the powerful commission will now require greater scrutiny and should be less tilted toward development interests.

Council is considering changing the appointment process to interview commission applicants during a regular City Council meeting (as it does with school-board candidates), instead of at a separate time and place.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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